There is one reason, and only one reason, to go to Madurai: the massive, mesmerizing Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple. True, there’s also a rather nice if neglected palace and a Gandhi Museum, but I can’t imagine putting up with Madurai just to visit them. I don’t know whether the town seemed grungier than usual because it actually was grungier, or just in contrast to the temple. (Not that the temple floors are particularly clean, even though you have to take your shoes off.)
Of course, my jaundiced view of Madurai might have been colored by my first sight of the town, trekking with my pack down the streets near the station at 11:30 at night (the hotel was too close to make a taxi worthwhile), or by my hotel, the Madurai Residency, which suffered in contrast to the Keys in Trivandrum (but was much cheaper). The hotel hadn’t looked too bad when I checked in, but then I discovered that the sink drained partially onto the floor, the shower was so feeble I used the bucket and pail instead, and if I wanted hot water in the evening I had to have it delivered in a bucket anyway. Instead of wifi the hotel provided one virus-laden computer in the mosquito-infested lobby, and breakfast in the too-small dining room was hardly worth eating. After I had to switch beds and dig out my silk sleep sack because I was getting bitten, I seriously considered moving. The Royal Court, an equal distance from the station in the other direction, where I ate lunch one day, looked a great deal nicer. But it was also a lot pricier.
But the temple was worth a little discomfort. I’m not a big fan of Indian religious art, simple representations of gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures in bright primary colors, but I enjoyed the exuberant gopuras (gateway towers) at Madurai anyway. The town’s been around in one form or another since the 4th century B.C.E., but the temple complex, dedicated to the “fish-eyed” goddess Meenakshi Amman, only dates from the 1600s. I say complex advisedly – the enclosing wall, with its 12 gateways and gopurams, defines a 15 acre space, filled with halls, corridors, shrines and a big tank.
Unfortunately non-Hindus aren’t allowed in the main shrines, but this meant I had no reason to stand in the long lines of pilgrims waiting for entry. Instead I walked the halls, admiring the carvings, and then sat on the steps of the tank for a leisurely look at some of the soaring gopuras, absolutely covered in painted statuary. One was crowned by a massive tusked face, green but with round blue eyes. A surprised looking cow provided a mount for two figures with high crowns and multi-colored stockings. I was particularly taken with a depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of the Milk, with Mount Mandaranchal reminding me more of a bunch of grapes. I finished by wandering through the lively market selling religious paraphernalia and souvenirs. And I people watched – I saw just a scattering of other foreign tourists, most of the people crowding the walkways were Indians.
I visited the temple twice, but also took a look at Tirumalai Palace, unfortunately not as well looked after as the temple, but still impressive, with good carving and nice lines. The Gandhi Museum, on the other hand, was disappointing – just text and photos. The highlight was a schoolgirl I met outside, who interviewed me for a school project.
I had arrived in town by train, sharing a 2AC section with two couples from Rajasthan. The husbands worked for the railway, and were being transferred to Tamil Nadu, to my surprise they all complained about being in the south. The language was different. The food was different. Everything was different! Interesting – Indians getting culture shock in India. It actually seemed that I knew more about south Indian food than they did. I didn’t leave by train, though, my next stop was off in the country and I arranged a car and driver for the trip.