The Third Tale from Tamil Nadu – Madurai

By Nick Goslett
Onions galore
Onions galore

To start with I will round off the Second Tale. I have seen a few French and German tourists but no English as yet. [I have now.] The Palace in Tanjore had one room that was a Wow, an Art Gallery that was a gallery with no art but a complete whale skeleton, and a room with beautiful bronzes but they had problems with light bulbs or electrics of some kind because at least half the display cabinets were dark! It was all so tatty and would take so little effort and money to make it look so much better …. but they rely on Government money and there are so many temples to maintain that it is small wonder that most are in a poor state.

50% of the shops in the mall I went to are mobile phone shops: how do they make a living?

It is not possible to get a beer!!

WRONG….I am on the 7th floor of a hotel overlooking the temple (Sunday night), albeit from a distance, and enjoying a Kingfisher beer at 10.30pm (but the weak one because I didn’t get round to eating much today) but as a general rule you cannot get a beer and you certainly cannot hang out in a cafe!

The ceilings of the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

What an unexpectedly good day was Sunday. My rucksack being quite heavy and detecting a twinge in my back I took a tuk-tuk to the bus station and was soon on my way to Madurai convinced that I was templed out.I am back to 14 GBP a night for the hotel and I will need to use my safety pin to help the water flow from the shower head but the room looks clean and the mattresses tolerable. I need not worry about adjusting the a/c: it is on or off. [It was so cold I had to switch it off – 5GBP down the drain! Another question to ask when I next check in.]

The hotel is just by the temple. On the way I saw a book/music shop so popped in and asked if they knew of any music on that night and they did! I suspected it would be dancing which does not really do it for me but it would be better than watching The Hobbit 2 which I must own up to watching, and thoroughly enjoying, Saturday night.

I really like Madurai: wide, paved roads; green spaces; not too frantic; more chance of being understood.

Veg Market

I looked around a temple in front of the main temple which is now a bazaar with one side (100 metres of it) just shops selling trinkets with many eager buyers and the other side mostly tailors at little sewing machines appearing to sew rags together. Beautiful building, lovely carvings….covered in dust and electricity cables.

Since this town has an alternative attraction, another Royal Palace, and since the temple would be closing shortly for lunch (really!), I wandered to the Palace. Fantastic open courtyard with pillared areas around it with beautiful ceilings and a museum to top yesterday’s in that not only were many of the light bulbs gone but someone had made off with many of the exhibits!

Madurai Palace

Palace carvings

As I walked out, a cycle rickshaw man (Segar) told me that it was Sunday and business was bad (is it ever good?) and feeling mellow I took him up on his offer of a ninety minute trip round the city. The price was agreed. i was well aware of what would happen and was up for three hours and a price increase. He spoke pretty good English, looked fit and wore no shoes. I get the feeling that on the streets the cycle rickshaws get top priority probably because they have no brake pads and take so long to get up a head of steam (3 mph). A most enjoyable trip including a bamboo street, a plastics supermarket, a Gandhi museum which I had to rush and will return to, an onion street, the veg market (cauliflowers always look majestic in India), a visit to the banana market in an enclosed alley with a path down the middle, yellow, green and red bananas and each shop having a sort of kiln into which they place the green bananas and burning cow dung each night and Hey Presto they are yellow the next morning. Thankfully we also visited the concert hall and established the start time at 6.30pm. We ate jack fruit together – delicious!

The Banana Market

Three notes: there have been very few stray dogs in the four cities I have visited, so unlike my last two trips; you cannot imagine how many motor cycles can be parked on each and every street – see photo; what in the Hindu scriptures states that you cannot take a camera into a temple but can take a mobile including the ability to take photos? … and the two answers are that if you have a Samsung Galaxy 4 you can only take crap photos and you can fit a fair-sized bomb in a camera but not in a mobile.Having ninety minutes to spare before the music, I went into the Temple. Did I indicate that I was templed out? Oh Nick of little faith (apart from those candles!)….this one is vast, magnificent, spiritual, incomprehensible. The museum is in a side temple with 1,000 columns and is exquisitely laid out. I am sitting by the Golden Lotus Tank early Monday morning and plan to spend most of the day here watching and listening (I can hear chants in the background) and contemplating. I have taken to typing this on my mobile with one finger (you lucky people with talented thumbs); it takes longer but anywhere is better than an Internet cafe. (These seem to be popular with people completing application forms which they cannot easily do on mobiles nor print out.)

