Category Archives: Madurai

Madurai

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hear), smells (yeah, lots of those… by the time you realize you smell sweet flowers and think to inhale deeply, it’s been replaced by some other foul smell and you regret taking that deep breath), touch (lots of people and stuff, not so much space), and tastes (obviously you know by now from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.

::the road to Madurai::
::the road to Madurai::

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)