Temple and Thali

Madurai is an ancient south Indian city whose main attraction is the massive and bustling Meenakshi temple.  We drove here from Munnar to spend a day and a half and two nights.  If you are considering staying longer, please reconsider.  The temple is remarkable but otherwise the city has little to commend it.  Except for the thali lunch at Aarathy.

Check out the temple gopuras (towers) from a distance for some perspective and then the up close shots to appreciate the detail of each gopura.

We stayed at Hotel Padmam which sports a fine location but I don’t recommend it.  We had to ask twice to get toilet paper, soap and towels (at all, not like refills or anything), and if you want a top sheet walk down the street and buy one for a few bucks.  There is no WiFi in the room and the manager told us it takes 40 minutes to complete the 15 minute trip to the airport and charged us Rs 450 (paid to him not the driver, who he probably paid half that at most) which is nearly the same as the hour and a half journey from the Mumbai airport to our Mumbai hotel costs.  Even for $23/night I expected more.  Like a bathroom that didn’t smell like vomit.  We decided this is slightly below the accommodation level we’re aiming for.

Lunch at Emperor on the roof of Hotel Chentoor was so-so but there is a nice view of the temple gopuras.  Afterwards we walked around the temple to enjoy up-close views and the constant buzz of activity encircling this holy site.  There are women selling jewelry, busy food stands, kids asking for pens and carts packed with dates and large blocks of some jelly-like substance.

In this area you will be approached repeatedly by men suggesting you can go to the top of some building for a view and do not need to buy anything.

While clearly a commission pitch, we figured we had nothing to lose.  So we entered The Museum Company on the west side of the temple, marched straight to the top and then had a peaceful view where Miya offered us some tea with cardamom and cinnamon.

He proffered a long view of business, i.e. it didn’t matter if we bought anything but we could come back someday or tell our friends.  He was soft-spoken and true to his word, granting us leave with minimal earful.  Our true story of “sorry, you have lovely stuff but we have no room in our luggage and no home” has convinced many.

The rooftop rest was welcome.  Our first nine days in India were uber relaxing and Madurai marked a sharp contrast.  This is the kind of place you need to pay attention or you’ll get hit by a moped or goat.  Jenni was carrying a water bottle that took a moto-handlebar beating.  Nobody covers their mouth to cough and we saw multiple men urinating on the side of the road.

And the noise.  Constant.  Auto-rickshaw motors, horns, the rhythmic hand-pumping of water, chanting, negotiation.  If I were a music producer I think I would spend a little time in India for inspiration.

Surprisingly another calm corner in Madurai was this little vegetable alleyway which also had some birds located by the southeast corner of the square where our hotel sits.  We ate dinner at Dhivya Mahal where my aloo mutter masala was quite tasty.  Guess what Jenni got?  Paratha!

Thursday we visited the temple.  It took some effort to figure out the rules and setup (more in Practical Info but NOTE only mobile phone cameras are allowed inside, so if you can tell a difference in the photos that’s why), but alas we entered and the sensorial stimulation did not disappoint.  Aside from the prodigious and intricate gopuras, inside the temple there are vivid paintings, statues of deities, carved columns, tiered candle stands and a whole mess of humanity.  Offerings here, clink-clanking of donated change there, folks prostrating themselves or whispering in the ear of stone creatures.  Only Hindus are allowed in to the shrines, and these all had very long lines.

One section is dedicated to an art museum from where we viewed an elephant in the area between the inner and outer temple walls.  The elephant was trained to extend his trunk and take money, then tap the giver on the noggin and pass the cash back to its master.

On our way out we rested in the shade a bit and I lay down gazing up at clouds drifting over a gopura, listening to Indian music and watching the birds circle.  It is always nice to find moments of serenity amidst the madness.  A little boy walking past pointed at Jenni and laughed, then his mother told him to go say hello.  Which opened the floodgate and soon she had a little greeting line.

By the way, unrelated to Madurai but while I’m writing this Jenni just got a message from an Indian friend she studied with in Melbourne.  He recommends the kite festival in Ahmedabad in mid-January.  We will be in Thailand or Laos but…

After visiting the temple we were hungry, and more so after a long search for Aarathy.  When you approach on the side street and it looks like a dump, do not be alarmed.  Push onward, for the reward is a superb, all you can eat thali veg lunch.  Our man doles out the rice then ghee-ifies it with some powder and liquid butter.  Plus there are ten different bowls of yumminess, papadum, etc.  All for Rs 100.

Madurai is on the south India itinerary of many well-known tour companies.  If you visit alone, my advice is spend one day, do not stay at Hotel Padmam and do have lunch at Aarathy.

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Padmam which I pretty much covered above.  It seems the city is somewhat divided between the old town south of the river where the temple and action are, and the less exciting but likely nicer area north of the river.  I believe there are a couple nicer hotels there, and since being in the action in Madurai isn’t that great and you really just need to visit the temple, you might want to stay in one of those nicer hotels.

Temple: Modest dress is required.  Full pants for men, no hats.  You cannot wear shoes but can check them for free at each entrance.  There is an outside wall where you would check shoes, etc. and then you can enter the space in between for free.  To enter the actual temple, foreigners have to pay Rs 100.  You may not bring a camera inside.  However, you can bring a mobile phone inside, and for Rs 50 you can take pictures with your phone.  This all seems odd and is contrary to what I had thought, so you might double check for yourself even though we asked several people.  When you see the really long line of Indians waiting to enter the temple, walk around it, pay the Rs 100 and walk right in.  Unless you are Hindu, then maybe that line is where the shrine line begins.

Shopping: We went to the roof at The Museum Company at #26, West Chitrai Street, Ph: 0452 2346043, fortroyalmadurai@yahoo.com and our man was Gowhar aka Miya.  I cannot speak to the quality of the product nor how it compares to other stores, but it appeared to have nice wooden art and jewelry.  And he said we could leave our footwear there when we visited the temple.

December 25-27, 2013 (Wednesday-Friday)

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