Once upon a time, the king and queen had a beautiful daughter. Her eyes were as beautiful as a fish's, her hair luxuriant. Her face was lovely, and her personality as sweet as a Tamil Nadu mango. The girl was perfect in all ways except one. She had three breasts.
Triple breasts was really a triple blessing, wise men told the horrified family. All little Meenakshi had to do was wait until she found her true love, and then the unnecessary appendage would melt away.
So little Meenakshi enjoyed her time in the palace of her father and mother. She lived behind the tall walls in cool courtyards. Gardens full of flowers were her playground and peacocks were her friends.
When she was a teenager, and the story of her beauty and her odd affliction were becoming worn with the telling and re-telling, it seemed for awhile that Meenakshi's true husband would never come. No matter how many suitors she met, her third breast stayed put on her chest.
Then, suddenly a handsome young man appeared in a village not far from Madurai. It wouldn't be wrong to say this mysterious prince was as beautiful as a god, because, that's what he was. An avatar, or incarnation of the god Shiva, he came to Madurai and asked for Meenakshi's hand in marriage.
Her third breast disappeared, and the princess, besides having to go out and get all of her clothing altered to fit her new, sleeker physique, duly married the handsome stranger.
As wife of the handsome god (unlike another maiden-turned-deity, poor little Kanniyakumari, who missed her wedding to Shiva because of an evil trick) Meenakshi herself was a goddess, the reincarnation of Parvati.
The people of Madurai constructed a gorgeous temple for Meenakshi, where to this day she listens to their prayers. Her husband Shiva also has an altar in her temple, and every night, after their holy business of listening to people's worries and hopes is over, the priests of the temple bring the statue of Shiva through the incense-infused corridors, give him a goodnight snack of a banana and fan him with peacock feathers. Then, he is brought into the inner sanctum where his wife's statue awaits him, so they can rest together before the temple opens the next morning.
We got to watch Shiva's bedtime ceremony twice while staying in Madurai. Friday nights, it seems, are the god and goddess' date night--Shiva gets to stay up a little later, and has a little extra pampering before meeting up with Meenakshi. Monday nights, on the other hand, he goes to bed at 9 and has a less elaborate goodnight ritual.
We missed Madurai's Float Festival by a few weeks. During this festival, I read in our guidebook, statues of Meenakshi and Shiva are taken to the tank (a large artificial pond where holy water flows) and put on floats. At the end of the festival they go back to the temple to make love, and in doing so, re-create the universe.
I guess this fairy tale has a happy ending.
(NB: This is a retelling of the original tale, pieced together from various sources. )
**Check out our pictures from Madurai here!**