Madurai, one of India’s oldest cities, is a town of impressive technicolour temples and deep rooted Hindu tradition, with the usual Indian chaos thrown into the mix. A true blend of the ancient and the modern.
We arrived to Madurai on the overnight train from Chennai, amazingly all the other beds in our berth were empty, this literally never happens in India and alas, never happened again on our journey. Nice while it lasted. Leaving the relative peace and quiet of the train, we headed into the hustle and bustle of Madurai, stopping off for a breakfast of vadai (fried lentil doughnut type things) and coconut chutney on our way to find a hotel.
Bags dropped off, showered and changed, we were ready to pound the pavements of Madurai and do battle with the touts, who we knew would be lying in wait around the town’s main attraction; the candy coloured Meenakshi Amman Temple. The iconic temple sprawls across 6-hectares at the heart of the city and is the point from which everything in Madurai seems to begin and spreads out.
We weaved through the busy roads, dodging street stalls and cows (of course) to make our way to the temple complex. As we drew closer we caught glimpses of the temple’s four main Rajagopurams (grand towers), pastel pinks and blues amidst a sea of ramshackle buildings. A temple has stood on this patch of land for 2000 odd years, although the current version was built mostly during the 17th century, the Dravidian (pyramid) style of the temple on show here is one that is echoed across South India.
We decided to wait until later in the day to go inside the temple, instead stopping for a sugarcane juice to take in the immensity of the towers before us and to do some people (and animal) watching. This included seeing a cow trying to steal flower garlands from a stall before being shooed away and then coming into the main square head-butting the lid off a bin and checking inside for anything worth eating. The cows of Madurai seem well aware that they live in a Hindu pilgrimage city and use that to take full advantage of their sacred status; basically doing whatever the hell they want.
Next we headed to another temple a couple of kilometres away, negotiating a ride in an auto-rickshaw from a couple of young guys who looked like they’d borrowed the vehicle from their dad for the day in order to joy ride around town with the Bollywood party tunes on full volume. Vandiyur Mariamman Temple is a 17th century temple surrounded by a deep pit or tank, it’s the largest temple tank in Tamil Nadu. Red and white granite steps run around the edge of the tank, which is connected to the Vaigal river by a system of channels. On our visit the tank was empty and instead being used by locals for everything from cricket games to laundry drying and grazing cattle.
We continued our wander around the city, including a stop at the (better than I thought it would be) Gandhi Museum, and also made one of the best discoveries of our time in India – you can get shared auto-rickshaw rides! When available this removed the need to negotiate endlessly with the auto drivers because the price is fixed at 10Rs for everyone in the auto. Honestly a life changing revelation during our travels in India.
In the early evening we went back to visit Meenakshi Amman Temple and we were not alone, hundreds of pilgrims had descended on the temple and were being funnelled in through the security gates. Many of the devotees wore different coloured robes to denote their allegiance to a specific deity, creating bright pockets of black, sky blue, yellow and red according to their different tribe. One unintended benefit of the huge imbalance of men to women in India is that in temple queue situations like these the women’s queue is always shorter. Small victories.
Shoes deposited and security passed we padded around the temple in our bare feet admiring the ornate architecture and the fascinating scenes of worship unfolding around us. As non-Hindus the Shiva and Meenkashi shrines were off limits to us but there were plenty of other sights to enjoy inside. Unfortunately cameras weren’t allowed, only phone cameras, hence the dearth of temple interior visuals here.
As with so many situations in India, food plays an important role here in the temple and food stalls selling snacks of all kinds, from traditional sweets to samosas, were dotted around the temple complex. I have to admit I found this a little strange as a lot of people seemed to have come to just sit around and have a munch on some snacks and a chat. There’s also an area full of stalls selling offerings and souvenirs, despite the obvious religious importance of the temple make no mistake it’s a heavily commercialised place too. The Temple’s annual revenue is around 60 million Rs (just under $1 million). It’s not only outside the temple walls that the ancient and the modern have become fused together.
The next day we headed out of town to visit another temple, recommended to us by a local we’d had lunch with the day before. The town of Alagar Koyil, and its Kallazhagar Temple, is about 20km outside of Madurai and set amongst forested hills. We were feeling delicate from the after effects of a seemingly delicious plate of street food from the previous night. Gandhi was most definitely getting his revenge, maybe he was angry that I didn’t enjoy his museum enough? We got down from the bus and picked up some fruit from a nearby stall, making it about half way down the street towards the temple before they appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Monkeys! They knew there were bananas in the backpack and they wanted them.
We managed to fend off the monkeys and continued up to the temple, before heading off on a walk into the surrounding hills where we encountered ever more monkeys. However these ones had no interest in the bananas, because someone had already left them carrots, hundreds and hundreds of carrots. Monkeys are the living representation of the Lord Hanuman for Hindu devotees and they believe that feeding the monkeys, specifically on Tuesdays and Saturdays, brings them blessings. This also has the unfortunate consequence of making the monkeys a little too interactive.
Back in Madurai we collected our belongings and navigated our way through the petal strewn streets one last time to find the bus to our next destination, struck once more by the fascinating blend of old and new in this ancient city.