Mad about Madurai

Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple
Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple, seen from the top of a silk merchant' shop
Photos by Kit Pancoast Nagamura

Kit Pancoast Nagamura spices up her winter with a trip to souther India.

It's late January, early February and Tokyo is a cube of gray ice. Everybody's got the flu. You've done the skiing thing. You've done the touristy tropical beach thing. You're bored. A remedy for the woe-is-me-I'm-sick-of-my-life ailment has always been, of course, a trip to India. Life-changing, people say. ClichĀE but not an exaggeration.

Mid-winter is the season when travel in the southern states of India is easiest and most comfortable. You'll be hot, for sure, but you probably won't have to swim to the train station, or dehydrate en route to a temple. Regardless of the time of year you go, southern India is a must see.

A young father and his recently blessed daughter

Tamil Nadu, the southeastern alluvial plains and coastal region, which extends from the Bay of Bengal and Madras (now called Chennai) down to the Indian Ocean and Cape Comorin, has suffered less foreign invasion, in terms of armies of tourists and fast-food joints, than the rest of India. With strong traditional Hindu roots, a language (Tamil) which is believed by a few brave scholars to be the root language of Japanese, and a countryside lifestyle that has remained more or less unchanged for several thousand years, the area is both charming and clean.

Spic 'n' span in India?
Most people don't readily associate the word "clean" with India, but trust me, you'll rarely see a tidier, more eco-friendly lifestyle than exists in the villages of Tamil Nadu. Though the cities are, as cities tend to be, less than exemplary, the villages generate virtually no garbage, use no plastics, no fossil fuels (cooking happens over camel and cow dung), no motors and few cars. Grain is still winnowed by hand, water is drawn and carried in metal canisters and some villagers seem to think roads were made expressly for spreading and drying fruits, nuts, and grain.

A Sadhu, wandering priest
A sadhu, or wandering priest

If you decide to visit Madurai, an ideal spot to base an exploration of Tamil Nadu, it's likely you'll pass through the transportation hub of Madras at some point. This well-known city is pretty grimy, but since it's hard to avoid anyway, try to make it to the temple area of Mamallapurum, a World Heritage site. One of the earliest stone Dravidian (southern) temples, Mamallapuram is renowned for enormous bas-relief carvings and for the eighth-century Shore Temple, the last of seven to survive the appetite of the ocean. Stone carving is still widely practiced in the area. A young artisan, about eight years old, pursued me for hours with an elephant he had fashioned with delicacy and detail from a rock. When he showed me how two tiny bone tusks, wrapped in a brittle piece of tissue, perfectly fit his elephant, I was sold.

Madurai lies a day's drive south of Madras, along the somber Vaigai River. Locals say that their city was washed in sweet nectar drops from Shiva's hair - apparently a desirable event - and that Madurai's streets were designed to resemble a sacred lotus flower in full bloom. One glance at a map of the city and the design is evident. On foot, even a casual observer will come to realize that the streets are arranged in concentric circles, and that the circles fold in on the center of the flower and the heart of all Madurai's activity: the Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple.

Restoration of temple sculptures is an endless job

Temple of my unfamiliar
Meenakshi Temple, one of the largest and most intricately decorated in India, astounds even seasoned travelers. Much of the temple was constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries, but the ornamentation has been beautifully maintained. Twelve gopura (the traditional gateways of southern temple architecture), four of which are nearly 50m tall, ensure that Meenakshi is visible from far outside the city. Drawing closer, the surrounding walls and gates of the temple reveal themselves to be encrusted with literally millions of carved and brightly painted sculptures. Rather than a building, the temple seems more an exquisite apparition, alive with local gods and gremlins, mosaics, pillars and animals. An average of 15,000 people offer puja (worship) daily.

