The highlight of anyone’s visit to Madurai is the Meenakshi Amman temple, the colourful towers dominating the city.
We have done it justice, visiting first thing in the morning and going back in the evening for the ceremony which happens every day. Or does it? We have had so much conflicting advice. Some say it happens every day at 9 pm. Others say it is every day except Friday, which is 9.30. Others say it is not every day, maybe only a smaller version might take place.
Luckily, with several evenings to choose from, time is on our side. The first evening we sit around outside the temple walls until 8.50 pm. Luckily an Indian woman on holiday from further north lets us know there is no procession tonight after all (despite advice on the day from a shopkeeper, a policeman and others).
The second evening, it’s a Friday, so we know to expect it to be a little later. And we know that the procession is inside the temple walls, not outside. So we have already cleared the strict security measures, deposited our phones, cameras, shoes and bags. It’s actually very liberating to walk barefoot around a place of worship (or anywhere for that matter) armed only with your reading glasses and a bit of petty cash.
A couple from Australia who have a guide tell us that apparently the start time depends a bit on the alignment of the stars and it is up to the Brahmin to decide. Eventually the bells ring to signify the start at 10 pm.
Out of the inner sanctum bursts a fast-moving crowd of worshippers led by Brahmin carrying a small silver chariot on their bare shoulders. (I am not sure why they can bare their shoulders, chests and knees but no one else can.)
They had music (a long clarinet-like thing, a drum, bells), fire on forks, and smoke. A lot of smoke. If it was incense I didn’t really smell it. They walk around the shrines and then make a lot of noise before going in the inner sanctum.
God knows what Shiva would make of it.
We were told all about Shiva on an excellent Storytrails walking tour of the city. In three hours my attention span didn’t waver, but please don’t ask me to repeat it all.
Our guide Swarna told us about the 33 million gods in Hinduism, how Shiva is the destructor and likes to dance, and that he married Meenakshi, who had three breasts. It is astonishing what the Indians will worship.
We passed the statue of Nandi, a bull. ‘How did Indians get around in those days?’ asked Swarna. ‘Tuk-tuk,’ David guessed.
No, the bull was Shiva’s steed. Nandi tried to get in the way when some intruder was around (interrupting something or other) and still to this day if you are in the way, Indians will say ‘Don’t be a Nandi.’
We went to a commercial building which sold furniture and fabrics, and it turned out there was a shrine inside, though it was a shrine that had been built inside the building, rather than a building having been built around the shrine. Something about Shiva’s mother-in-law wanting to die rather than keep being reborn for ever so she had to drink water from the Seven Seas. Shiva had water from each sea brought to her.
David managed to steal Swarna’s mother-in-law punchline.
It’s great some days to have ‘no plan’. We did that for a couple of hours in Madurai, not consulting maps.me and not knowing where we were. Smiley kids in school uniforms always say hello; cows in the street – I saw one tethered while a woman put a plastic bag behind it and collected the dung directly; nowhere to find a cold air conditioned cafe; nowhere to buy toilet paper (we have resorted to taking paper napkins from restaurants); everywhere small temples or icons; women in orange hi-vis jackets over their saris sweeping dust and litter, meaning it is surprisingly litter-free in many areas.
We stopped at a pharmacy to buy toothpaste, razors and mossie cream. The man wasn’t particularly helpful, each time he picked something up he smacked it and a plume of grey dust bounced back into the air, and then he slapped it down on the counter. Boots it is not. And he didn’t sell toilet paper or tissues either.
The great thing about choosing to stay in an AirBnB, as we have done in Madurai, is that you get to live in a local neighbourhood. Each morning, as we set off, people say ‘Good morning.’ The first day, a man even said ‘Welcome.’
We will miss our little corner of Madurai. Today, as we walked home, a man asked if he could have a selfie with us, his wife and two children. David takes the chance to take a few photos and then they take a group picture on their mobile phone.
‘Are you staying around here?’ he asks us.
‘Yes. With Saravana.’
‘Ah. Saravana. My brother. I am Rajah. Nice to meet you.’
I think he said something about going round to his place for dinner tomorrow.
Well what are the chances of that? Somehow we don’t think he is really his brother, perhaps a friend, perhaps a neighbour, perhaps he doesn’t even know him.
David shook his hand. I couldn’t as I had a fistful of four mini bananas.
Back home, we ring the bell as usual to be let in as the shutters at the front are padlocked. An old woman opens the gate.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I am Rajah’s mother.’
I am totally flummoxed.
We have explored the streets and alleys in each direction. We have to, because when breakfast is not included, you have to get going to see where you can find a little sustenance and David’s first much-needed coffee.
The other day, after an early start for a temple visit, we went to the first place that sold coffee. We sat on dirty little bench seats in the tiny shop. David’s coffee was good enough to order a second. My tea was horrid and I couldn’t finish it as it kept developing a skin on the top. The man pulled up a plastic stool for me and spilt the tea as he served it, apologised but didn’t do anything about it. Then the other man walked past and nudged it further. It was a blessing really, I didn’t want to drink it all.
The first rule of Indian cafes and restaurants is that whatever you first ask for will not be available. The bakery where people are drinking chai, no they don’t sell black coffee – you go to the corner shop across the road for that.
The stall which has pictures of pizza and the words ‘Pizza’… No, they only have dosas and vadas tonight.
Now, every time the waiter declines with a shake of the head, David says ‘No, I thought not. I was only joking.’ I am wondering who will pick up on his sarcasm.
Sometimes they speak at us in Tamil as if we will understand the more they say something. Maybe we do the same back in English!
So far on this journey we have been pretty lucky to find quirky cafes and reasonable restaurants, many of which cater to the tourist trade. They were never hard to find. Here in Madurai, the choice is only local – and always ridiculously cheap. We are paying about £2 at mealtimes – that is the total bill for us both. And that usually means that you don’t want to look too closely. When we stopped at one place for a small lunch, it was only after we finished that the cockroach nearly crawled over my foot.
In one restaurant we visited there were no toilets, but there was a ‘wash room’. Four basins in a room so you could wash your hands before and after your meal.
It’s amazing to watch people eat a meal with no fork and knife. They dunk their idlees, fold their dosas and scrunch up rice in a ball all with their right hand only.
The left hand, of course, is for something else entirely.
As David said, you’ve got to be careful you don’t confuse the two because you don’t want rice between your cheeks.
Next stop Munnar.