Durga Puja

We are past the middle of the season of festivals now. Ganesha showed the way at the end of the monsoon. Now Durga is gone for the year. This season is the Indian summer, the muggy period which sets in after the end of the monsoon. The season will end in another couple of weeks, when Diwali swings around again, and signals the beginning of the winter.

I took the featured photo at a puja in Powai. I love the sight of people taking selfies in front of the idol. The Family’s Instagram stream was full of such photos.


What to drink in Madurai

When you do the simplest of searches on Madurai you come up with the unexpected word jigarthanda. “Cold heart” may be an exact translation, but I decided that “Soul soother” captures the meaning better. There are many recipes which you can find, but most agree that you need ice cream, almond gum (badam pisin) and nannari sharbat. Nannari is sarsaparilla. I could not figure out a Hindi name for it, so I don’t know whether it is used in north India.

Jigarthanda was as interesting as it was billed to be. But for a resident of Mumbai it was not a surprise; everyone will recognize it as a falooda. Is it exactly the same as a falooda? Perhaps not, and the need to make taste comparisons can keep your soul happy.

The other specialty of Madurai is the bottled drink called Bovonto. We saw this on the beaches of Pamban, but the bottles weren’t terribly well chilled. We waited until we were on its home ground to order a bottle with a lunch. And then we ordered a second.

Banana going

The defining craze of Tamil Nadu is definitely bananas, as I found out when I blogged about bananas in Chennai. A helpful fellow blogger left me with the common names of a few varieties: mala pazham, poovam pazham, rasthali, yelakki,karpooravalli, pachai vaazha pazham, nenthram. Pazham is the Tamil word for fruit.

Walking around Madurai it was not uncommon to see cartloads of bananas being pedaled past you. I managed to catch one of these carts piled high with what I assume would be called pachai vaazha pazham, ie, green fruits. This time I gave in to curiosity and checked up the web site of the National Horticultural Board. Tamil Nadu is reported to grow 11 varieties of bananas, second only to Assam, which grows 13 varieties! Here are the ones grown in Tamil Nadu: Virupakshi, Robusta, red banana, Poovan, Rasthali, Nendran, Monthan, Karpuravalli, Sakkai, Peyan, Matti. Of these Robusta is a common cultivar worldwide. The rest seem to be fairly local. I say fairly, because several of these are grown also in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Kerala.

I see a few names common between the list I got from a reader and the list from the NHB. The small banana which often rounds off a meal is either the Poovan or the Rasthali. Either could be commonly called yelakki. Some of the varieties grown in Tamil Nadu are not eaten uncooked. I wonder which they are.

A wholesale flower market

The Family and I always drift into markets while on vacation, usually to inspect the local produce. In Madurai we found the most wonderful of markets: a wholesale flower market. In moments we were lost: The Family and I wandering down different aisles, with Sathiamoorthy keeping an anxious eye on us. “How sweet of him”, The Family later said. I would have chosen a different phrase, but I agreed. But a flower market is a market above all. There is the produce, there are buyers and sellers, and then, in the shadows, are the moneybags. I chose the featured photo with this in mind. Notice the gold border on the hem of the dhoti worn by the owner reclining in the shadows behind his men.

It was clear that we had arrived past peak business hours. Some stalls were already empty, others were left with the last bags of produce, but there was still brisk trading on. We saw small resellers leaving with bags of flowers. Interestingly, the small sellers and local vendors are often women. The wholesale market is dominated by farmers, and they are always men. I noticed this when I looked at the photos again. It is a stark reminder of power and economics which I didn’t even think about as I walked about the market dazed by the colours.

Passing a temple

On the drive from Rameswaram to Madurai we passed a very large number of temples. Every village has a few temples, as does every neighbourhood in a small town. I would have liked to stop and look at the painted clay images decorating each one of them, but that would require a fully dedicated trip. Instead we chose to stop at one. This was a middle sized temple, probably dedicated to an aspect of Vishnu. I can’t read Tamil, so my guess is entirely based on the iconography that I saw.

