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Published: November 12th 2009
Wednesday 11 & Thursday 12 November
The Kerala-Tamil Nadu border was just a few kilometres away and, after writing our names and addresses in duplicate on a piece of paper and paying a Rs250 interstate tax, we were allowed through the barrier.
We drove, past the huge pipelines funnelling Periyar’s water to Tamil Nadu’s hydro-electric plant, down onto the plains below. The change in the character of the land became instantly obvious. We were now at the bottom of a wide valley, with distant hills on either side, on a well-maintained two-lane road. We passed fields of cabbages, sugar cane, maize and millet, plantations of coconuts and bananas, and mile upon mile of paddies, where rice was growing or in the process of being planted. For the next three hours, with occasional rain showers, we passed through numerous small towns and villages interspersed with this agricultural land before reaching the outskirts of Madurai. Jino had been here once before but it’s such a vast city, with a population in excess of 1.2million and the chaotic streets which go with it, that he was quickly lost. Countless stops to ask for directions from auto-rickshaw drivers, motor-cyclists and pedestrians were necessary
Those wishing to conceive pray to the snake god fertility idols
before we found our hotel, the GRT Regency
, a comfortable, mid-range hotel in the city centre. It was now after 3.00p.m. and we’d missed lunch, so snacked on crisps and chocolate-chip cookies washed down with cups of tea from the complimentary facilities in the room.
At 6.00p.m., with rain lashing down, we ventured forth in the car to the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace to see the Sound & Light show there (Rs50 - about GBP 0.65 - per person, plus Rs30 car parking). We sat, under cover fortunately, in the corridors of the palace to watch a performance within its 17th century courtyard that chronicled the history of Madurai and this palace. Seriously understated lighting effects and a soundtrack which could have benefitted from better acoustics were thankfully augmented by claps of thunder and great sheets of forked lighting from the storm that raged overhead. At the end of the hour’s performance, the audience rose but was prevented from leaving the palace by a lake that had formed outside the exit door! Jino ingeniously reversed his car into the lake, right up to door; Lajpal and I removed our socks and shoes, rolled up our trousers and paddled ankle-deep to get
In the temple's art museum
into the rear seats, leaving everyone else wondering how they were going to get out!
The storm blew itself out during the night and we woke with the alarm clock at eight o’clock on a bright, sunny Thursday morning. Breakfast at this hotel was an excellent hot buffet and, suitably bloated, we left shortly after for the highlight of everyone’s visit to Madurai - the Meenakshi Temple. We were joined by Rani, a friend of Jino’s family, resident in Madurai and a devotee of the temple since childhood. She acted as our informal guide for the morning.
This is one of the biggest Hindu temple complexes in the whole of India, covering an area of around 250 metres square and with immense towers encrusted with hundreds of brightly painted sculptures depicting an assortment of religious themes. The temple was started by the Nayaks who ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th centuries and is dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi with a sanctum for her consort Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Meenakshi was a princess who was born with three breasts, fish-shaped eyes and a fishy smell. In the story, after seeking advice from holy men, she was
Shops sell devotees and visitors a very wide range of goods - pictures, bangles, plastic toys and a whole lot besides!
told that her extra breast would disappear when she met her future husband and that the fish-like qualities would transform into beauty. This duly happened when she met the god Shiva, to whom she was married in Madurai a week later.
Inside this amazing structure are vast halls of pillars, each carrying beautiful sculptures of gods, goddesses and mythological creatures. There are colourful shops selling everything from bangles to plastic toys and bronze images of the goddess. And there are shrines to other Hindu gods, like Ganesh (the elephant-headed god, the remover of obstacles in people’s lives) and Hanuman (the 11th incarnation of Shiva, with the face of a monkey and considered the most powerful and intelligent of gods).
Devotees queued for ‘darshan’ (viewing of the deities) in the inner sancta of Meenakshi and Shiva, areas not accessible to non-Hindus; I soaked up the atmosphere while Lajpal and Rani visited and prayed at the statues of their gods.
The noise, colour and atmosphere of this religious monument made this an interesting and enjoyable experience. I could easily have spent longer exploring here but it closes during the heat of the day and it was already 12.30p.m. We
One of the gopurams (towers) seen from the lotus pond
left by the north tower, opposite which is a shop called ‘Meenakshi Treasures’, an air-conditioned craft and gift shop selling everything from Kashmiri carpets to gold jewellery, pashminas and tourist trinkets. Although, like us, you’ll get the hard sell and have difficulty escaping without opening your wallet, it has a lift and stairs to a rooftop viewpoint overlooking the entire temple complex. Well worth a visit!
We had an excellent lunch at the hotel, after which we retreated to the cool of our room, Lajpal to watch TV and me to prepare this and my previous blog. It was still hot, dry and humid outside. Later, Lajpal went out to buy a gift for his sister, before another good meal in the hotel’s restaurant and an early night. Our journey tomorrow, south to Kanyakumari, India’s answer to Land’s End, is 260 kilometres and we’re guessing that it’ll take around five hours. One of the main reasons for going there is to see the sunset, so we’ll probably leave here after a late breakfast. I’ve just looked out of the window and visibility’s good. Let’s hope it stays that way or there may not be a sunset to see tomorrow!
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