Wikipedia says, ‘Located on the banks of River Vaigai, Madurai has been a major settlement for two millennia and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world’. It also says, ‘Madurai is closely associated with the Tamil language, as all three primary congregations of Tamil scholars, the Third Tamil Sangams, were held in the city between 1780 BCE and the 3rd century CE.’ This was a good news for us: We were entering one of the greatest cultural centers of India.
Ride from Rameshwaram to Madurai is ordinary. The roads are fine, passing through numerous crowded towns. The landscapes are nothing special. As we neared the city, there was a blast of insects that made it quite difficult to ride (the bravehearts we are who don’t ride with helmets or night glasses). As we cleared them, our clutch wire gave away. Luckily, there was a mechanic nearby who spoke too much Tamil (Or is it just me who thinks that people speak too much when they know their listener isn’t understanding a word).
After Rameshwaram’s experience in Dharamashala, we now looking to repeat it in Madurai. We googled and found Bangur Dharamshala. The reviews were great. The rooms were good. Tariff was 250 per night. But they didn’t have parking. So we looked for some more rooms in the area (Bangur, railway station, Meenakshi temple are quite close by). After a long search we realized that there is no place in the locality offering decent rooms for even double the price, we went back to Bangur. This time, they agreed on arranging something for bike parking. Good good people.
After settling in the room, we went for a ride in the city. Again, quoting wiki, ‘Madurai is built around the Meenakshi Amman Temple, which acted as the geographic and ritual center of the ancient city of Madurai.The city is divided into a number of concentric quadrangular streets around the temple. Ancient Tamil classics record the temple as the center of the city and the surrounding streets appearing liken a lotus and its petals. The city’s axes were aligned with the four quarters of the compass, and the four gateways of the temple provided access to it.’
This basically means that the area around Meenakshi temple is always crowded, even during late hours (Madurai is popularly called Thoonga Nagaram meaning the city that never sleeps). There are foreign tourists, local passengers, city’s main markets all at the same place. Delicious food is served on almost every second shop here.
Do not forget to try Madurai’s famous ‘Jigarthanda’. It is a dessert drink, remotely similar to Falooda, but amazingly delicious. We were simply addicted to it and had it every time we felt like having something to eat. Also, although we thought we would find it else where in Tamil Nadu, we didn’t spot it once after Madurai.
After dinner we went to relax at the Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam (tank / lake), which is to Madurai what Marine drive is Mumbai. People sit, chat, relax at the boundary walls of this huge tank. There is a long line of food stalls that stays late till 12am there. Noise & peace exist simultaneously there.
The next morning went for Meenakshi Amma temple. Cameras and shorts are not allowed inside the temple. But you can take mobiles inside and take pictures with them (strange, i know) and lungis are available on rent outside the temple very easily. Although the temple’s Gopuram’s are visible from far in the market, one appreciates its glory & magnitude when inside the temple, when all the clutter of cramped up market buildings are removed from the sight. This temple is so big, that however long the queue be for entry, once inside, you feel there are few people around you, and there is a sense of peaceful solitude almost everywhere. Such is the scale of this temple.
The biggest attractions in the temple are the main Shiva Shrine and the Thousand pillar hall. Apart from the original beauty, both of these attractions have been lit up beautifully with golden light which gives them a different dimensions. Most of temple resonates with the Om chanting on the sound system installed in every nook and corner of the complex. You can easily see people in some corners just chanting Om along with these. Its just serene.
Some shrines have active Pujaris where a lot of sevas (paid aartis) are conducted. We skipped them quickly and reached the legendary lotus tank ( i missed mentioning this in the most popular attractions of this temple). Legend has it that during the Tamil Sangam period (mentioned above), this pond was supposed to judge the worth of a new piece of literature. Authors placed their works here and the poorly written works sank while the scholastic ones floated.
Its easy to get lost in this temple. As we were trying to find our way out, we passed the long row of pujaris quarter, where they were practicing their different musical instruments. This truly is one big center of culture.
Tranced with its beauty and sacredness, we came out and started for our rooms. After this colorful odyssey, it was time to explore the engineering marvel of Thanjavur.