To visit the great temple in Madurai today is to navigate a dozen streets and discover an army of beggars besieging the 700-year-old structure. Some beggars are old, but many are young and quick. There are beggars with bowls, and beggars with babies. But they all have a peculiar confidence when seeking donations. The temple, after all, welcomes about 15,000 visitors on a routine day, and collections from even a fraction of this host are enough to sustain their economy on the streets. The solicitation of money is made with an almost defiant sweetness—if you don’t drop coins, there are others who will.
For all its known history, Madurai has been dominated by this temple, with its 33,000 sculptures and magnificent towers of monumental height. The Greeks traded here and as early as 21 BC, a Tamil embassy was welcomed in Rome. The eunuch general from Delhi, Malik Kafur, came uninvited to relieve the city of its burdensome riches in the early 14th century, and some generations later, Roberto de Nobili showed up seeking flocks of Christians. The Italian convinced local priests that he was from a line of ancient, lost Roman Brahmins, flaunting a sacred thread, and by 1610 teaching the gospel in fluent Tamil and Telugu.
The story of the Meenakshi temple, though, is the tale of a woman—a fearsome warrior queen transformed into a lovable goddess; a formidable mortal tranquillized into divine immortality. The Story Of The Sacred Games (also called Tiruvilaiyadal puranam), a 13th century poem in 64 rich chapters, begins with a melancholy Pandyan king. “I was without a son,” he remembers, “and I performed great sacrifices for a long time. (And when that failed) I performed the sacrifice that was supposed to produce a son.” Soon he received a child, but the three-year-old that emerged from the flames was a girl. “But God!” cried the king, “even though this girl has come with a face that shines like the moon, she has three breasts!”
So it was that Meenakshi—she with fish eyes, a political superlative since the fish was the totem of the Pandyas—made her appearance on earth. Her father worried that her three nipples “will make even enemies laugh”, and languished in “depression and unhappiness”. He had sought a child but what he got was a freak. But a voice from the heavens reassured him and the three-nippled girl was raised as a boy, dissolving boundaries of gender and sex. When (s)he came of age, her parents said it was time to marry. (S)he, however, decided it was time to conquer the world.
With a furious army, Meenakshi set out from Madurai. Indra, Lord of the Heavens, fled at the very sight of his foe—and nobody laughed any more at the third nipple. Soon the conqueror climbed the Himalayas to battle Shiva. But when the fish-eyed one gazed upon him, the third breast disappeared and she became a regular woman. Or as the poem tells it, she “became bashful, passive, and fearful. She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its blossoms. Her heavy dark hair fell on her neck. She looked downward, toward her feet… And there she stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with her toes.”
Soon they were married, and the rest of the poem shows Shiva as its hero, pulling the strings where once his wife had led. It is suspicious how Sacred Games seeks to establish his power, almost as if to compensate for the reality that was the superiority of his wife—to this day, it is Meenakshi who is worshipped first, not Shiva. They share eight festivals, but she has four dedicated only to her while her husband has none. Shiva too, in practice, was Pandyanized. His animal skins were discarded for silk, the serpents he wore replaced by bejewelled ornaments. He is Shiva in name but a different kind of Shiva.
Inside the temple, there are sculptures still of others who, like Meenakshi, were born different. There is a representation of her in stone, all three breasts intact, before her union with god made her more “normal”. There is Arjuna not only as the feared warrior of the Mahabharat but also as Arjuni, in female form, and as Brihannala, in the third gender—he has the face of a man, with a drooping moustache and a long beard, but the body of a woman, with full breasts. Besides transgenders, there is also room in the tube-lit temple premises for autosexuals—the halls feature self-fellating lions, under some of whom sit pilgrims, children, and ticket vendors.
Was there really once an androgynous queen with three nipples whose exploits inspired Sacred Games? Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to India, refers to the legend of a princess wedded to a god, but seeking history in song is a self-defeating exercise. What matters is the devotion Meenakshi inspired then and still inspires today. Some view her marriage with Shiva as the absorption, at last, of a resilient local goddess into the wider Hindu framework, where her independent power was surrendered in favour of a greater cause and more correct femininity. But the pilgrims who come to Madurai to pay obeisance to Meenakshi—not her husband—keep alive the flame of the original triple-breasted warrior.
And like the politely defiant beggars outside, every pillar and stone defies the story woven in Sacred Games in celebration of a memory from long, long before, when the abnormal resisted the normal, and when a princess reigned before she was turned into a goddess.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. The writer tweets as @UnamPillai