Sculptures of some of Vishnu's "behind the scene" activities as seen on the Alagar Kovil mountain temple

Dedicated to one of Shiva's consorts, Meenakshi the "fish-eyed" goddess, the cool interior of the temple teems with activity, even during the hours when services are not held. Shaivite priests, with distinctive three-tiered marks of white ash on their foreheads, stride bare-chested and dignified through the corridors. Elephants bellow from their stables-a live temple elephant, adorned with swirls and dots of paint, is always on duty, attended by his mahoot (keeper) and ready for the price of a banana to bless visitors with a nasal puff. Little girls in gold earrings, miniature "fish-eyed" goddesses themselves, trot by the dusty art museum tucked inside a hall of 1000 carved pillars. Always, there is the lingering fragrance of jasmine and marigolds, strung into garlands for worship or worn in the hair of women.

Temple elephant, duded up for work

How to curry favor
The people of Madurai are incredibly friendly, if shy. A single smile bridges the shyness, and from there language is the only barrier. Silk merchants, who speak the international language as well as English, will bend over backwards to make anything you order in mere hours - bring a favorite article of clothing to be used as a pattern if you want to save on fitting time. Petal-peddlers at the flower market will offer you a free marigold or two, let you rummage through their burlap bags full of double roses, and ask you to take their picture. The local traffic cop, who operates a manual stoplight made of garbage lids painted red and green, will give you the green lid if you wink. If you still lack friends, go to a restaurant and provide everyone with entertainment by trying to eat thali - a delicious traditional assortment of curries, yogurt, rice and spongy, steamed white bread called idli. The traditional way to enjoy the meal, actually the only way in places with no utensils, is to use the fingers of your right hand. Things go pretty well until you get to the yogurt.

There are festivals nearly every month in Madurai. One, the Float Festival (Jan and Feb), is held at the Teppakulam Tank, a gigantic river-fed pool on which spectacular rafts are pulled toward the small island shrine to Meenakshi in the middle. Movies and tours are held at the 17th century Thirumalai Nayak Palace, which features newly restored sculptures of yali (mythical lions) and 18m tall colonnades. The Ghandi Museum is also worth a visit, but be forewarned about a somewhat gamy display of the dhoti Ghandhi was wearing when he was assassinated.

17th century Thirumalai Nayak Palace, sculptures of yali just prior to restorations

Within a short drive of the city, you can't miss Elephant Rock, a sub-Ayres-size boulder which resembles a giant sleeping tusker - if you squint. More worth the trip is the beautiful mountain temple of Alagar Kovil. Dedicated to Vishnu, the secluded spot is frequented by vendors of incense bark, medicinal herbs and a potpourri of seeds for mental and physical ailments. You might spot a sadhu, or homeless, casteless holy man passing among the families that bring their small children to have their heads shaved, coated in cooling sandlewood paste, and blessed.

Additional points of interest in the vicinity of Madurai include Tiruchirapalli (also known as Trichy), home of the largest temple in southern India: the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Also within reach are the Periyar Wildlife sanctuary (home to herds of Asian elephants, bison and langur monkeys) and spice plantations where you can walk through air heavily perfumed with cardamom and tea. Set in the Western Ghats, hillstations such as Kodaikanal offer respite from the heat and chaf-laden air of the plains. But it is in those hot plains where small villages are hidden, where boys tend flocks of ducks, girls port water through lanky palms, and children are bathed on a stone at the communal well. There, men swirl and shout in a small festival parade that moves like a mirage on the dusty horizon of the single lane road. There, in the midst of the heat, is where change-yours, maybe-is most likely to occur.

Getting There:
Air India and Singapore Air offer daily flights to Madras (Chennai). From Madras, you have an option of travel by air, bus, train, or rental car to Madurai. Note: Driving is an extreme sport in India.

Where to stay:
Hotels come and go in Madurai. The following are a bit upmarket and more expensive than what you can dig up for budget stays, but they will be there. Each accepts credit cards and has a good restaurant, pool, and bar. The Taj Garden Retreat (Pasumalai Hill, Madurai 625004, Tamil Nadu, tel: 452-601120/ fax: 452-604004. Credit cards accepted.) is the cream of the crop, on a hill overlooking the city and refreshed by cool breezes. The Hotel Madurai Ashok (Alagarkoil Road, Madurai, 625002, Tamil Nadu, tel 452-42531/ fax 452-42530) is closer to the center of things, homey and comfortable.


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Mad about Madurai

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