Well after an excellent seven hour journey on the state bus for 2.75, taking in the sights of the lively towns and villages including Nagercoil, Trirunelveli, Virudunagar and Tiruparankundram (we know easy for us to say) following an actual tarmac dual carriageway the NH7 we arrived in the central bus station of Madurai.
Now the clue here is in the name ... it is Mad!
We quickly had to switch from laid back beach bums to hard faced city dwellers as we alighted the bus into a crowd of rickshaw drivers all trying to relieve us of our bags and bundle us into their autorickshaw. Then they would try to charge us an inflated price to drive us around the block. Well when you have been had by this trick once, you don't make the same mistake again so we did our research on prices and studied the map pre arrival and decided to head to the pre paid rickshaw stand.
Ok so we didn't actually make it to the stand because one of the persistent drivers braved our abrupt demands and agreed finally after much bartering to take us to our required hotel (not the one above his brother's tailors shop) for 1 rupee less than government standard price.
We had rang ahead for a couple of hotels but with their limited understanding of English and our complete lack of Tamil we decided it was easier to turn up and barter. Armed with hotel names in West Perumal Maistry street we directed the driver and hoped for the best.
Hitting the main roads (well all the potholes) bought us back to earth with a thud. Traffic aarrrggghhhh the endless constant beeping of horns, dry heat, dirt, dust and hoards of people .... City Life!
After taking thirty minutes to travel 6km we checked out a few hotels. The first one was Hotel park Plaza and as we thought well out of our price range. The second, Hotel Subham was a possible for 4.30 a night until we viewed the room. It was minute, both of us couldn't fit inside the room and we had no hope of getting the backpacks through the door only the borrowers could of been comfortable there. Apart from the size it was filthy, unsecured and quite frankly not fit for a farm animal so we settled on a mid range option and chose T.M Lodge.
It was a slight shock to the system after coming from the spacious bungalow but the best option we had for a two night flyer.
It's wasn't a bad size, clean linen, western toilet and a small outside balcony with a sink on??? facing a construction sight and backing on to the main street (only in India)
After fifteen minutes of just standing looking at each other and then back around the room not really wanting to touch anything we flicked on the TV. We found we'd got ESPN and Movies, decided that with a good clean and a lick of paint the room would be perfect and settled down to watch premiership football and recover from the initial city shock (Sad but True!)
We decided that it would be best to do a reccy of the area before our big sightseeing tour the following day. We headed out of the hotel and along the pot holed, flooded, muddy track (loosely termed a street) and into the city centre towards the temple.
We soon became carried along the street in the flow of human traffic avoiding the actual traffic that was trying to weave a path along the road filled with people.
Either side of the street is not unlike any town or city in the UK. Shops, businesses, restaurants and cafes, except you couldn't actually view these as they were masked completely by the rows of makeshift stalls that lined the side of the road. They are endless and all selling the same variety of wares from clothes, underwear (all big pants I can't get any new thongs anywhere, just call me Bridget!), toys to fireworks.
There is so much activity you cannot take anything in. You are trying so hard to concentrate on walking in a straight line without bumping into someone, tripping and falling or getting trampled and run over not by a car so much as motorbikes, bicycles, cycle rickshaws, a bull pulling a cart or a vendor pushing one. All the while you are unbalanced by the ambush on your ears. Horns, bells, tanoys, whistles, vendors, rickdrivers and touts shouting to hold your attention and get your business all this along with the general rumble of chatter made up by the sheer volume of people makes your head buzz. The accompanying aroma's are inviting and repulsive all at the same time. The street food on every corner, spice and sweet shops, bakeries and flower stalls all draw you in with delightful fragrances and enticing sweetness but the waves of fumes, urine and a lurid stench of bin juice caused by the build up of rubbish dumped in large piles in the street and left to rot in the intense heat turn your stomach beyond belief.
We pushed through and made our escape to the pedestrian zone around the outer edge of the Sri Meenakshi Temple.
As we turned the corner we were greeted by the most breathtaking sight. The west gopuram (tower) rose high above us, the colours and sculptures are mindblowing. As your brain tries to compute the vast size you start to focus in on the ornately carved array of deities 3D sculpures of Gods, Goddesses, demons and heroes. The work, time, skill and craftsmanship that has gone into creating such a masterpiece is incomprehensible and completely overwhelms you.
