Mind wide open in Madurai

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January 18th 2015
Published: March 12th 2015
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We were leaving Pondicherry and heading south west to Madurai. We woke early and walked to Hot Breads bakery to pick up some snacks (croissants and savoury rolls) for breakfast and lunch. We left Hotel Surguru in a minibus at 9am and headed to Villupuram Junction. We waited at the train station and jumped on the train as it slowed – we only had two minutes to get on before it lurched off again. We had a six hour trip to Madurai ahead of us.

We shared our berth on the sleeper train with four Indian army officers who were very friendly. I started reading “Stories told by the Mother II” which a fellow traveller had picked up at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. I put it down momentarily, and one of the officers picked it up and started reading it. I had visions of never seeing the book again, but he only managed a few stories before putting it down again. I’ve realised that sharing between strangers is commonly accepted in India. We shared our snacks with them, and they were very interested in hearing about our travels in India. One of the officers looked through all of Ren’s photos on her camera after she showed him a photo of the beach where I’d picked up my necklace/bracelets – they liked them and wanted to know what I paid for them. They all agreed I got a good price.

We stopped at Tiruchirappalli station at around 1pm. We were half-way to Madurai, so we jumped off the train to buy some chai (tea) from a tiny stall on the platform. We only had a few minutes before the train left, so it was fairly stressful, especially when everyone else from the train had the same idea. The chai was fantastic. We settled in, snacked on our savoury rolls and enjoyed the ride. The army officers had got off the train, and our birth filled up with new passengers (a small family and a single female) for the second half of the journey.

We arrived in Madurai at 4pm, and we weren’t prepared for what lay ahead. We jumped off the train, made our way along the platform, walked up a flight of stairs and suddenly found ourselves engulfed in a seething sea of humanity. We had turned into an overpass from the station to the city, and it was claustrophobic. Everyone was going in the same direction, and there was simply no way of stopping. We had our packs on (which made us heavier than everyone around us), and we literally flowed with the masses. I don’t remember walking – we were just jammed into a mass of bodies that carried us along with them. We managed to point ourselves in the direction of the stairs on the other side of the overpass and finally emerged into the dusty streets of Madurai. An old Muslim man had been walking alongside me all the way, and when he found out I was from Australia, he decided to give me a history lesson on when Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay. I finally caught sight of Ren, so we headed straight to the Madurai Residency Hotel. We checked in at 4.30pm, dropped our packs and made our way to Sri Meenakshi Temple.

We arrived at the temple at 5.30pm, and this was to be a highlight of our trip to-date. We wandered around the outside and then headed into the temple itself. A festival was on at the time, and there were a number of processions making their way around the long stone corridors. We nearly met our fate when a group of men carrying a large shrine of Krishna turned a corner where we were standing and lost their footing. Masses of people fell backwards and rammed us against a stone wall. The shrine (which was being held aloft by two long pieces of wood) tilted violently, and I thought it was going to end up on top off us. Luckily, the devotees carrying the shrine managed to right themselves, and we lived to tell the tale.

Ren lit a lamp for her father as we made our way counter-clockwise around the temple’s corridors (which may explain why the shrine nearly ended up on top of us, because everyone else was walking clockwise). I loved this temple. There was something very calm and inclusive about the atmosphere inside, despite the masses of people who we were continually rubbing shoulders with.

As we wandered back to the hotel I picked up some postcards from an old man in the street. The back streets of Madurai were just coming to life at dusk, and it was fascinating walking through them. We got back to the hotel and headed to the rooftop restaurant for dinner. We shared a selection of curries with our fellow travellers – gobi aap ki passand aloo (cauliflower curry), dingiri mutter (mushroom and green pea curry), vegetable chettinad (spicy vegetable curry) and chana masala (chickpea curry), all of which were served with rice and naan (leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven). It was fantastic and very, very hot.

As the wind picked up and the evening grew long, we decided to go to bed... and that’s when the gastro struck. We’ve been travelling together for many years now, and we’ve always carried Gastro-Stop with us, but this was the first time I’ve ever had to use it. Luckily, it lived up to its name. We had a four hour bus trip to Thekkady in the morning, and the last thing I wanted to worry about was gastroenteritis.

