Around 90 km from Chennai lies the holy town of Melmaruvathur. The place is famous for the 21 siddhars who lived here and also for the Adiparasakthi temple, which attracts women devotees in large numbers, easily identifiable by their red sarees. Many travel long distances from other states (devotees from Karnataka may soon outnumber those from Tamil Nadu) and even across the globe, who feel the annual pilgrimage is a ritual not to be missed. Melmaruvathur is also where women devotees are treated with the utmost respect in the real sense of the term and addressed as ‘sakthi’ (“only a woman is capable of carrying another life within her,” explains an official).
Barriers and shackles have been broken at Melmaruvathur—women by themselves can perform archanas, abishekams and aartis to the swayambu and Goddess Adiparasakthi—the Mother seated on a thousand-petalled lotus. Legend has it that the swayambu was found under an extraordinary neem tree which was uprooted during a cyclone and had been secreting nectar-like milk with miraculous curative powers.
Women also partake in major yagnas. They control the crowd, they guide other women devotees, and they take turns at organising and managing events and help keep the place spotlessly clean. It is a sorority of worship that binds all here.
A unique aspect of the Melmaruvathur temple are the mandrams—or small groups of devotees formed to do weekly worship in various places (there are over 5,000 at present, globally). When a mandram gets enough numbers they can construct temples in their vicinity and form sakthi peetams. The mandrams take turns at serving at the temple. Even more remarkable is the fact that widows distribute kumkum and women can even visit the temple during their monthly periods. (Kamakhya Temple in Assam is dedicated to the menstruating goddess). Regardless of religion or personal faith, all are welcome here. Bangaru Adigalar also called Amma—a former teacher in whom devotees believe that the Goddess transmigrates—has been guiding the destiny of the temple in line with directives he receives from Goddess Adiparasakthi. When he is in a trance, spirituality is like a magnet, drawing people to him. Ask any of the women devotees why they come to Melmavathur and each of them have a story of their own to tell.
Forty-year-old Selvi works as a cook in Bangalore. She did not conceive for many years after marriage, and fervently prayed to the Adiparasakthi at Melmaruvathur. She felt she was receiving mixed signals when during the anga pradakshan her earrings got lost. But imagine her joy when an old woman handed them over (which she interpreted as an auspicious sign). She conceived shortly after and now has a seven-year-old daughter. Tales abound of devotees who have prayed for their loved ones in times of illness and during personal crises. At Melmavathur they found the strength they needed.
A clairvoyant and a good judge of people, Amma’s teachings consist of deceptively simple, everyday truths. He also understood the need for women to vent and have someone “good or bad” to share their problems with, which is why they seek his counsel.
“I tell them to shower the same kind of affection they have for me on their family members,” he says, probably implying that love and understanding could have a harmonising influence. By speaking their language, the connect is made easy. So much so that when he faced income-tax raids, devotees prayed for him and even attacked the media covering the incident.
By virtue of the Adigalar being a grihastha (a householder) and engaging in spiritual work, there is a clear demonstration of how the two can be married. What’s more, at Melmaruvathur, religion and service are not seen as two separate entities. The functioning of the temple and the clutch of educational institutions and the hospital with state-of -the-art infrastructure, devoted staff and a green campus are examples quoted in defence of this.
Whether one believes in the Godman Amma or whether one rationally tries to dissect and analyse his persona or the miracles attributed to him, his uncanny instincts and supernatural powers (how else could he pick out the odd rotten coconut in a yagna or predict disasters before they strike?) have to be acknowledged, say devotees. On his part, he only claims to be a devotee of Goddess Adiparasakthi. In the final analysis at a time when violence and crimes against women are the order of the day, seeing women outnumber men and taking positions of responsibility in the precincts of a temple that celebrates a female Goddess is not only appropriate; it is a welcome change.
(How to reach: Pallavan Express from Tambaram. Departure: 10. 40 am. Duration: 1.03 hrs)