I was out for a week or so from town, on a short vacation to Madurai and Coimbatore, both located in South India. Even after my return to Mumbai, a week later, I still haven’t got over the beauty of Madurai. I intended to make this a short post and add a recipe, but I would not have done justice to Madurai. So here we are, with only a travelogue. I hope it will keep you absorbed enough not to miss the recipe!
Madurai is known by many monikers – Koil Maanagara (city of temples), Thoonga Nagaram (city that never sleeps), and Malligai Maanagar (Jasmine city). All of them describe the city well. Madurai is renowned for its historical background, rich architectural and cultural heritage, and for producing many Tamilian scholars, as well as actors.
On the night we left Madurai, I realized why it is called the city that never sleeps. Our bus was scheduled to leave at 12:00a.m., and we had to reach the terminus at 11:30p.m. As the cab traversed the city, we found that small eateries serving idlis, and dosas were still open, and serving customers fervently!
Getting to Madurai:
Trains are well connected to Madurai. We have four trains from Mumbai, but preferred flight as we got a reasonable deal having booked early. However, the flights bound to Madurai are not direct. We took a very comfortable Air India flight that had a stop at Chennai. There are quite a few direct flights from foreign destinations to Madurai, though not to and from all Countries.
We did not check into a hotel as my sister lives there. My parents were also visiting and they had landed the previous day. Dadddy received us (Daughter and me) at the airport. It is a small and clean airport. My sister lives about 15 kms away in the city. The city needs a good public transport system, that is more affordable than autos. I found few buses on the road, and was shocked that the minimum auto fare was Rs.40/-! In Mumbai the minimum taxi fare recently increased to 15/- and people made such a hue and cry. The meters would not be turned on and one has to pay whatever the auto driver claims. This seems to be the general practice in all of Tamilnadu – Chennai, Madurai and Coimbatore. You can also find share autos that charge one fourth the price of private autos, but you might have to walk a bit as these autos do not take you upto your destination. They drop you off at the vicinity.
The only conduit from the airport to the city seem to be cabs. You can find many right outside the airport, or pre-paid services in the airport premises. The two main call cab services in Madurai are ‘Friends Cabs’ and ‘Fast Track Cabs’. We relied on the latter, and I cannot say it was the best service. The services are poor. You should keep checking to see that your cab comes on time. And don’t forget to give them a piece of your mind for poor services. We had to leave Madurai by the 12.00 a.m bus for Coimbatore and though we booked a cab with Fast Track in the morning, there was no confirmation of the same. We kept checking till 11:00 p.m. and finally they sent us an alternative cab at 11:30 p.m.
It was my first visit to Madurai, and I was under the impression that it was a small city, very conservative and traditional. I hoped to find ‘Tamil mamis’ draped in traditional madisar podavai (9 yards saree), and a few young girls in ‘daavani’ (traditional half saree). I was wrong! The city is District headquarters of Madurai District, and very modern. My sister lives in the better area of the city and there was even a mall at her place with a food court on the floor. The spas and parlours, even the really good ones, are cheaper than the ones in Mumbai, but I would advise you against trying too many things apart from the basic stuff like massage, manicure and pedicure. I wanted a streak on my hair and ended up with a whole chunk coloured! It looks funny but then it’s hair, and it will grow. The main roads are quite wide but the alleys are very narrow, not to mention a whole lot cleaner than Mumbai. Unlike Mumbai, there were no beggars on the street.
The roads were full of brightly coloured, kitschy film posters from
TKollywood mostly. MGR seems to be quite popular even today. ‘Amma’ was everywhere, and I was surprised to see some posters of Bal Thackeray as well! My sister rues that she does not get to see English movies, as only Tamil dubs are released in theatres. Hindi films go unnoticed. TKollywood reigns, but I did not notice any dedicated temples or garlanded heroes. I suppose the fervour has not reached those heights yet! Oh yes! You read it right. Idol worship has taken a literal meaning in Tamilnadu and fans have actually constructed temples erecting idols of some heroes. Crazy – I say!
Most shopping area is centered around ‘Villaku thun’ (Lamp pillar).
