Madurai, our next stop would be where we visit the stunning Hindu Meenaskshi Temple and the incredible Gandhi Memorial Museum where we learn of India’s struggle for independence.
First, though, we had to get there. We’d cancelled the train ticket and bought one for the non-air conditioned bus.
We were sat in third row back on the right hand side of the small bus happily reading as other folks started to board. After perhaps 15 minutes of yelling and arguing, the most vocal of the men turned to us and said rudely with more than a little venom that if we didn’t move, then the bus wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Stunned, we realized the entire bus was arguing about us. Or rather the seats we’d been assigned by the driver.
It turned out that everyone on the bus had taken it down from Madurai to Rameswaram and then to Kanyakumari and were now taking the bus home to Madurai. Loud Argumentative Indian Man had been sat in the same seat for three consecutive journeys and if he didn’t get it for the fourth, none of us were going anywhere.
There might have been a few whispered expletives, but we were all sweetness and light in suggesting that instead of just yelling, someone might have actually explained this to us and that we’d be the adults in this relationship and take an alternative seat.
Teenage strop now dealt with, the bus was free to set off. And so we bounced and jiggled (we had the back – or last – seat of course) for the 5 or so hours it took to get to Madurai for our 300 INR (US$4.72, GBP 3.07) each fares.
One of the oldest cities in India, Madurai traded with ancient Rome and has documented existence since the 3rd century BC. The Sri Meenakshi Temple was built mostly between 1623 and 1659. We’re here to see that as well as the museum dedicated to Gandhi. Sadly the Madurai Fort was razed by the British East India Company in 1840.
First stop for us in Madurai is the Hindu Meenaskshi Temple. It’s an entire complex, covering 6 hectares, with 12 tall gopurams. A gopuram is a monumental tower, usually very ornate at the entrance to a temple. They are covered in gods, goddesses, demons and heroes – there are 1511 on a single gopuram here.
They are quite beautiful. Colorful, ornate, delicate, detailed.
We’re directed to a specific entrance (the Southern) where we have to leave our bags. But not our valuables. This becomes a constant pain, as we carry our day packs BECAUSE we want to keep our valuables with us. Here in Madurai the leaving of bags seems more of a revenue opportunity than a security risk. That’s despite the signs that the bag check is free. Those checking your bags will pester you for a tip when you return to retrieve your bag.
We leave our shoes at the entrance too and subject our soft western feet to the girt, gravel and dirt on our way to the temple entrance. (it’s worse when we return, as we’re directed to the street before we can retrieve our shoes).
This temple is the home of the triple-breasted Goddess Meenakshi – an incarnation of Parvati, Shiva’s consort. Meenaskshi in Tamil poetry is fish-eyed, or perfect eyes. According to legend Meenakshi was born with three breasts. The third being said to melt away when she met her future husband. This happened when she met Shiva
While we can’t enter the main shrine as we’re so obviously not Hindu, it’s glorious to walk around. Our heads are craned mostly upwards to view the stunning gopurams in the outer yard.
Throughout our time in India we wear full length trousers and often long sleeves too, conservative dress is specifically required in temples.
The Pudhu Mandapa near the eastern gate is a gorgeous 100 meter long pillared hall dating from the 16th century. It’s filled mainly with stalls selling flowers and religious trinkets, but it’s the ceiling that stuns with it’s magnificence.
It’s a truly stunning introduction to Indian temples.
Our second reason for visiting Madurai is the father of the Indian nation and a museum dedicated to his memory. It was here in 1921 that Gandhi took up the wearing of the traditional “dhoti” – the white loin cloth – as a sign of his native pride.
The Gandhi Memorial Museum, is actually a very detailed history of India’s struggle for independence. As I explained to Indian friends afterwards, described in such a way that I felt the need to apologize for being British to each Indian that I met afterwards.
We took an auto-rickshaw to the museum, which is found in a beautiful 17th century palace. It’s free to enter (whatever your nationality), although there is a 50 INR “donation” if you want to take photos. Your conscience will decide if you pay or not. The museum is open from 10-1, 2-545 and is closed on a Friday.
Telling the story of the fight for independence through quotes and historical reference It’s delivered in a highly jingoistic language The museum also details the development of the Indian flag before its adoption in 1947.
Gandhi’s early life and work are detailed, with printed excerpts and hand written notes.
This is a highly detailed museum and per usual, we took a long time to go round it. It was, however, towards the end rather wearyingly detailed.
Poignantly, the museum also houses the dhoti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated in Delhi in 1948.
It was our first introduction to Gandhi’s India. It won’t be be the last time, by a long way),that we’ll see some of the impact of the father of India.
Our walk back to the Kathir Palace Hotel took us through the heart of Madurai, past those going about their business and daily lives.
And it gave us our first introduction to the sacred cow of India- wandering freely through countryside and city streets alike. It’s interesting as an outsider to see traffic part, and give way too.
The Loud Argumentative Indian Man on the bus amused us more than annoyed us. We’re not put off buses yet, so we’ll be taking the overnight bus from the north of the city. At 550 INR (US$8.67, GBP 5.62) we get to share a double “bunk”. The journey goes from 10pm until we arrive in our next destination. That’s Pondicherry at around 5am, so until then..
- Where we stayed – the Kathir Palace
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