Chennai-based Storytrails launched itself in the city with an interesting mix of history and mythology

A group of 15 early risers stood in front of the North Tower of the Meenakshi Amman Temple on Sunday morning eager to hear what new things the storyteller would tell them about their city.

Akila, the storyteller from Storytrails, a Chennai-based business venture on culture tourism, from the word go engaged her small audience in imagining Madurai’s past and present. “I know your city is famous for the Meenakshi Temple, but we will not go inside it,” she said. She demonstrated her oratorical skills in retelling a dozen historical and mythological stories about gods and goddesses, the ruled and the rulers from different eras and their ways that illuminate the city’s cultural canvas.

Often, more than the content, the storyteller’s personality and presentation skills bring a city’s history to life. And that is exactly what Akila achieved by taking the Storytrails inaugural theme “Once Upon A Madurai…” from one period to the next, presenting something important about humankind and our history, culture and values, struggles and triumphs.

Some of the stories were the ones often heard, but they were refreshingly delivered. Some were pleasantly new even for the old-timers who participated in the trail.

That Thirumalai Nayak ruled Madurai even a child knows but the fact that he actually shifted from Tiruchi owing to a chronic inflammation of the nose which could not be treated by royal physicians is not as well known. The legend goes that Lord Shiva and Goddess Meenakshi appeared in the king’s dream and promised to cure him of his ailment if he shifted his capital to Madurai. Even though Tiruchi was a better location with the perennial Cauvery and better weather and a fort built on a rock, the king could not disobey God’s call. And once he shifted, his sniffles vanished!

How many know of the king’s failed attempt to install a statue of his queen in the Pudumandapam? The sculptor while giving final touches found some part of the stone near the thigh flaking off. He immediately discarded the statue and started working on a fresh one. The same problem cropped up again. The sculptor realised there was a problem with the royal thigh. The news reached the king. He found a scar on the queen’s thigh and immediately called for the sculptor, who in a bid to prove his innocence gouged out his eyes. The king was moved and named a village near Tiruchi after the sculptor.

If you have stepped inside the Elukadal shopping complex or seen it from outside, have you ever wondered whether this very commercial-looking building could hide a story? There is a beautiful temple inside the complex where once there was a spring with water of the seven seas. The story goes that after the demise of Malayadwaja Pandian, Meenakshi’s father, his wife Kanchana Mala wanted to die in a manner so as not to be reborn. A sage suggested that if she walked across the waters of the seven seas holding the hand of her husband, she would attain moksha. Her son-in-law Shiva caused the miracle to happen by creating a spring and also bringing back her husband from heaven, and the two crossed the waters together.

In Madurai, the storyteller says, there is a street named for a person who brought down a piece of the city’s history. In the 1800s, there was an outbreak of cholera in the city and contamination of the moat around the Nayak Fort was found to be the cause. Locals resisted the idea of bringing down the fort walls to fill up the moat with rubble, and Marret, assistant to the then Collector, came up with a plan. It was announced that each person would own whatever ground he cleared by breaking down the fort wall. In no time, the old fort vanished and new landowners emerged in the city. The moat, which is now a road, still goes by the name Marret Street.

Stories alone can tell the power of stories. The three-hour walk was untiring, informative and entertaining. It drew the line between history and mythology and highlighted the role of a story that becomes a part of our cultural identity.

The Storytrails team, headed by Managing Director Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara, has been appreciated by residents and tourists for its concept and research. These trails – with more themes to be added with time – will be held once in every two or three weeks depending on the demand. Initially, the Chennai team will conduct these trails and simultaneously train local storytellers to take on the mantle. Anybody interested in either joining the trail or becoming a storyteller can call 7373737307.