It was a travel day and we had to stock up on breakfast and lunch items, so after a very quick trip down to Hot Breads Bakery in Pondicherry, we caught a minibus for the one hour ride to the railway station at Villupuram. The station wasn't too busy, so we walked around for a little while and bought chais (teas) from the station chai wallah (tea seller).

Indian Railways is the largest employer in Asia, and as much as I like seeing people employed, the organiser in me couldn’t help but mentally streamline their systems as I watched passengers being put through multiple processes – each handled by a different staff member at a different counter, and each requiring a new queue. I'm increasingly realising that the preferred method of operation in India is that a particular job or task can only be performed by one person at a time - they don't seem to like the concept that the same person who checks your ticket can also stamp it and tick it off the ledger. I know it provides more employment to use more people than is really required, but the inefficiency in time is significant and it is harder to maintain the quality of the product. Anyway, back to our train trip.

We were in second class 3AC sleeper carriages again for the six hour daytime journey to Madurai. It was an unexpectedly enjoyable journey. The windows were clear this time so it was great to watch the Tamil Nadu countryside roll by, and we were in a compartment with Indian Army Officers who wanted to chat. They questioned us about Australia, our views on India and life in general. In return, they answered all our questions about their work and lives. It seemed important to them that I felt safe in India, and they asked if we’d had any security issues – we hadn’t. One of the officers mentioned a tourist police phone number that I should ring if I had any problems (and he rattled off the number). I gathered that it had been a topic they had been briefed on as they all went into ‘official’ mode when talking about it, and then visibly relaxed when I changed the subject.

The Army officers were on a trip to Tamil Nadu to organise a recruitment rally. They loved hearing about where in India we had already travelled to, and I showed them my photos of the beach at Mamallapuram because some of them hadn’t been to that part of India. However, instead of handing my camera back, one of the senior officers started flipping through all the photos on my camera, asking for explanations of each one. It’s a good thing I didn’t have any ‘personal’ photos on that card! 😉

They were so involved in conversations with us that they very nearly missed their stop. Of all the conversations we had with them, two gave me most cause for thought. Firstly, the younger Officers (in their late 20s to early 30s) were very accepting of arranged marriages, and were happy to let their parents decide their future partners for them. Secondly, I was very surprised to learn that all their official paperwork is written in English, even though all oral communication is in Hindi. They all spoke English to some level, but were not very confident about it and were happy for the opportunity to speak it.

After they left, the two remaining guys in our compartment decided to watch a DVD on their laptop... and turned the laptop around and the sound up so we could watch too. Kim and I rolled our eyes at the thought of watching a DVD on a train, and a mainstream Hollywood one at that, but we were hooked within minutes. I couldn’t tell you what the film was called, but we were most disappointed that the guy had to get off the train before the film ended. The young family who got on next were more interested in arguing with each other than talking to us, so I finally got some reading done.

The only other excitement on that journey was that Lee and Andrew decided to get off at one of the stations to buy us some chais (a chai wallah hadn’t come through in a while), and Karni jumped out with them to hurry the process along as the train only stopped for two to four minutes at the smaller stations. It was a close call, but they made it back just in time with delicious chais in hand. For reasons unfathomable to mere mortals like us, the chai at train stations and on trains in India was so much more delicious than any other chai I’ve ever tasted. The savoury rolls and pastries we’d bought at Hot Breads Bakery in Pondicherry were quite delicious, and I immediately wished we’d bought more.

There were two ‘best’ parts of the train trip for me – firstly, all the wallahs (sellers) who appeared out of thin air as soon as the train started moving. The chai wallah clutched a tea urn in one hand and little cups in the other and for a few rupees we had hot sweet milky tea. Apparently the hot sweet thick coffee was very good too. The cold drink wallahs came next, followed by the wallahs of hot food and snacks. It was a constant wallah stream through our carriage, but none of them were pushy or rude. They were merely making a living and in the process, making our train journey all the more comfortable. The second best thing for me was having such a fun and lively conversation with a group of strangers who were as curious about us as we were about them.