I was surprised to find garments better than the ones we get here, in Mumbai, but it struck me that it was natural. Madurai has always been famous for cotton ‘sungadi’ sarees. ‘Sungadi’ refers to the classic print on bright cotton sarees from Madurai, mostly in yellow-maroon, blue-maroon, green-maroon combinations. I love them, but mine is a beautiful cream coloured saree with maroon sungadi print. I went berserk in the saree shops. I bought one cotton saree at Ranee Sarees in Madurai and four at ‘Pothys’. I hope I will drape them regularly and not preserve them for Navaratri. Saree prices range from Rs.400/- (for good quality cotton sarees) to Rs.50,000/- (for silks). I recommend cotton, as it is best suited for tropical climates, and the fabric breathes, apart from the fact that it feels good on the skin and comes cheap. Silks involve a slow process of killing silk worms in order to spin fibre out of its cocooon. Cruel, and so not-worth it! My most expensive saree was about Rs.1065/-, and my kalamkari cotton cost Rs.500/-. The prints here are so much better than what one finds in Mumbai. (Total amount spent on five sarees – Rs.4,875/-)
Stainless steel vessels are a lot cheaper than in Mumbai, too. I purchased a cute SS tiffin carrier, a puttu kozhal for my cooker, as well as a couple of individual pieces of glass ware. (Amount spent – Rs.600/-)
I also f0und that eating out is a good experience, as long as you limit yourself to local cuisine. We visited the famous ‘Murugan idli kadai’, and at 9:00 p.m. on a weeknight we still had to stand in queue. This place is a tad more expensive than most small eateries, but it is well worth it. The service is prompt, the food is tasty and the price still seemed reasonable. For someone who has eaten dry, drab, idlis in Mumbai with too-papery dosa, this was godsend. The ready dosa batter did not seem any better than the ones we get here. I am lucky to have local vendor, Prakash, supplying good dosa/idli batter. Please do not order North Indian food and expect good food. In the South, they make South Indian food the best. There seems to be something called ‘jigar thanda’ which is a popular dessert here. It is some kind of a milky drink with edible gum and food colouring. I bet it is South India’s answer to falooda. Since it was not vegan, I did not have it. My mother had a bit and felt queasy.
Adyar Anand Bhavan at Villaku Thun sells some good chaats, if you need North Indian food. This is the business hub of Madurai and we found many Rajasthani and Saurashtrian families here who have settled for generations. Probably explains the good chaats, though not as good as the ones you get in the North. That is alright, right?
You must try ‘sevai’ or ‘idiappams’ in Madurai. Both taste very good. ‘Rotti’, a kind of lachha paratha is considered a local specialty and it is served with kurma on the side. I ordered one and found that it was stretchy and elastic. Instantly disliked it and did not finish it. The chutneys served with idli and dosa are varied and taste extremely good. Yumm. You should have them all! The kurma was very tasty.
Places to visit:
Madurai is centrally located and quite a few tourist get-aways are close-by. Kodaikanal, Ooty, Kanyakumri, Coimbatore, Palakkad, and Rameshwaram are all short drives away. Locally there are not too many places except for Meenakshi-Sundareshwar Temple, and The Tirumalai Naick Palace. Both the places are in the heart of the city and you can simply hire an auto to get there.
Madurai Meenakshi Temple:
We visited the famous Meenakshi Amman Koil (Temple) in the evening. Next time I would schedule the temple visit for morning. If you have visited the ancient temples of South India, you would know why I was awestruck! The scul ptures, the vastness, and the grandeur of the temple left me open mouthed, and proud of Indian heritage, and architecture. I kept clicking, of course! I could not stop. Despite the fact that the original structure has been destroyed partially by invading Muslim rulers of that era, the temple area is spread over a large space. The Meenakshi Amman, or Meenakshi Sundareswar Koil is dedicated to Goddess Parvati (known as Meenakshi) and her consort Shiva (known as Sundareswar). The main deity of the temple is however, Meenakshi, the Goddess whose eyes are shaped like fish. As we walked towards the temple, my mother gave us a quick update on the legend behind the Goddess.
Legend has it that one of the Pandya kings performed a sacrifice to the Gods, asking for a child as a boon. The couple were blessed with a girl child who walked out of the holy fire, but this young girl had three breasts instead of two. A voice from the Heavens assured the King and Queen, that the third breast would disappear when the princess came face to face with her future husband, and that she was going to turn out multi-faceted, and a warrior. The princess was raised thus and she conquered the earth and most of Heaven when she was old enough to battle. However, when she met Shiva, the lord of Kailasa, to fight him, her third breast disappeared, and she became a bashful princess, realizing she had met her husband, who was Shiva, and also realized that she was an incarnation of Goddess Parvati. The Heavenly marriage is said to be one of the grandest events on earth. Madurai, it is said, to this day, is a land of prosperity. Poverty is said to be virtually non-existent. Like Mumbai, Madurai is said to be a blessed land. Seriously? We should stop relying on the legend alone, and do more. What I liked was that the temple was very clean. As a child I have seen many temples in the South and I can only recall greasy pillars and priests with oil-stained dhotis. The scene is changing, and its welcome. This temple too has a policy of not admitting foreigners and non-hindus into the sanctum-sanctorum, or the main shrine where the deity is installed. I think more tubelights would be a great idea. Otherwise, I found that the organization is quite good.
