The Ancient City of Madurai

We are given a royal farewell by the staff at Visalam, complete with floral tribute, as we head off to spend 2 nights in the ancient city of Madurai.

We head out of the village and take a left hand turn at an old fort that is perched on top of the rock.


From here it is only a two hour drive as part of it is on a fancy highway. In the distance are jagged granite mountains, and along the road we pass rows and rows and rows of massive granite blocks that have been cut, like slices of bread (as Rajesh describes it), from granite outcrops that abound in this area. There must be enough granite to keep the construction and carving industries going for years to come. The granite industry in turn has encouraged villages to spring up like mushrooms, so there is always something to see.

Arriving in Madurai is something of a shock, as it is Tamil Nadu’s second (by population) or third (by size) largest city. We have been lulled by the peacefulness of Kanandathan, and the relative calm of Pondicherry before that. Now we are pitched back into the teeming hoards of people and traffic.

The approach to the city is heralded by the “sleeping elephant” granite outcrop that sits on the outskirts:

Rajesh takes us for a bit of a spin around the town before dropping us at the hotel. First stop is the huge sacred  ‘tank’, which is completely empty of water. Tamil Nadu is so dry. Crossing the bridge into the city we had seen that there was no water in the river – the women were washing in what was virtually a puddle.

 And now this huge, empty tank – apparently it will get water in it in October & November. We learn later from the local guide that there is currently great unrest between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the state that sits to the North, which traditionally passes water on to Tamil Nadu. Apparently they are witholding the water and there have been riots – buses from that state overturned and set alight; violent protests in the streets. We hear later still that this is the driest Tamil Nadu has been in a long time.

Can you see the red and white stripes that surround the tank? They also appear on many temple walls. Our guide tomorrow tells us that the red represents women’s menstruation and the White the men’s sperm, so the stripes symbolise and represent fertility.

Around the perimeter of the tank are men preparing cotton to be woven into cloth. They are checking the strands for breakages before the cotton is placed into the loom.

From the tank Rajesh drives us for a photo opportunity at the Wedgwood blue and white Catholic church, where they appear to be getting ready for some sort of celebration:

We see this cathedral the next night lit up like a fair ground – determined not to be outdone by the Temple obviously. It is stiff competition but the Catholics appear to be putting up a good fight.

Then it is to the hotel, the Heritage Madurai. The hotel started life in 1923 as housing for senior British officers from a major British owned textile company. In the 1970’s Geoffrey Bawa, the renowned Sri Lankan architect, was commissioned to build a club house, which now functions as the reception area and restaurant. We were excited to hear the Bawa connection as we had visited his home in Sri Lanka. 

The hotel consists of villas dotted through the 17 acres of grounds. I don’t know if all the villas have one, but ours has a small plunge pool, together with a sitting area, and outside bathroom. It is very beautiful, but you do have to dodge the mozzies while you do your ablutions!

We are to be picked up at 8.30 pm in order to visit the famous Meenakshi Temple, which is considered to be THE temple in Tamil Nadu, if not Soutern India. It takes up 6 hectares and there are immense towers, or gopurams, at each of the four entrances to the temple complex, plus smaller towers inside.

Given we are to be picked up at 8.30 and will probably not return before 10.30pm we decide to make lunch our main meal for the day so order a thali, an Indian smorgasbord on the one plate, and it is delicious:

before lounging in our villa and plunge pool prior to evening drinks before pick up. Ah, this is the life!

We are met promptly at 8.30 and told that in fact tonight we will see a procession happening outside the temple as the statues of Meenakshi and Shiva are paraded around the streets before being taken into the temple. This ceremony takes place once a year over 10 days. The local people are outside their houses and shops, seeking blessings from the priests. The procession is led by an Ox, an Elephant and a camel, plus a drummer. It is fascinating to watch, and we follow the procession for a short while before heading to the temple to see the statues being greeted inside by more of the faithful.

Entry into the temple is highly regulated. No shoes, no socks, no bare arms, no skirts or dresses, no legs exposed for men or women, no Tshirts, no cameras ( but mobile phones are okay – it is something to do with the size of batteries in cameras and concerns about flammable material). We have to pass through an electronic screener. This time the female police officer tucks her phone under her chin and keeps talking whilst patting me down – an improvement on the last temple’s security at least. Finally inside, we watch as the statues and their bearers enter the temple and are taken into their rightful resting place.

It has been an entertaining evening. In the morning we return to the temple to see all four wings in the light of day. Despite being one of the holiest temples it is actually the friendliest as it is thronged with cheery crowds who are there to be blessed, but also to rest, to have a picnic, or just to sightsee like us.

But the temple isn’t the only sight to see in Madurai, so we also visit the 17th century Thirumalai Nayak Palace. Only part of the original structure remains as upon the advice of astrologers his grandson had most of the palace torn down, but what remains is quite lovely.

The Palace is a popular destination for Local tourists, many of whom seem to be more fascinated by us than the Palace itself and we find ourselves posing for several photos.