We arrived at Madurai station around 4pm. I have never felt under siege by humanity before, but I came very close when we stepped into the streaming crowd at this station. Once you committed to the stream, you just got pushed forward by the momentum of the crowd until you were deposited outside the station. I could barely turn around (I had my pack on) to check on Andrew as we were propelled forward. We artfully dodged the rickshaw wallahs (rickshaw drivers) vying for business and walked for ten minutes across busy streets to our hotel. The Madurai Residency Hotel was a very clean, standard business-styled hotel, but with very little character. Although at this point of the trip, I was badly in need of a fix of crisp white sheets, and this hotel totally delivered.

Madurai is an ancient city of over 2 million people. The Tamils have a recorded history going back to the 3rd Century BC, which shows an unbroken Dravidian lineage that they are very proud of. My ancestors on Dad’s side originated from this part of Tamil Nadu, and I suppose I should be proud of this ‘ancient people’ legacy too, but unfortunately this sort of ‘racial pride’ nearly always goes hand-in-hand with racial superiority. It can mean that marriages outside of the Tamil community (like my Mum and Dad’s) are frowned upon – and I really don’t understand or have time for that sort of prejudice.

That evening after confirming the dress code for the tenth time – long trousers and shoulders covered for both men and women – we left for the magnificent Sri Meenakshi Temple. The temple was a short walk from our hotel, and on turning a corner, the distinctive brightly-coloured gopuram (gatehouse tower) and outer temple walls came into view at the end of the street. The street was blocked off to traffic, and it was very strange (but quite pleasant!) to be walking along an Indian road without fear of being deafened by horns or knocked over by a speeding motorbike.

Security was the tightest I’ve seen for any tourist site I’ve been to. After leaving our shoes and cameras at a nearby shop, we were screened and patted down by guards – there was a separate queue for women, attended by female guards behind a curtain. Very sadly, photography was strictly forbidden. I say ‘sadly’ because it was a beautiful temple and I would have loved to have some photographs to make sense of all the fast moving colour and movement we witnessed. Very strangely, you could pay a fee to take your phone in and take photos with your phone camera. This baffled me beyond belief. It still baffles me.

The Sri Meenakshi Temple is considered to be the most beautiful temple in South India. It was originally built in the 7th Century, but work continued until the 18th Century. The temple complex inside the wall is incredibly vast. To our left was an ancient banyan tree, where childless women who wanted to conceive had hung brightly painted miniature cradles. Each of the Temple’s main entrances were arranged along the cardinal axes, with the 50m tall south gopuram structure the biggest and supposedly most detailed. Each gopuram was covered with intricately detailed and brightly painted figures of gods, demons, humans and animals. They have only recently started painting the gopura in multiple colours, so the colours were VERY vibrant. A part of me wishes they’d left them as they were. The complex has multiple shrines, each in a square enclosure surrounded by smaller inner gopura, and there is a sacred water tank enclosure and various halls that surround and connect the square enclosures.

We had a very lovely local guide accompanying us, without whom we would have lost our bearings within the first five minutes! We walked through the east entrance and entered a hall in which there were hundreds of white-clad men and women in colourful saris and other traditional dresses. We slowly made our way through lamp-lit corridors and mazes of dimly lit rooms towards the inner sanctum. The air was thick with the smell of oils and spices from burning lamps and incense sticks.

The complex was very, very crowded with both local worshippers and pilgrims who had travelled from all over India. I watched a family walk past us – the father was carrying a child of about 18 months who had just had her ears pierced and her hair shaved close to the skull. Her eyes were also heavily ringed with kohl (so as not to attract the attention of spiteful spirits by being too cute). I was told that she had just been through one of the first (of many) age-related Hindu ceremonies.

Further inside, small oil lamps were being lit and placed in front of statues. There were many small stalls where we could buy the small oil lamps, and I lit a lamp for Dad... remembering that he had told me this was one of the most beautiful temples he had seen. I agree with Dad, this temple was one of the biggest highlights of the trip so far.

While some of us were buying lamps, the group got separated as a procession of priests and devotees coursed their way through the narrow hallway we were standing in. The priests were carrying a statue, and the praying and chanting crowd was pressing in on them. Andrew and Brian bore the brunt of my weight as the crowd fell into me, and I fell back into them – pushing them into railings and a stone wall. The procession had reached a corner and couldn't all fit, and then suddenly surged forward. Andrew and Damien were tall enough to see what was happening, and they looked worried. However, I could barely see what was going on, as there was a sea of armpits in my face. The procession passed soon enough and we moved on to join the rest of the group, but I can see how easily a stampede could have occurred in such an enclosed place when crowd numbers aren’t controlled.

