Madurai: More than Just a (Huge) Temple

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Sam’s lovely parents came to India for a tour around Tamil Nadu and spoiled us rotten along the way. We managed to cover a lot of ground in 7 days, thanks to our huge white traveller minivan (otherwise known as Nandi – The bull Shiva rode on) and our faithful driver (otherwise known as Ganupatti).

Despite being a busy city, Madurai had the friendliness and authenticity to carry off the typical Indian craziness – unlike most big cities in India (and Madurai was the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, after Chennai(=Madras)). You had the huge fluorescent flashing billboards and huge Sony adverts raised high above the streets, but at ground level you could be pushed along with the crowds through fruit and flower markets, and watch as old Hindu men hitch up their dhotis (essentially a man-sarong, often thin and white) as they pick their way along the pleasantly dirty pavements.

The place felt very alive, much reflected through the huge functioning temple, Meenakshi, that draws more Hindu pilgrims than tourists. Not only are the four towers of the temple some of the tallest and most spectacular I’ve seen, they were also garishly painted multicolours. You are invited to witness the grandeur and spiritual displays of devotion alongside one another – a rarity for temples in India, when one often has to stumble around ruins and only imagine what used to go on inside. Here you could see for yourself women in colourful saris, heads on the stone floor in reverence and priests with bare chests and heads painted fill the cavernous multi-coloured passages with burning incense. In fact, I would never have been able to imagine the nightly ceremony that takes place, in which Shiva and Parvati (Hindu God and Goddess) are put to bed amid much chanting and frantically chasing after a casket, as it is carried through the temple complex and eventually put to bed by the priests. I’m not sure why we ran, but everyone else was running too, so it felt right – there was religious fervour in the air. We were all very much ready to be put to bed afterwards, as the ceremony ended late at night.

I haven’t even begun to describe our bed for the night. The hotel, owned by a famous and decadent Tamil Nadu jewellery chain, featured a towering atrium with a golden elevator rising up the centre, taking you past beautiful artwork and down carpeted corridors to a room thoughtfully decorated, with all the luxuries to make Sam and I forget all about the distant cold and misery of Kodaikanal. It even had a wonderful desk for me to spend most of the next day slaving away in preparation for a video interview and unfortunately missing out on another day in Madurai.

That evening we enjoyed staggering rooftop views of the city and the distant view of the four towers of the temple, mingling within the other high rise buildings comfortably (no buildings are allowed to be taller than the temple) and rounded off the day with a few drinks in an Apollo-13 themed bar. Yes, a bar decorated to look like the inside of a spaceship. When in India…

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