Malayadwaja Pandya, the King of Madurai and his queen Kanchanamaala were depressed. They had everything : enormous wealth, a huge and prosperous kingdom, happy and loyal subjects who loved the king and queen like their own parents. Unfortunately Malayadwaja and Kanchanamaala didn’t have any children of their own. They were worried that the Pandya monarchy would come to an end after them and the kingdom would be left without a king.
They sought the advice of their Kulguru (Mentor) who guided and counseled them at times of crisis. On the advice of the Guru, the King and Queen performed a Putra Kameshti Yagna (a ritual that would bring progeny to whoever performs it sincerely). They hoped that the god would be pleased by their sincerity and bless them with a baby boy, who would grow up as the prince of the Pandya kingdom. As the Yagna was progressing, a miraculous thing happened.
A three year old baby girl appeared on the holy fire, walked out and sat on the lap of Queen Kanchanamaala. The King and Queen were thrilled to see the beautiful baby girl. The King, who had longed for a child for years, couldn’t wait to hold the baby girl. He picked her up from the Queen’s lap with joy and excitement, only to be shocked by what he saw. The baby girl had three nipples on her chest. The King and Queen viewed it as an abnormality and became very upset. They originally wanted a boy, but the god had blessed them with a girl and she also had something abnormal about her. “What did we do wrong in the Yagna? Did we fail? Is the god not pleased with our devotion?” They felt terrible.
To their surprise, a divine voice spoke from the sky and told them the following: “Don’t you worry, Malayadwaja. You performed the Yagna with utmost sincerity. God is pleased with you and you are blessed with this baby girl. Raise her like a boy. Teach her all the skills you would teach a boy. She will be your heir. She will make you happy and proud.”
The King and Queen happily accepted the baby girl and raised her with all their love and affection. Meenakshi, as she was later called because of her beautiful eyes that resembled the shape of a fish, grew up like a boy. She learned horse riding and sword fighting. She mastered shooting with bow and arrow and tamed elephants and horses with ease. Meenakshi was taught Yudh Shastra (the art of war) and was trained in martial arts.
When she became an adult, Meenakshi joined her father on the battle grounds. She was called the warrior princess. Meenakshi never hesitated to challenge princes in sword fights and, to everybody’s surprise, she won all of them. Meenakshi saw men as her competition.
Meenakshi decided to go on a “Dik Vijaya” across India to conquer the entire sub-continent. (Dik Vijaya, or the visit to all directions, is an endeavor young princes take to challenge and conquer other kingdoms). The King and Queen were hoping their daughter would agree to a “Swayamvara” (Swayamvara, a a practice of choosing a husband, from among a list of suitors, by a girl of marriageable age) to meet a husband, but to their dismay she wanted to go for the Dik Vijaya, like a prince. The King started to worry that Meenakshi might never find a suitable match and get married, but he didn’t want to say no to her.
In her Dik Vijaya, the warrior princess visited every nook and corner of India, challenging kings and princes. She defeated them all and made her way from the South to the North. She reached Kailash and came face to face with Lord Shiva. For the first time in her life, she couldn’t resist the charisma of a man. Though her original intention was to challenge Lord Shiva to battle, Meenakshi dropped her weapons in front of him; she didn’t want a fight. At that very moment, Meenakshi’s third nipple, which had grown into a breast disappeared! She felt shy and timid while facing a man, something she had never felt before.
Lord Shiva told Meenakshi that she was destined to meet him and fall in love. He promised that he would marry her in her home town Madurai after 10 days. Meenakshi took Lord Shiva’s blessing and returned to Madurai. King Malaydwaja and Queen Kanchanmala were totally elated to hear the news. They told Meenakshi what the divine voice also told at the time of her birth, that the third breast would disappear the moment she met her future husband.
After 10 days, Lord Shiva came to Madurai and married Meenakshi in an elaborate ceremony which was attended by all of India. Thus Meenakshi became Goddess Parvati, the other half of Lord Shiva.
To me, Meenakshi’s third breast symbolized her courage and power that challenged sexist notions of the world. She was bold, brave and considered herself equal to men. Though born a woman, Meenakshi was raised like a man (do you see the queer angle here?). She learned everything a man would learn, she did everything a man would do. She defied socially constructed gender roles. People who thought “What can she do? she is just a woman” had to bite dust, as Meenakshi made her way from Madurai in the south of India to Kailash in the northernmost corner of India. She won every battle, there was no stopping her.
I can’t help but visualize a Dravidian, duskier, androgynous Meenakshi as I hear this story. The horse riding, sword fighting, butch, feminist Meenakshi who represented the power of women. It is a shame, but not a surprise, that her third breast, in essence her courage, was considered abnormal at that time. The moment the breast disappeared, Meenakshi acquired “womanly” traits and characteristics. She felt shy and timid in front of a man. I wonder what would have happened if the breast didn’t disappear. The woman with three breasts, would have defeated the man with three eyes? I would like to think so.
Meenakshi achieved more than any Pandya prince could ever achieve, but all her parents wanted for her was to find a suitable groom. I know many women in my family, who gave up their aspirations, their dreams and settled down in marriages, because that is what was expected of them. To me, the third breast, the abnormality, is what made Meenakshi special. She was strong, powerful, fearless and reached several heights and that was definitely the best part of her life.
Post marriage, Lord Shiva became the King of Pandya kingdom and the rest of the India that Meenakshi conquered. (You know the typical mindset that many men even have today, wife’s money is by default their money.. but the vice-versa is not always true). Meenakshi’s story is not all that gloomy though. Instead of being a docile queen like her mother, Meenakshi had a unique power sharing arrangement with Lord Shiva. They agreed that Lord Shiva would rule the country six months in a year and Meenakshi would rule the country the other six months. If she was the trophy-wife for six months, Lord Shiva took her position and was the trophy-husband for the other six months.
In Madurai, even today people have a calendar that tells them who rules them on any given day: Meenakshi or Lord Shiva. If you visit the Madurai Meenakshi temple, you can see on the temple wall, sculptures and paintings that show a young, (butch?) Meenakshi taming elephants, practicing the bow and arrow and battling men in sword fights.
People of Madurai have a unique relationship with the goddess, they love her as their queen, and as their daughter. Being born in Madurai, I was always fascinated by Meenakshi. She was always my favorite goddess. But post coming out, I see her in a different light. I see her as the Queer, butch, feminist Meenakshi that she was with her third breast.