The Hall of One Thousand Pillars is a major attraction of the temple. It couldn’t be more colourful if it tried! I really loved the feel of this place. The pillars were all carved with different figures, and my favourite were the yalis (mythical beasts with a head of an elephant and body of a lion). At one end of the Hall stood the figure of Nataraja (the dancing form of Shiva), dancing the cosmic dance.

It would have been easy to spend much more than the two hours we had here, watching the people lighting lamps and praying with such passion, but I’d started to feel like I was intruding and had to keep reminding myself to stop staring. We retreated from the temple, retrieved our shoes and spent a few minutes engaging in the obligatory checking out of pashminas and hand carved ornaments in the handicrafts emporium (where we’d left our shoes).

Towards the end of our walk through the temple, our local guide had questioned me about my heritage (almost everyone I meet in India seems to need to know this!), but unlike anyone else, the only question he asked me was what I thought about the recent election results in Sri Lanka. I sidestepped the issue by saying I didn’t follow Sri Lankan politics, but it seems he did – in minute detail. I was given an impressive blow-by-blow account of the election and what he thought of where Sri Lanka was heading. He would have got along very well with my Dad. 😊

We walked back to our hotel and later met for dinner on the rooftop. We shared a few vegetarian curries of aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry), dingiri mutter (mushroom and green pea curry), vegetable chettinad (spicy vegetable curry) and chana masala (chickpea curry), with rice and naan (leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven). The food was delicious and some of the curries were VERY hot. I had a small lapse in concentration when ordering drinks and ordered an iced tea, which as its name suggested, came chock full of ice. As refreshing as it looked, sadly, I just couldn’t risk having it. 😞

Our quick walk through town that evening had given us a glimpse of masses of Hindu pilgrims, hordes of circling rickshaws, more poverty and beggars than we’d seen in the other towns and cities, and lots of bazaars and street markets. But we were running out of time to explore more of Madurai.

Our time there was even more compromised when the virus going around the group attacked Andrew in the stomach department at 2am. We were certain it hadn’t been anything Andrew had eaten as we had shared all our meals. We were up until 5am, at which point Andrew fell asleep. I had got the other bug (sore throat, cough and cold) that was also going through the group... which turned into a fever later that day. So I spent the early part of the next day looking for more drugs for both of us.

None of the pharmacies (called ‘medical shops’ in India) I found were open or likely to open before we left Madurai that morning. You know you are travelling with good people when Rao kindly offered us his supply of Imodium (but we were well stocked with Gastro-Stop), and Chris kindly offered us her stash of re-hydration tablets (which we’d completely neglected to pack!). Damien finally found an open pharmacy and bought us more supplies to keep Andrew comfortable and hydrated until we reached the next hotel. Thanks heaps guys!

We had known that getting sick was par for the course in India, but I had been so sure that of the two of us, I would have been the one to fall first with a stomach bug. I would much, much, much rather be sick myself than have someone I love get sick, but I’m probably not alone in thinking that way.

We had planned to go back to the Sri Meenakshi Temple that morning, but sadly that plan didn’t work out. As for the city of Madurai, while I think it represents the colourful and lively part of southern Indian culture very well, it didn’t attract me very much. However, given we only had one day there, I don’t think I saw nearly enough of it to form a solid opinion... even though it certainly was an eye-opening experience.

Next we enter the Western Ghats ranges and travel west into Periyar National Park in Kerala.


14th March 2015

A sea of humanity
Glad the train was such and enjoyable trip. India offers so many opportunities to make new friends. Chai and pastries what a nice combination. I would have loved the festival and the crowds. I hate being sick on the road. Glad it didn't last too long. Keep those stories coming.
15th March 2015

Re: A sea of humanity
That 'sea of humanity' at the station was something else. I really glad that I didn't drop anything as I walked, because there was zero chance that I would have been able to stop and pick it up! I know I should let it go, but even as I write this, I'm still bemoaning the lack of photos from inside that temple... :)

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