Madurai, in the heart of Tamil Nadu, was so prosperous in the time of the Pandyas (2nd century BC-AD 920) that almost everyone came here from the Roman times onwards. Today, everyone who visits the city goes to the Meenakshi temple.
It’s a maze of smaller shrines, huge pillared halls and a large water tank with a “Golden Lotus” on one side. The best known of the numerous pieces of sculpture is one that shows the bashful goddess being given away in marriage to Shiva in his form as a radiant bridegroom, by her brother.
The legend tells the story of a baby girl born out of a sacrificial fire to the king and queen of Madurai. Meenakshi was both brave and beautiful, but she had a flaw. She had three breasts. It was said, however, the third breast would disappear when she came before the man who would marry her.
So it came to pass that, while defending her kingdom all the way to the Himalayas, she met Shiva on the battlefield. Immediately, the third breast vanished and, realizing she had met her match, Meenakshi withdrew bashfully and took her bridegroom with her to be married at Madurai.
Every day, the image of Meenakshi is adorned in the best of jewels, the finest of saris and garlands made from special jasmine, called Gundu Malli, which grows in the fields around Madurai.
In imitation of the celestial wedding, the temple is so well known as a place to get married that during marriage season, the place is full of hundreds of couples, all with their respective families, waiting in line to get married. The numerous shops inside and outside the temple walls provide every small accessory for the ceremony, from diamonds to sacred threads, coconuts and, of course, jasmine.
On the trail of silk thread
The Patnulkarans are known as the silk thread people of Madurai. They also go by the name of their origin, Saurashtra, being called “Sourashtrians”, and carry with them a quaint history. They were originally famous gold thread weavers from Surat. A series of floods and incursions of Muslim invaders forced the community to flee Surat, to Benaras and the Vijayanagar kingdom of Hampi, in what is now Karnataka. Their family tradition was to beat thin gold thread into flat strips and wind these around a central filament of silk to be made into the gold brocades and borders used not only in saris but also in the turbans and other costly material needed by the royal courts. Their women were said to be so beautiful that they are compared to the lustre of their silks and brocades.
During their marriage ceremonies, the Patnulkarans exchange a series of questions and answers between the two sides that establish, through the use of words and fragments of memories, some vestiges of their journey from Gujarat, through Maharashtra, the Telugu country and finally their arrival at the court of Madurai, where eventually, they were accorded the status of honorary Brahmins.