Today began early, around 7 am for most of our group, with our last breakfast at the Inspiration Guesthouse. Shortly afterwards, we met Vignesh, one of the resident’s from Aravind who has been showing us around this past week, and piled in our van to head to the Meenakshi Temple. This brought our trip full circle – on our first day in Madurai, we walked around this enormous structure – which spans nearly 17 acres in total – and wandered through the markets outside of it. Today, we finally got to go inside!
After removing our shoes and giving up our cameras (luckily cellphone cameras are allowed) we entered the eastern entrance of the temple that is dedicated to the goddess Parvati, the wife of Shiva. Our incredibly knowledgeable tour guide gave us a distilled but rich summary of the temple’s history, and the significance of each part of its design and decoration. The temple could have easily been appreciated for its beauty alone, but his explanations made our experience so much deeper, so I will do my best to summarize the main takeaways for you here.
The building of this Dravidian style temple began in the 6th century BCE and concluded in 1655 CE, making it by some estimates nearly 3000 years old. As the matchstick model depicts below, the temple is comprised of an outer boundary with 2 eastern, and one north, south and western entrances. Each entrance is marked by a gopuram (gateway tower) that is entirely covered in sculptures of Shiva, the destroyer, and his wife Parvati, the goddess of fertility, love and devotion.
The sculptures tell stories about the deities, and each floor of the tower depicts a different type of narrative, a theme which is repeated with the smaller towers found inside the temple walls. Inside the main gates, shops sell flowers, oil lamps, and spices to use in worship of the gods, and throngs of people are gathered – to ask for guidance, blessings, or to meet with one another. As we snaked through the winding walkways of the temple, flanked on all sides by sculptures carved from monolithic pillars of granite, our guide told us that one’s journey through the temple is reflective of the journey in life – to get to something beautiful, one must work hard and learn from each part of the passage.
We found this kind of metaphor throughout the temple, and our guide instructed us that symbolism is the most prominent tool used by Hinduism. For example, a mythical creature called a Yali, which appears often in the temple, combines an elephant, lion, horse and a bird, and is meant to instruct us on the importance of balance in life: the claws of the lion symbolize “grip” or self confidence, while the horse can represent strength.
Unique in many ways, the Meenakshi temple is atypical in that it has two sanctums, one for Parvati and one for Shiva. The sanctums are restricted to Hindu’s only and we couldn’t enter, but based on the grandeur of the rest of Meenakshi, we can only imagine how beautiful this oldest and most sacred part of the temple must be.
After visiting the temple, we explored the open-air markets before heading back to pack and have our last meal in Madurai. We said goodbye to the kind and gracious staff of Inspiration, who made our stay in India comfortable, convenient and very tasty! At this point in the trip, we also parted ways with Arun, who is visiting family in India, and the rest of the troupe headed to the airport. Chennai bound!
We had the singular treat of eating dinner at The Kebab Factory in Chennai. As advertised it was truly an “experience” where we got to try small portions of traditional dishes from across India and surrounding countries. We even got to celebrate Dr. Zegans birthday early with a rousing rendition of the song, a cake, a firecracker candle, and even an embellished headpiece worth of a fearless leader! (He was beyond surprised, and I’d be happy to post pictures, but grades aren’t yet finalized for the course, and I’m not taking any chances).
As I’m writing now, the group is playing cards, napping, and preparing for the long trip back to the United States – minus Maya and Caroline who are spending a little more time traveling. In this moment, I am full of delicious food, surrounded by peers and professors who have challenged me academically and at the same time become my lasting friends – and I don’t think I can express how deeply grateful I am. Beyond cementing core themes of biology, this course challenged me to cultivate professional presentation skills and research design strategies, and to consider the potential for international academic collaborations. The Aravind researchers and clinicians inspired us with their daily dedication to excellence. I know that their warm welcome and sincere engagement with our ideas made me want to strive for the same high standards in my own work, wherever it may take me in the future. I think can speak for the whole group when I say that we learned invaluable lessons from our time in Madurai, from our much-loved leaders Dr. Zegans and Dawn Carey, and from each other.
It has been a true honor to be a part of the Bio 70 academic community, and I hope that many more Dartmouth students are given the same opportunity to grow through team based experiential learning. Now, our adventure takes us back to the United States – See you all soon!
– Emma Hartswick, ‘17