Feminine Mythique History & Culture

The three-breasted warrior princess

Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam contains a version of the story of the Goddess Meenakshi. A Pandya King, after performing a great yagna to secure an heir, is astonished to find himself bestowed with a three-year old, three-breasted girl child instead of the infant son he had hoped for. A voice from the heavens proclaims that this is his heir and that he should raise her like a son.

And so he does. Meenakshi grows up to be a powerful warrior and ascends the throne, leading a great army of women, bearing bows, spears and swords to conquer all the worlds. This is not an army of coy, demure women — Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam describes elephants, tusks dripping in blood, ripping the entrails of the clouds.

Meets her equal

Meenakshi, after defeating Indra and many others, finally comes to Mount Kailash, where she meets her equal in battle — Siva as Sundareswar, the beautiful Lord. This is a battle that ends not in blood and war, but far more wonderfully - in love and marriage. Meenakshi’s third breast falls — a sign that she had met her destined husband.

A couple of years ago, while attending the Chitirai Festival in Madurai, commemorating the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwar, it was fascinating to see how myths, and the figures of the Gods and Goddesses in them, powerfully imbue the relationships of the communities attached to these myths. As the thali was being tied around the idol of Meenakshi, during the ceremony in the temple — the thousands of women gathered outside their temple restrung their own thalis — emulating the ritual at the heart of the festival.

What made an even greater impression was watching the procession of chariots of the Gods who had come to attend this marriage, circle the streets by the temple. Each night, during the festival, huge crowds gathered to watch the procession. It was surprising to see how little girls were given importance — dressed in their very best, waiting with bated breath to watch the young girl playing the part of Meenakshi in the procession, dressed in shimmering finery and bearing weapons, drive past them. As I spoke to some of the young girls — it was apparent they harboured dreams of being chosen to represent the Goddess Meenakshi in this procession, some day.

It was remarkable to watch this. That the Goddess Meenakshi, young, beautiful, a warrior princess, represented each night by a young girl — was something that could inspire these girls, to make them believe that they are capable of being warriors and rulers.

It seemed to me that in a country and time where gender dynamics and rates of female foeticide are appalling — these myths and festivals can also help counter the idea that respecting tradition means perpetuating unequal gender norms. The story of Meenakshi and the Chitirai festival can help us consider the possibility that there are aspects of myth and tradition that offer a very necessary counterview; stories and ideas that can help inspire young women to be the best, most powerful version of themselves.

The writer is the author of ‘The Mahabharata - A Child’s View,’ ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ and ‘The Missing Queen’

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 5:13:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/on-how-madurai-meenakshis-story-inspires-children/article17608201.ece

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