In the evening of our final day in Madurai we went back to the Meenakshi Temple to witness the procession of Lord Shiva to spend the night with his wife.
First some background, and I confess that I do find some of the detail of the Hindu religion confusing but, to the best of my ability, here goes…
Among the anormous number of Hindu gods Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati are the number one couple, they are the couple at the very top of the pile and all the other gods and godesses fall into place below them and have less importance and power the further away you get from Shiva and Parviti; in some ways its’s much like the British royal family.
Shiva himself, and remeber that he’s numero uno on the list has over one thousand names and this makes everything even more confusing to an outsider. In the context of this tale it’s not actually Shiva whose name is changed, that was only for context, but Parvati. Meenakshi, whose temple this is is actually a different incarnation of Parvati. I do hope that’s clear and if I’ve got it wrong in any way I apologise to all Hindus and can only say that I’m soing my best.
It is also most unusual to have a temple dedicated to Meenakshi (Parvati) rather than to Shiva himself but that is the case here in Madurai. As it’s Meenakshi’s temple she occupies the main shrine so it is beholden to Shiva to make the effort to come to her rather than the other way round and that’s what we are going to see.
We were collected from our hotel at eight in the evening and driven down into a still very crowded city; you can only get so far by car and then it’s on foot the rest of the way. To get into the temple you must first deposit shoes and then go through strict security as cameras, video cameras, mobile phones etc. are absolutely forbidden. We walked through various parts of the temple buildings and our guide, Raj, pointed out different carvings and paintings, the tank where the holy water is held and various of Shiva’s lingams that are dotted about. The whole place was very crowded with everything from individual worshipers to coach loads of them from other states; there were people in various military and quasi military uniforms through to groups of little girls in traditional costume who had come to dance and, yes, there were tourists like us as well. In some places offering access to the holiest of shrines there were long queues and everything was orchestrated by the Brahmin priests who run the whole operation and some places are clearly labelled for Hindus only beyond certain points.
As the time drew nearer to nine thirty a palpable feeling of excitement started to build up and Raj moved us to a particular place from where the procession would emerge, we had a very fine view point, but he told us that as soon as the procession had passed us we should turn round and run after him.
Suddenly a cacophony of noise commenced with drumming and reed instruments playing, there was incence smoke in the air and out of the side turning came a palanquin on a sliver shaft carried by four burly priests. It was all very dramatic as the considerable entourage passed us. Suddenly Raj grabbed us and we turned and ran (well walked very fast in my case) round from where we had been and down a gallery to where there was another side entrance with crowd control barriers on either side; we positioned ourselves right by the entrance in front of the barriers and waited. A swarm of other people followed us and arranged themselve on either side of the entrance and opposite it leaving just room on one side for the procession to get through.
In the distance we could hear the palanquin approaching, first with a priest chanting in a lovely bass-baritone voice then this was picked up bu the other muical instruments. Suddenly, in a cloud of incence smoke, Shiva arrived in his palanquin which was set down on supports either end and a silver footstool was placed beside it which had a pair of tiny golden footprints on the top of it. The music continued and there were thick clouds of incence (apparently this is to keep the spiders away) and the gathered throng made their devotions. Some were on their knees and prostrating themselves in the direction of the palanquin while others bowed their heads or pressed their hands together and all the time the music continued. By the side of Shiva’s footstool, sitting on the ground, was a particularly grumpy looking priest who was there to receive all the money offerings that people brought to him and which I have to say he received in what appeared a particularly ungracious manner; on the other side another priest had a silver chalice filled with glowing embers and incence which he fanned vigourously , I suspect that I shan’t be bothered by spiders for ages.
After an appropriate time another priest came forward with a pink plastic shopping basket from which he produced a ball of dough which he split into two and placed them on the golden footprints, next some bunches of herbs were placed between the feet and on top of this several small garlands of flowers. To top it all off came a dish with flowers floating in water and a candle floating in the middle of it; This was a reresentation of Shiva descending from his palanquin ready to go through to meet Meenakshi. The priest with all the money rose to his feet, picked up the footstool (Shiva) and headed into the inner sanctum, the other four priests picked up the palanquin and followed as did the incence burner, the musicians and the rest of the procession.
And suddenly it was all over and within minutes everyone was back outside and we collected our shoes, walked back to the car and went back to the hotel. Apparently the reverse procession takes place every morning at five thirty but once was enough for us.
It was an intersting and dramatic event and a real privilege for us to see it. As a godless heathen it meant nothing to me in itself but I do find wonderment in the reaction of the people who do believe and who clearly get enormous benefit from ceremonies like this.
4 February 2019