Thirumalai Naik Palace:
For a brief period in the early 14th Century, Madurai was annexed to Mughal Rulers in Delhi. The Mughal Sultanat was intolerant of Hindu customs, and destroyed most monuments, and outer structures of temples. They were however afraid of entering the sanctum sanctorum which is why these beautiful architectural delights are available to this day. The noted historian, Ibn-Battuta was married to the daughter of the first sultan of Madurai and has recorded details of the tortures inflicted by Muslim rulers in Madurai. The Muslim Sultanat was brought down with rise of the Vijayanagar Empire. The details of the conquest have also been described by the court poet, Gangadevi, in her work, Madura Vijayam (the conquest of Madurai).
Thirumalai Naik, who crowned himself the king of Madurai, was said to be one of the descendants of ministers who worked under Krishna Deva Raya of the Vijayanagar Empire. He was a local hero of his time in Madurai. I am told that when the Muslim rulers invaded Madurai, and subjugated the local vassals and small time kings, the people of Madurai turned to Thirumalai Naik for help. He is said to have saved many monuments and idols from destruction and to have given shelter to Hindus, allowing them to practice their customs without fear.
The palace is now a museum dedicated to his memory. As a layman, I can only describe the beauty seen by one ignorant of architecture, and yet I could see the beauty of it, and appreciate the work. The paintings on the high ceilings gave me quite a neck sprain. I could not get very good photographs but here are few, shaken slightly for lack of a tripod, but it gives you an idea nevertheless. The colours used held me in awe. The dominant colours were shades of yellow, ochre, and red, in combination with a lot of teal, giving a flourescent feel to the motifs. At first glance I did not see a pattern in the paintings, but as I started taking pictures I could see it forming. Each side of the four walls was differently adorned. One had four different motifs. The adjacent wall had four motifs, two of the same kind. The third wall had three motifs of one kind, and a lone fourth one, while the fourth wall had four motifs, all of the same kind. I could not understand the pattern, nor could anyone explain it.
I met Mr. Anandan, a gentleman working with the Conservation Department of the District, and he told me that the colours were vegetable dyes. The motifs appeared fresh, and I understood that they had been recently restored. The Conservation Department was working with the students of the Department of History from Lady Doak College, Madurai, in cleaning the pillars that day. The pillars bear historical testimony, but some crazy people used them to proclaim love and contributed in damaging these places just like many others in India. The students were cleaning with plain water first. Then they would use chemicals to remove the stains caused by lipstics, nail polishes, paint and pens. The third step would be to cover the cracks with putty.
The museum also has a section that hosts stone carvings from that century. Tamil has developed into a complex language with modernity. There is a chart that shows the development.
Watch out for:
I can vouch that the city is a lot better than Mumbai, or Delhi in terms of cleanliness and it is spacious, and despite that the city seems to host a lot of mosquitoes Stock up on odomos or a moquito repelling cream of some kind. It spells relief!
The constant power cuts are a worry! Power cuts extend upto 16 hrs a day. Keep ‘visuri’ or hand fans ready, or better still, check into a hotel with generator arrangement.
Odomos was out of stock all the time during my stay, and I have come back bearing memorable musquito bite marks. And don’t be fearful as tourists. Just be prepared. We did not catch any disease or infection, which I find is a constant worry among visitors, especially foreigners, and NRIs. There were many healthy foreign tourists I met at the temple. Most wore shorts and obviously lived in good places. They did not have any bites.
Apart from cotton, Madurai is also famous for ‘malligai’, a local variant of chameli. They look pretty and have a lovely scent. That is why Madurai is also known as Malligai Maanagar.
What I missed a lot was a full river – Vaigai. The history of Madurai revolves around this river. It was however dry, and has become a place for grazing, raising cattle and dirt.
What made me feel really sorry were temple elephants held in captivity and treated roughly by their handliers. I simply can’t comprehend this concept of pulling gentle beasts out of their habitat and displaying them here. What is the point?
The photographs here are only a few. You can catch the entire album on my facebook page.