Many of the surrounding mansions are shuttered and decaying. Dragon and his partner are leading the effort to conserve them, chronicling their many marvels and applying, on behalf of the Tamil Nadu government, to UNESCO for protected status. In the village of Athangudi, at Lakshmi House—named for the goddess who was a patron of wealth, a Chettiar favorite—the entrance is guarded by statues of British colonial soldiers with rifles and pith helmets, a testament to a mutually beneficial relationship. Later, I walked the lanes of the village of Pallathur, delighting in the architectural symphony of the big houses and the long Italianate barns, the parakeets and swallows overhead, and the egrets flocking from the rice fields in ragged skeins. Because these narrow roads have little motorized traffic, the soundscape remains what it was a century ago: bird song, bicycle bells, and distant conversation.
Everyone I met in Tamil Nadu, from drivers to businesswomen, carried the stories of the gods’ relationships and squabbles like a shared and universal soap opera. The great temples are where they go to see those stories enacted, and no temple is greater than Meenakshi Amman in Madurai, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in India. The temple is mentioned in the letters of Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador of the third century B.C., by which time it would have been about 300 years old. The bulk of the complex, though, was built in the 17th century by Thirumalai Naicker, a ruler of the Nayak dynasty and a patron of the arts. Meenakshi remains the spiritual heart of Madurai, drawing pilgrims from across the subcontinent. It is a 16-acre city within a city, protected by 14 looming towers that writhe with intricately painted figurines.
Because much of the site is roofed over, walking inside is like entering a subterranean citadel. After dark, when the hot moon glows through the night haze, visitors jostle at the gates. Fifteen thousand are said to come every day, but the space inside is so vast that there is no crush.
I walked high corridors between stone beasts, becoming unmoored in time. There were no windows. The stone was hot underfoot. The smells were floral, sour, sweet. I heard bells, chanting, voices. Men prayed prostrate, as if swimming on the slabs. Tapers flickered, wax dripped. Statues were adorned with garlands, oil, vermilion, and mysterious chalk marks. Here was Kali, the destroyer, draped in offerings, her feet encrusted with powders. There was a sense of fearful powers held in check, appeased and placated.
A small crowd watched a procession that has taken place nightly since the 17th century. First came cymbals, drums, and a horn, and then, led by two men bearing flaming tridents, a little palanquin, silver and curtained, borne by four priests from the shrine of Shiva. With great solemnity, the priests conveyed it down passages and around corners to the shrine of Parvati. They were bringing the two lovers together. They set the palanquin down before the gates of the shrine while the band played a lively, dancing rhythm (two students swayed along, filming on their phones), then fumigated it with clouds of incense. The crowd pressed toward one of the priests, who anointed their foreheads with gray ash. He prepared an offering of sandalwood paste, jasmine, and herbs, then lit it on fire. The crowd raised a great shout and a trumpet called. Then the priests shouldered the palanquin again, and took Shiva inside Parvati’s shrine.
There was a marveling, uplifted feeling among the crowd, and we smiled at one another. Though I had been observing and taking notes, I did not now feel separate from what I had witnessed, but part of it, as if I, too, had played a role in putting the gods to bed. Tamil Nadu has this effect: you arrive an outsider, only to find yourself a participant.