As excited as we were by this discovery it was getting towards sunset so we decided not to explore further and to wait until the next day when we were refreshed and could appreciate it fully. We headed back through the less chaotic streets and to the Chentoor Hotel for the recommended rooftop dining experience.
It was very romantic and a great way to view the city and the temple gopurams and layout without being trapped in the hustle and bustle. We watched the sun set and the fireworks begin and enjoyed Aloo Gobi masala, Mix veg curry with rice and chapati all for 3 pounds. Heaven.
We made it back to our hotel just in time as the storm clouds gathered, the thunder rumbled and the lightening forked to earth splitting the sky, shaking and lighting the whole city. Storms in India are amazing. We observed from our balcony for a while until the rains became too heavy and we retreated to get some sleep.
Yeah right sleep!! Ok so we forgot just how noisy a city can be.Well to be fair in Mumbai we were just out of the centre in a plush double glazed hotel and Trivandrum is such a gentle, laid back city everywhere is deserted by 10.30pm but not in Madurai!
The noise and intensity continues well into the early hours. When your two blocks away from the city centre on a main road in a room with windows that don't close you get tannoys blasting advertisements and music, traffic, whistling, shouting, drums bells and horns on a constant loop topped off intermittently with firecrackers and air bombs. We finally dropped off around 3am with our ipods streaming meditation tracks and a pillow over our heads but we were rudely awaken at 5.30am when the day shift begins and the noise erupts again.
As we were awake we decided to make the most of the day and headed out for early breakfast before tackling the vast temple complex. We headed along Town hall road and into the steady stream of people browsing the street stalls already in full swing.
We found a packed out locals restaurant which looked dark and dingy from the outside but once inside it was bright with rows of metal tables and chairs. We ordered a typical indian breakfast of Masala Dosa. The dosa is a savoury pancake made with rice wheat and lentils. This is then filled with potato, onion and (masala) spices and wrapped and served with Sambar and Coconut Chutney it is one of our favourites at 65p each and sets you up for the day.
With hunger satisfied we fought through the growing crowd and away from every shop owner who has the best view of the Temple complex from his rooftop, it is free to view but you just happen to come down through his shop on the way out and are made to feel obliged to purchase something. Classic Indian entrepreneurism but a trick we weren't having any of.
No words can do justice to the Meenakshi temple. The gigantic temple complex, the statues exploring the entire range of human emotions, everything here is larger than life.
Lonely Planet review for Sri Meenakshi Temple
With its colourful, intricately carved temple towers, the Sri Meenakshi Temple is a spectacular pastiche of Dravidian architecture. It was designed in 1560 by Vishwanatha Nayak and built during the reign of Tirumalai Nayak, but its history goes back 2000 years to the time when Madurai was a Pandyan capital. The temple complex occupies an area of six hectares.
Its 12 highly decorative gopurams range in height from 45m to 50m (the tallest is the southern tower) and are adorned with carvings of celestial and animal figures. The Puthu Mandapam in the east forms a long and impressive entrance hall that leads to the eastern gopuram. Within the walls of the temple, long corridors lead towards gold-topped sanctums of the deities. It is the custom here to honour the goddess first. Most pilgrims therefore enter the temple at the southeastern corner, through the Ashta Shakti Mandapam, and proceed directly to the Meenakshi shrine.
Also within the temple complex, housed in the 1000-Pillared Hall, is the Temple Art Museum. It contains painted friezes and stone and brass images, as well as one of the best exhibits on Hindu deities
Many descriptions and background history on the temple can be found on various websites just type Sri Meenakshi Temple into google ... But I'll have a go at explaining what we saw.
We entered the temple through the North Gopuram equally as spectacular as the others. The complex is set out in concentric squares a bit like an ancient Cluedo board. As you enter the main courtyard surrounded by high walls topped symmetrically with sculptures of Shiva cows, you are struck by another smaller gopuram still as colourful and ornate. You get to see the full beauty of the higher gopurum with the fierce monster images with protruding eyes at the end of the arched roof which serve as guardian deities.
We walked along the next passageway which opened up into a large entrance hall at the end of which a highly decorated elephant greeted you with white henna face paint and a nose for cash. We stood in front of her and held out 10 rupees she took them from our hands in her trunk and then rested her trunk on top of our heads to bless us. It was very heavy but a great feeling. It was funny watching her she definitely knew the value of money. As we gave her a 10 rupee note she rested her trunk gently on us for at least twenty seconds but the people who were giving her a 1 rupee coin literally got a bash on the head for a second and pushed to the side. Hilarious.
