When I started my journey across South India, I had made my mind up to venture into every historic city and town in the region. I was aware that in the time I had, I could only cover a handful, yet I was undeterred. Thus far, I have been to some of the most spectacular places ever. As my journey progressed, I made my way to the ancient Tamil capital, Madurai. The city has a distinct way of charming the visitor with its quintessentially Dravidian temples, with its colours and most of all, its welcoming people. The prominent towers or Gopurams of the illustrious Meenakshi Amman Temple dominate the skyline, much like how the temple itself governs the lives of Madurai’s inhabitants. It testifies to the city’s antiquity and to the legends about it.
Siva, my kamalan advisor, who hails from the city, made me privy to one of the great legends about Madurai and her matron goddess Meenakshi. She is a manifestation of Lord Shiva’s consort, Parvati or Shakti, the primordial energy. The tale about the goddess’ manifestation as Meenakshi reveals that she was born as the result of a sacrifice to beget progeny, performed by the Pandya king of Madurai. The story narrates her journey of self-realization that she is the Mother Goddess Shakti and her ultimate union with Shiva. I found the story to be fascinatingly female-centric, which was a reflection of the region’s underlying cultural motifs. As a woman, to me personally, that the principal deity of the temple is not the ‘God’, but the ‘Goddess’, was even more appealing.
My kamalan guide suggested I visit the grand seventeenth century Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, close to the temple. When I arrived at the palace, it was hardly crowded. As I roamed the lofty hallways and the large open spaces in the centre, I was absorbed with capturing the palace’s grandeur into the digital spaces of my camera. A few minutes later, I heard a gradual rise in voices from a distance. It was a group of school girlson a field trip, chaperoned by an adult teacher.
I was under the eastern archway when two of the girls curiously came up to me and politely said “Hello! How are you?”
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“One photo?” one of them sheepishly requested.
“Sure” I obliged.
My camera clicked, and the excitement on the girls’ faces was unmistakable.
“Please show!” came the request, promptly.
I showed them their picture. One look at it was followed by a few giggles and a sincere “Thank you!”
“Which country, you come?”
“United States of America? USA?” they screamed in unison and unbridled excitement.
“Yes!! USA!” a little embarrassed.
“What you do?”
“I’m a photographer and designer.” I continued to click pictures of the palace.
“Yes.” Before I could explain, I noticed another group of girls running towards us. There was a physically challenged girl among them, confidently marching towards me. I was so impressed by her confidence; I asked if I could take a picture of her. She coyly hid behind one of her friends and said “No”.