After our early morning arrival, we had to set the alarm to make it to breakfast, but it was worth it. Although a buffet, it was Indian style, with a chef to cook fresh dosas and omelettes, a selection of veggie curries, breads, potatoes, fruit and a toaster. The latter was a nod to western visitors. As usual it did its job inefficiently. One turn through its wheel produced warm, untanned bread/toast. Two, resulted in toast burnt on one side. Same the world over. Breakfast done we left on a tuk-tuk for the city.
Madurai is the 33rd most populous city in India, and has a rich history that goes back to 300 BCE. A city of over a million people normally, this week its population was swollen by Indians who had descended to celebrate Pongal. One of the signifiers of this harvest festival was the display of sugar cane, which were available in every other shop and carried by the lorries that had brought villagers to the city.
We got dropped off near the Meenakshi Amman Temple, a temple complex said to date as far back as the 4th century CE, but in its present form built in the 16th–17th centuries. According to Hindu legend, the god Shiva came to Madurai in the form of Sundareswarar to marry Meenakshi, the daughter of the Pandya ruler; Meenakshi was a manifestation of the goddess Parvati. The temple is dedicated to their union.
We knew that I would not be allowed in in my shorts, Dinah had dressed appropriately, but I needed a dhoti. This is a cotton wrapped cloth that covers your lower half and was easily acquired at a local shop. Suitably attired we stood outside the east gate, marvelling at the size of the temple and were approached by a man who offered to be our guide. Confused by the vast complex and how to get in, we accepted his offer.
The massive temple is enclosed by high walls entered through soaring gateway towers. Inside are colonnades, columned halls, a sacred tank, lesser shrines, and, at the centre, the two main shrines to Sundareswarar and Meenakshi. The towers are some of the most elaborately decorated in India. Brightly painted, they are completely covered with figures of divinities, celestial beings, monster masks, guardians, and animal mounts. No photography is allowed.
It is huge, with a raft of attached stories. Hinduism is multifaceted; Shiva, one of their main deities, has 1007 different names, and his and Parvati’s children are Ganesha and Kartikeya. But I could easily have that wrong, or not have all the detail. It’s very confusing. We toured the temples, with stories at every stop. My head may have become full and some of the facts overflowed to the Lost River. However, the Thousand-Pillar Hall, which contains columns carved with divinities, female musicians, and attendant figures, was magnificent.
As we left, our guide encouraged us to return in the evening to witness the elephant parade, part of the Pongal celebrations. We agreed to do that and then the sales pitch for friends and relatives followed. Did we want to get some clothes made? We did, and he took us to his friend’s shop. V. Tex was a short walk from the east tower, hidden in a maze of market corridors. We got sized up for shirts and trousers, in chosen prints and agreed to return after 6pm to collect. It cost £48 for four shirts and two pairs of trousers. Bargain for us, and good income for them.
That done we were escorted to a shop with a view of the west and south towers, and encouraged to browse their furniture, carpets and other home accessories. The view was good but we didn’t buy anything. As a parting gesture our guide recommended a local restaurant for lunch. On the way I was accosted by two young men who insisted on having their photo taken with me (you can see the edge of my dhoti). Dinah obliged and they were delighted.
We made our way past locals queueing for lunch takeaways and asked if we could have a table. It was cramped, with simple bench tables and chairs, blue walls and gorgeous smells. We noted the curries, breads and rice people were eating as we squeezed through to a small table at the back. There was a menu in Indian on the wall and we were the only people not Indian. When a man came over to take our order, we somehow communicated and minutes later two biryanis, veg curries and parathas arrived. It was delicious and the curry was topped up as we ate. The whole meal cost £1.
Later that night we picked up our new clothes and then waited for the elephant parade. It was late, naturally, but finally thunderous drums announced its approach. The adorned elephant led the way, followed by deities on plinths, the drummers and attendant devotees and bigger deities. As you can see in the videos below it was quite a spectacle.
After a disappointing meal (our only one) we had a couple of beers and went back to our hotel. Tomorrow was going to be a big day; another journey, to Fort Kochi in Kerala. We needed our sleep.