From the palace we drive to the Flower Market, which is an absolute hive of activity with people buying flowers and garlands for their temple offerings.

I fall for this little chap’s cheeky smile, and he ends up escorting us around the market. Luckily I had taken a pen from the previous hotel – when I presented it to him his smile went from ear to ear. Turns out for some reason pens are quite the desired thing (Raj says if they are fancy pens then the recipient promptly sells it on).

From the Flower Market we return back into the centre of the city and our return visit to the Temple. Walking to the temple we spy a gentleman doing the ironing with an old fashioned iron heated by coals in the base. He obliged us by pausing for a photo. Then it was our turn to pose for a photo as we passed by a group of men working on a newly constructed house. They asked if we would take a photo with them – I was even directed to put my hand on the fellow’s shoulder. He was very disappointed when he discovered I couldn’t print a copy of the photo out for him on the spot!

The heat by now is sapping our energy, so after our temple visit (and a little bit of shopping), we retreat back to the oasis of the hotel to build up our stamina for the evening street food tour we have booked with Foodies Day Out. We have been warned to skip lunch, and Kitta and I at least obey him. Mukunthan arrives to whisk us off at 5.30pm and we spend the next 3 hours being taken to a range of different eating spots around town, from tiny street stalls to local cafes. It was terrific, because not only did we sample things we would never have tried but we also got to walk the streets with a local.

We poked our nose into a corner mill, where the lady of the house will bring her large bag of spices, or rice, to be ground. They were grinding cumin seeds when we were there – the aroma was almost overpowering.

We stopped by a blouse fabric shop that looked for all the world like a fabric version of your best and brightest Derwent pencil box. Ladies go with their sari material and select the fabric for their blouse before heading off to the tailor. All the sales assistants are male, but their selection of a matching colour was unerring. Beautiful.

The foods we tried were diverse, and in a completely random order of sweet and savoury. We started with an amazing halwa. Now I don’t usually like halwa but this was more akin to a quince paste. It was wrapped in newsprint and was eaten with a small wooden paddle (akin to the spoon you get with ice cream tubs). Delicious. Then it was on to the most famous idli restaurant, Murugan Idli Shop, which now has branches in many other cities. Again, I have not been enamoured of idli ( had also tried in Australia) but these justified the restaurant’s fame. We had two types of idli, together with the usual accompaniments. These were all served on a large banana leaf, and of course you eat with your hand – your RIGHT hand only. Tricky and messy. We thought we were just having the idli but no, along came an butter onion dosa, which was particularly yummy (sorry, no photo as my hands were too messy to pick up the camera!). When you are finished eating the correct protocol is to fold the banana leaf over (towards you) and then go and wash your hands.

Then we stopped at a tiny stall run by a woman with a charming smile. Her speciality was Idiyappam, a sort of rice noodle, which we had as both savoury – plain with a dahl – and sweet – mixed with coconut, coconut milk and sprinkled with sugar. Again, her stall is famous in the city. She even had a newspaper article written about her.

Next stop was a Sweets and Snacks restaurant where we ate both sweet morsels – kolukattai and kesari – and savoury snacks – sambar vadai and ghee pongal. I am only able to write these names because Mukanthan kindly emailed a list of what we ate, where. We have found it very difficult to remember names of anything here – they use far too many syllables. 

We cross over the road and he purchases two different savoury snacks from a street cart on the corner of a lane, run by a husband and wife team. These too are called vadai, but one is very similar to falafel, whilst the other is a puffed piece of fried hollowness.

Back into the car and a drive into the suburbs, out near a major hospital. Mukanthan announces it is time now to have main courses; groan goes my stomach but we soldier on and go into a restaurant that specialises in mutton I.e. Goat. Here we try two different dosai – mutte dosai, which is fried egg dosai, and Kari dosai, which is a dosai layered with egg and meat (I’m not so keen on the latter but the former is similar to an egg hopper, but flat). Added to this is a dish of tiny pieces of stir fried chicken, and a goat curry called mutton chukka.

Emerging from the restaurant Mukanthan asks if we would like more food. Even Pete hoists the white flag at this stage, but Mukanthan is not completely finished. We drive on a bit further to a small corner stall that specialises in jigarthanda, the famous Madurai dessert of condensed milk, hand churned ice cream and seaweed. Sounds disgusting I know but it’s  actually pretty good.

Completely stuffed he drives us back to the hotel. It has been a really interesting evening, finding out more about the cuisine and the local way of life, and a great way to end our stay in the ancient city of Madurai. 

We have time in the morning for some pictures of the staff. This chap saluted every time we appeared, and is more than used to having his picture taken. He must boil in that uniform.

And I got chatting over our two days to the lovely Nathandri. She has a three and a half year old daughter, but her husband lives in America where he works as a chef in one of the Disney complexes. They Skype daily and he comes home for two months each year. They have been doing this for 6 years, so that they can make money and get ahead. She said, what else can we do? Indeed.

Goodbye Madurai.

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