Devotion to divine lovers
One of the most astonishing expressions of devotion I've ever seen, happens in the temple of Goddess Meenakshi (Parvati) at Madurai, Tamil Nadu
One of the most astonishing expressions of devotion I've ever seen, happens in the temple of Goddess Meenakshi (Parvati) at Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Meenakshi is the boss in this temple, so every night, devotees bring her consort, Lord Sundareswarar (Lord Shiva), to her for a night of lovemaking. And they do, what in Bambaiyya parlance, is called 'full setting': a palanquin ritually carried around the temple by priests, band-baaja, incense, huge crowds tossing flowers. At her bedchamber, priests ceremonially take his silver padukas in, and place both their utsav murtis (festival images) on a swing, in a room full of fragrant jasmine, whose walls are covered with mirrors. Wow. Then the priest shuts the door in a crescendo of music, and everyone scuttles away, grappling with their own imaginations.
I remember being speechless at the goings-on. I inspected the mind. It boggled, as PG Wodehouse would have said. That the gods can do this khullam-khulla, and in a temple, with their devotees actively encouraging their nights of love. It is hard to imagine gods of other religions being brought to their wives/consorts in their bedchambers in a grand ceremony, attended by half the town, without giggling — or attracting short fuses. In fact, most images of Meenakshi show her holding a parrot, a symbol of Kama, the god of love. (Now, if only I had half her love life, minus all the PDA drama).
It struck me as an extraordinary way of expressing your bhakti, by celebrating the gods' private adoration, even though treating gods like humans, like family, is common in the bhakti tradition. This devotion, back-slapping familiarity, yet cool-headed conviction, "Without me, where would You be?" is rare in any religion, as far as I know.
Bhakti, of course, has taken root everywhere in India, down the ages. So, last week, it was exhilarating to attend Wild Women, on mystic women and explosive exemplars of the bhakti tradition, brilliantly curated by poet Arundhathi Subramaniam at the NCPA. Her talk, He's My Slave: The Body and the Beyond, included 'God My Darling' by Janabai, the 14th-century maid-poet from Maharashtra (translated from Marathi by Arun Kolatkar) in which she says, "God my darling/do me a favour and kill my mother-in-law/…you will be a good god won't you/and kill my father-in-law/...let them drop dead says jani/then we will be left alone/just you and me." Priya Sarukkai Chabria spoke passionately of Andal, the 8th-century Tamil mystic, who, obsessed with Lord Krishna, wrote, "I shall pluck these useless breasts of mine from their roots/I will fling them at his chest/and staunch the fire scorching me."
Wild Women also included talks, poetry recitations, performances and a film, including Ranjit Hoskote and Mita Vasisht on Lal Ded (individually), HS Shivaprakash on Akka Mahadevi, Jerry Pinto on Muktabai and Janabai, and Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota and Adithya Kothakota on Yellamma. There were also musical performances by Shruthi Vishwanath and Sanjukta Wagh (dance), Pallavi MD and Bindhumalini, Shabnam Virmani and Kalapini Komkali.
As Subramaniam summed it up, "These were dangerous women, asking inconvenient questions. They were women safer to meet in poems."
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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