The Tank

Tailors in the Temple

Nataraja Shiva

So back to Sunday afternoon in the temple and I got talking to two trainee Chartered Accountants (I asked if it was difficult to audit the books in India to which he answered “what would you expect me to say?”). For the first time I was able to hold a really good conversation and laugh out loud! They thought it funny when I couldn’t remember in which left – luggage place were my precious bag and sandals….but then they couldn’t remember where they had left theirs: touché, young ones!The 75 bus took me to the concert hall just as it was getting under way. I thought I had gone to heaven mistaking the drone for a sitar and although it was not quite the heaven I had cracked it up to be I most certainly enjoyed it: a seated female singer in her 50s, violin, terrifically inventive tabla player and drone. Spellbinding parts where she and the violinist improvised together. Seating for about 600 and about 30 in the audience.

So many motorbikes

Religious musicians

I shot back on a number 23 hoping to get back to the temple for some happening at 9pm . It happened at 9.45pm and was the coming together of Meenakshi (Parvati) and Siva. Two men spent about 15 minutes cooling a box with drapes hiding a fictional Siva, a musician played some stirring music on a reed instrument and nothing much happened apart from the odd prostration. And then I went off for the beer!Monday… breakfast in this hotel so down the road for coffee (delicious) and iddly (not what I wanted but ..)

Back for a day at the temple. They have a cunning way of paying for the in-house cow’s food: charge the devotees 10R for a bunch of greenery. I fed mine to a Fresian, of course (Uncle Michael’s herd). Then a search for a map (could I get anyone to understand what a map was?) which I forecast would take until sundown but which I found quite easily in the front of a book on the temple which was also an excellent guidebook.

The usual candle lighting to kick off the day then a rigorous following of the guidebook to make sure I missed nothing. Many of the pillars in the giant columned areas have wonderful Yalis facing inwards, a fabulous animal like a lion with an elephant’s proboscis and many are ‘rampant’ – reproductions can be provided! The ceilings are mostly painted with round flowers like lilies and lotuses and are very beautiful. This is one of my best temples ever. However, the Hindu police will not let me into either the Meenakshi or Siva’s inner sanctums here and I am not that sad because the devotees get queued up like people in a snake trail to go through customs at an airport (but processing is faster than any customs).

My bicycle rickshaw driver

The temple closed for lunch so having purchased a new mobile-charging cable from one of the 20,000 mobile phone stores I returned to the Gandhi Museum. This really does show what India can do if it tries. 5 star for me. When I arrived, the kindly administrator rushed me to stand in front of a fan and held my arms out like a drying cormorant. After, I walked round a brilliant children’s playground (several acres) in which I did not see one child playing and which would have been closed instantly by EU Health and Safety, in particular a large Wheel out of whose carriages a child could easily fall. I selected the biggest coconut on a cart and drank my fill, and that with some tasty roadside snacks was lunch for 80p.

Every day new rongolis

Dear Ganesha


A Yali

A scary god

It’s Monday night and I am back on the roof restaurant with a Kingfisher hoping that someone might care for a conversation but not fussed if not and undecided whether to go to Kodaikanal tomorrow or spend another day soaking up my last temple. I have texted Alessandra in case she is still around.I have to tell you that I will be glad to get back to my own Indian cooking!

I decided to stay here for one more day and sought out a massage. Google Maps are great for getting around on buses but when walking for 1.5 km they don’t show you that the path is over two flyovers: I just had to face forward and hope for the best. The massage seemed cheap at 300R for half an hour but it turned out to be 15 minutes and he refused, point blank, to do any more since any more would be bad for me!

Music at last

I sat in the sun by the Temple Tank, read a bit of my current excellent book on Paracelcus, watched people and tried to think about what is important in life (I get distracted very easily and never get that far!). The Temple closes at 1pm and on Tuesdays from 12.55 until 1.10 there is a race on to paint some brown substance round the base of each pillar then cover the area with chalk rangolis as fast as you can….and they did work fast!I ate a delicious Banana Leaf lunch (rice and five different curries on a leaf which you eat with your right hand and I think as much as you can eat) in The Modern Restaurant. Very hot so had a siesta (yes…me and a siesta does seem unlikely and I slept! ).

Apart from that one smart book/music shop all the book shops are for students: course work, computer manuals; most everything out of date and I have yet to see a purchase.

I have been back to the temple for the last time. I will miss it a lot. I have grown fond of the crazy coloured sculptures. I find something new each visit. I attach a photo of a figure at the top of the South Tower and to give you an idea of the scale, his eyes are two foot six inches in diameter!

I listened to a man with a divine voice and a very loud speaker system singing beautiful songs with a tabla player, a drone and others with little cymbals in one of the great halls: a fitting end.

Once again I am seven floors up with a Kingfisher by my side.

Up to Kodaikanal tomorrow.

Hugs from Madurai.


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