Mad about Madurai
|Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple, seen
from the top of a silk merchant' shop
Photos by Kit Pancoast Nagamura
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
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
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, or wandering
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,
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.
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