I had started questioning myself after Cochin, the backwaters, and Munnar… is India really that intense? As crazy as everyone says it is? Am I misremembering our honeymoon and actually this is a very chill country? Well, Madurai quickly reminded us of the cacophony that so much of India provides. These parts of India offer near-constant sensorial stimulation: sights (colors, people, animals, things everywhere), sounds (essentially continuous honking along with the myriad of other city noises you hear), smells (yeah, lots of those… by the time you realize you smell sweet flowers and think to inhale deeply, it’s been replaced by some other foul smell and you regret taking that deep breath), touch (lots of people and stuff, not so much space), and tastes (obviously you know by now from reading my blog that I love me some paratha, and India has a hell of a lot to offer in the culinary department).
By now I’m used to not having the luxuries at our hotels (a top sheet, a shower separate from the toilet, a safe, air conditioning, a hairdryer, etc.). But Hotel Padmam took it to a new level: none of the above, and no soap, no towels, no toilet paper. Though they do provide the dirtiest looking walls you’ve ever seen. Oh and the toilet leaks and it rotates smelling like piss, vom, and I’ll let you guess the third scent. You can also hear your neighbors retching. Loveliest sounds to wake up to, I tell you. Alan tells me I’m overreacting; it’s not that bad. But hey, I didn’t make us move, I’m just venting about it and resolving to try and bring in a little income somehow so we can avoid the no-TP style hotels in the future. (To be fair, we asked (twice) for TP, soap and towels and we received. I guess it’s just an ask-and-ye-shall-receive only policy. Also, we bought a top sheet for a few dollars from a shop down the street. It helped me sleep, and the pink really brightened up the room). Oh, also for $20 a night they threw in breakfast. We tried the South Indian breakfast the first morning, definitely the worst food we’ve had to date in India. Also, I’m pretty sure they tried to give us a used plastic bottle that was refilled with tap water. (Must be careful of this some places in India.) The next day we opted for the “continental breakfast” – three pieces of toast. It was much better at least.
Alas, we didn’t come to Madurai for the magnificent lodging (though I think there are one or two nicer places, if you go, by all means, stay at those), we came for the same reason everyone comes: the Meenakshi Temple. And it is truly a stunning piece of work. By the temple the street is quieter and a little more relaxing. You can wander around and everyone tries to get you to go in their shops, which do, to their credit, offer nice rooftop views of the temple. They of course want you to buy things from their stores though. Luckily, we met a not overly pushy guy who made us cinnamon cardamom tea and let us enjoy the views without too much of a sales pitch, provided we tell our friends to go there. So friends, go to Miya’s store and buy some elephants statues, or jewelry, or textiles.
The temple itself is really quite impressive. A bit confusing getting in – but to sum it up for you: full pants required, no hats, no shoes, no cameras, but mobile cameras are fine so long as you pay Rs 50. (Don’t ask me why… one of the stranger rules we’ve come across so far. Also, I just have to say that while so much of what India has to offer is beautiful and cheap to see, it’s a total bummer that you aren’t allowed to photograph a lot of it.) Foreigners must pay Rs 50 each to get in, and there are a handful of places that only Hindus are allowed within the temple itself (and the lines for these are impressively long). There is also an art museum within the temple and the entrance fee is covered by the Rs 50 paid to enter the building. Quite a bargain – for less than a dollar a person you get a full day’s access to this impressive site.
We watched for a while an elephant who would take money from patrons using his trunk, then bop them on the head and pass the buck back to his owner. Pretty neat.
After wandering and soaking in the place for a few hours, we enjoyed sitting and people watching. Alan lay down on the floor for a bit to gaze up at the temple towers and the sky and people thought this was quite amusing. That or just that we were white. (Also, one woman thought he was sleeping, which is apparently offensive, and so he got yelled at). One boy pointed and laughed at us and his Mom told him to come over and say hello. Next thing I knew I was shaking hands with 10 kids who liked to say “Hello! Hello!” It’s cute how much they like to shake hands and talk to us white-folk. (There are certainly other non-Indian tourists, but not all that many. Still, I’m surprised how often we get stared at in India. I would have thought people would be more used to seeing tourists by now.) We also ran into a few kids outside the temple who wanted “one pen, please” and loved seeing photos of themselves. These kids are hilarious and adorable.
Food in Madurai started out underwhelming: an undercooked chicken dish (Alan pointed out that you would think they could have cooked the chicken all the way through in the hour it took to provide it to us) at Chettanoor’s roof-top restaurant, and then a questionable South Indian breakfast at our hotel. Luckily the tali lunch at Arrathy was phenomenal. They give you about ten little dishes of curries and sauces, a bunch of papadum, and then they pile on a ton of rice, cover it with some golden powder and then drizzle hot liquid ghee over top of it. You aren’t provided silverware (except serving spoons). I attempted to use my fingers as the locals did, mixing the rice, powder and ghee together, but I am just incapable of eating saucy curries and rice with my fingers, so I used my serving spoon to assist. Learning to eat Indian food with your fingers is harder than mastering chopsticks! One of my favorite of the dishes was a sweet rose water and cashew concoction. Still trying to figure out what it was called so that I can order it elsewhere! Do tell if you know 🙂
My general impression of Madurai is that it ain’t that awesome. The food options (that you’d be able to eat at and not get sick from) are not very plentiful or amazing (the tali lunch was great, but other places that come highly recommended… not so much), and it’s just not that cool here. I’m writing this now from Mumbai, which I’d heard mixed reviews on, and it is so much better here. Weirdly, we’ve moved to one of the biggest cities in the world, with incredible population density and insane poverty, yet I saw several people peeing on the side of the road in Madurai and none here. I actually feel much safer walking around Mumbai than I did in Madurai, which is surprising to me. And if there are nice, chill spots with some ambience, we didn’t find them. So I would recommend one night max in Madurai. It’s pretty neat to see the temple, but I wouldn’t waste much time in the city itself.
Each time I’m blown away by the roads we travel to get to our next destination. The drive from Munnar to Madurai was no exception. Coming down the mountain we descended a terrifying series of switchbacks where the road would occasionally be blocked by rocks and/or road work with no warning.