The goddess Meenakshi of Madurai emerged from the flames of a sacrificial fire as a 3-year-old child, in answer to the Pandyan king Malayadvaja’s prayer for a son. The king, not only surprised to see a female, was also horrified that she had three breasts. In every other respect, she was beautiful, as her name, Meenakshi (“fish-eyed”), suggests; fish-shaped eyes are classic images of desirability in Indian love poetry. Dispelling his concern, a mysterious voice told the king that Meenakshi would lose the third breast on meeting her future husband.

In the absence of a male heir, the adult Meenakshi succeeded her father as Pandyan monarch. With the aim of world domination, she embarked on a series of successful battles, culminating in the defeat of Shiva’s armies in his Himalayan abode, Mount Kailash. Shiva then appeared on the battlefield and upon seeing him, Meenakshi immediately lost her third breast thus fulfilling the prophecy. They then travelled to Madurai, where they were duly married. They assumed a dual role – firstly as king and queen of the Pandya kingdom, with Shiva assuming the title Sundara Pandya, and secondly as the presiding deities of the Madurai temple, into which they subsequently disappeared.

Today, their shrines in Madurai are the focal point of a hugely popular fertility cult centred on their “coupling”. The temple priests maintain that this ensures the preservation and regeneration of the universe, so every night the pair are placed in Sundareshwarar’s bedchamber – but not before Meenakshi’s nose ring is carefully removed so that in the heat of passion it won’t cut her husband. However, fidelity is never taken for granted, and has to be ritually tested each year when the beautiful goddess Cellattamman is brought to Sundareshwarar “to have her powers renewed”. After she is spurned, she flies into a fury that can only be placated with the sacrifice of a buffalo.

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