Along we went and into a stunning hallway,it was a bit like having a Kinder egg the main prize was in the centre but you had to keep discovering and peeling back the individual layers to get there.
Everywhere you looked was an amazing piece of artwork from sculpture to freises. The ceilings are stenciled with geometric almost fluorescent murals with painted detail echoed in the stone floor and along the walkways which you could easily miss as you cant help but look up. There are stone pillars (we were told a 1000 just in one hallway) each carved with a creatures head jumping out and staring down at you. As you weave in and out of the pillars admiring the writing etched into the stone you come across shrine after shrine of Hindu deities all worshipped as much as the next. Some of the larger ones are set back in stone fronted with a locked gate other smaller ones were carved magnificently into the pillars each dimly lit by the flickering of home made oil tea lights that are given in worship and made inside the temple from coconut a piece of wick and a kind of oil/ghee fuel. Some are covered with little balls of butter that are thrown at the deities as good luck.
We went through another entranceway fronted with tealights (1008 when all lit) which led us out into a beautiful courtyard filled with a Golden Lilly sculpture in a water filled tank again adorned with vibrant explosions of vivid colour and patterns and overlooked by the giant East gopuram with its thousands of eyes.
We watched as Hindus worshipped, prayed and gave offerings of coconut and flower garlands as the bats flew overhead and screeched voicing their approval while the house band played instruments and danced through the walkways. They were then blessed (the worshippers not the bats) with a powder of red and gold on their foreheads and fed a meal of rice on a banana leaf. It was fascinating and a real celebration of religion we were thankful to have an insight.(Hopefully the photos will do it justice)
Unfortunately we were not allowed as non-Hindu's into the inner sanctums so after spending a few hours studying the art, following someone else's guided tour and generally soaking up the spiritual atmosphere we made our way out past all the stalls of temple memorabilia and men constructing the jasmine and frangipani garlands and into the outer courtyard for a last view of the gopurams before collecting our shoes and heading back from serenity to chaos.
And we did just enter into chaos if we thought the previous day was busy we hadn't seen anything yet!!!
We pushed our way back through Town Hall Street to head to the South Main Street and the Tirumalai Nayak Palace. What we didn't realise was that being the day before the main Diwali celebrations the entire population of Madurai (922,913 people approx) would be in this particular area doing the last of their shopping for food and best sari's and outfits. (It was similar to Christmas eve at home but with a hell of a lot more people).
We were eaten up into a sea of people and swept away in the heavy flow. We couldn't turn, look around, breathe, anything, we had to face the front stay focused and hope for the best. All this while still being assaulted with the sounds and smells described from the previous day but on a much larger scale.(The nearest thing we have experienced to this volume of people is when they open the main gates at V festival and everyone surges to get in/out). It was quite overwhelming and very stressful but a fantastic experience all in one and we kept close to each other and kept moving until it came to a swell at the end of the road and people scattered into different directions. This lessened the flow of people slightly but then added vehicles into the equation so we were no better off just a bit less crushed.
Sweaty, drained but seeing the funny side we made our way to our goal destination in hope it would be worth the struggle.
We arrived outside the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, paid our 2 pound entrance fee (10p for indians) and made our way through the entrance and into a large open pavillion with stadium seating. Now were sure back in the day this was a stunning palace but it was far from anything like that. Nowadays it is a home for pigeons, drunken tramps, and tourists. We used our imaginations and saw the glory of the original features. The yellow columns and deep red paintwork, the sculptures and quirky little stained glass windows that had been kept intact made it worth a visit and in its own way its a great piece of Dravidian history, I think we had been a bit spoilt with the grandeur of the temple.
We decided to avoid the main roads and head back past St Mary's Cathedral (another stunning, imposing piece of architecture) and duck through the backstreets and alleys that run off the main streets in a maze. We were so glad we did this as we got to experience a real sense of traditional life in Madurai. These streets were filled with tiny houses and shacks where the locals came out to greet us and wish us Happy Diwali, the kids played happily among the dirt and rubbish and the goats and cattle lazed outside in the heat, A true sense of community spirit. All the children were running up to us wanting their photo taken and it was wonderful and a great relief from the manic side of city life.
Through all the chaos and activity and sleeplessness (yes we had another night without sleep as the Diwali fireworks started early here and the partying carried on all night much louder than the previous one) we loved our time in Madurai! It is a friendly place full of history and unbelievable architecture and well worth a visit.