Once what happened was after people started believing someone around also started believing in this temple and one person kept a statue on their steps. Her Aunty she believed and she is very much interested in small things. So she started decorating it up. And what happened was the statue starting getting bleeding, like monthly monthly. And the dress which the statue wore during those periods was stained with red bleeding. So they asked Guruji about what is this and he said that the shakti has come into the statue. So if you keep this in the home it will turn into a temple so go and leave it outside. This was followed by entry of snakes, king cobras, so what they did was they went and left it in the sea, after which her grandmother had a dream that you have left me in the water but still I am with you. I am the temple opposite here, put a lamp everyday at that place. So they started putting it out there, and now there is an earthen Kali which as come up in that place by nature. –Interview with Premila, March 18, 2008
It was 7:30 pm on a hot Wednesday evening in Madurai, India. Trying my hardest not to look like a clueless foreigner, I approached a few strangers asking the right direction to the “shakti temple.” I found my way to a square-shaped, modest temple. I shyly entered through the gate and slid out of my slippers while women in red saris greeted me into the mantram – an intimate, confusing, and colorful place. In every corner of the temple, bare-chested men and red-wrapped women were busy worshiping, offering, receiving, and chanting. Amidst the chaos, I was led to the right corner of the room to receive a blessing from Kali, a older widow who I later learned helped build the temple. As she placed kumkum on my forehead, consisting of red powder, turmeric, and sandalwood paste, I experienced what I can only articulate as a kind of euphoria – a feeling I would search for the next few weeks and only later begin to (but never fully) comprehend.
Religion can offer a number of different things; but for many people, it presents an offering to the body; a feeling. One of the reasons I began researching how women related to the Goddess Aadhi Parashakthi was because of one fact: women could enter the temple during menstruation. In the first Aadhi Parashakthi temple, built in the late 1970s in Malmaruvathar (near Chennai), worshipers were allowed to enter regardless of their caste, gender, religion, etc. I was aware, based on my own experience, that there were particular prohibitions for women entering in and participating in Hindu temples. However, I quickly learned that in the temple were I conducted my research that women were allowed in the temple during their period, permitted inside the Sanctum Sanctorum (place where the deity/idol resides) and allowed to perform pujas (devotional rituals). I wondered what the connection was between worshiping Aadhi Parashakthi and these egalitarian/feminist practices. Indeed, I was living in Madurai, known as the “temple city,” where hundreds devotees of the Goddess Meenakshi would journey from thousands of miles away, and yet, Meenakshi’s female devotees were not allowed in the temple during their period.
I was lucky enough during my research to delve into a number of questions I had about the way women worshipers of Aadhi Parashakthi related to the Goddess, and how their devotions made them feel spiritually, emotionally, mentally. However, two elements I always came back to were, 1. How the temple offered women a particular physical/communal/spiritual space, and 2. The physical embodiment of the Goddess herself. Regarding the former, the fact that women are allowed in the temple during menstruation not only allows them the freedom to worship whenever they please, but this freedom transcends the principle of purity/impurity embedded in Brahmanical Hinduism (and several other religious traditions) in which a menstruating woman is considered impure and therefore unfit to worship. In fact, many of the women I interviewed felt very strongly about the temple as a non-hierarchical space, claiming that its openness promoted unity and community in Aadhi Parashakthi’s followers. Performing this unity, women wear red saris and men wear red dhotis, because, according to one woman, “. . .red color is blood’s color, so to show unity whenever we pray to shakti we wear red.”
Regarding the physicality of the Goddess, although the idol of Aadhi Parashakti is only a manifestation of a greater cosmic Mother/energy/force, many of the women I interviewed spoke about the power and importance of her physicality. For one, she bled. In one of my interviews with a young woman who lived across the street from the temple, she pointed to a picture of the Goddess, saying,
“The statue gets periods. That is the statue. It is a very small statue and they’ve decorated it and whenever it gets periods the whole skirt will get the bleeding.”
To my (pleasant) surprise, I learned that because the Goddess bleeds, menstruating women are actually thought to be more powerful. This female divine power extended beyond menstruation as well – Aadhi Parashakthi is not only female, but she is divine Mother. Particularly in Tamil culture, the suffering and sacrifice that mothers undergo means that they accrue more power. In fact, many of the women used the language of “having” shakti, or power, by virtue of their motherhood.
As excited as I was to learn of a type of worship and devotion I had not known before, I know that my observations, conversations, and hours sitting and chanting amongst the RED were mere glimpses, situational and flawed, as is always the beauty of new knowledge. But what I remember more than my interviews is the feeling of cold sandalwood and warm paste on my forehead, or the sight and smell of milk, flowers, incense, turmeric, fire, and fruit, or an elderly woman holding my hand as we chanted “Om Shakti.” The Goddess (in me) had a place to dwell and she was allowed inside.
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religious liberalism, gender and queer theory, and religion and the public sphere. She is an editorial assistant at The Revealer.