The main entrance opened to the east, as usual. The gate was closed, but this hardly mattered because the temple lacked a northern boundary wall. I walked in through the opening and took a closer look at the dwarapalas. The friendly looking warriors were supposed to be strong enough for horses to rest their weights on them. Sages and women sheltered under the horses. If you dared to pass between them, then two benign dwarapalas invite you to ascend the steps to the door of the main temple.

Above each of these second rank of dwarapalas was an unidentifiable bird. Was it a pigeon, or a peacock, or a different pheasant? The white body spoke of a pigeon, but the beak and long tail was of a pheasant. The colourful feathery circle around it probably denoted a peacock. The artist had given himself the freedom to use any colour he liked. Why be a slave to nature?

Above the lintel of the door were the traditional symbols of peace, prosperity and good health rendered in clay: a coconut with a swastika painted on it, standing on a pot (kalasha). I didn’t pay attention to this elsewhere, but I would guess that a similar decoration would stand above the doors of most modern south Indian temples. At the base of the arch over these are two of my favourite motif: the mythical makara.

Right on top of the entrance were the figures you see above. This was what clued me in to the purpose of the temple. The god whose feet rests on a lotus is probably Vishnu. I don’t recognize the symbol in his hand, so I can’t be sure. My north Indian eyes probably missed several cues here. But the two aspects of his consort Lakshmi, each holding a lotus, are unmistakable. The elephants next to her denote that she appears as gajalakshmi, symbolizing prosperity. I was happy to see another makara head here.

The flat roof of the temple requires water spouts. Older temples had peaked roofs, so spouts were not needed to help rain water to run off. As a result, no Indian equivalent of gargoyles were invented. Today’s temple architecture could easily co-opt fish, or even makara for this purpose. I guess something will eventually emerge, but for now there are simple unadorned pipes. I liked the Ganesha statue positioned above it.

There was a small peaked shikhara above the roof. As in all Tamil temples, it was extremely well decorated. The central icon of Ram faces east, and the corners are taken up by fierce warriors. The one facing me had a benign look on his face. I found the elephants quite charming.

Further on the south wall I saw a clay icon of Krishna. Note the difference in skin colour between him and Ram. The person next to him must be his consort Radha. I liked the smiles on their faces. Contrast this with the expression on the face or Ram. There is a clear separation between the two aspects of Vishnu.

Above the warrior on the south wall, armed with his mace and heavy sword, looms another icon of a makara. This one has tusks, like the makara which appear on the pillars of the Ramanathaswamy temple. One day I will travel around Asia taking photos of how the makaras transform across the continent. But this is not that story.

Cathedral of Madurai

I’d marked St. Mary’s cathedral in Madurai as something to do if we had enough time. We passed by as we were off to an early lunch. The Family asked “Why don’t we take a look?” It sounded like a good idea, so we stopped the car and walked in. Someone had set up shop right outside the gate. I looked at it in passing and thought that this was exactly the kind of thing which I would spend my pocket money on when I was a school child. Sure enough, when we were leaving two school boys were buying little treats here. That’s the featured photo.

Just inside the gate we had a good view of the two steeples flanking the entrance. It looked very festive; either some festival had just got over, or would take place soon. The plastic chairs piled up echoed the blue-and-white colour scheme of the facade. It was a big church, so I was a little surprised that they would need extra chairs. When I looked at the web site of the cathedral, I realized that the congregation was big enough that it might need the chairs on special days. Apparently the church was expanded a couple of times since it was built in 1841 CE, and I wondered whether it would be able to do that again.

The stained glass above the entrance was bright but quite simple. The rose window was also a simple pattern. I wonder why I did not take a photo. Perhaps it was because I was quite overwhelmed by the interior as I entered. The church was dressed up in pink and blue, with paper streamers strung between pillars and hanging from the roof. I wondered whether it had anything to do with the St. Mary who the church is named for, and it was. We’d arrived halfway between two days devoted to her.

I liked the flowers massed before the altar. The Family and I walked over to look at it. The church was very warm, although there were fans circulating air, and windows along the sides were open. We sat down on one of the benches under a fan, and looked around. The walls were painted white and orange, but there were gold highlights in various places.

Just above us a plaster cherub smiled down from his place on a pillar. The bright colour scheme was rendered louder by the decorations for the feast. I looked around and saw the next cherub frowning at me. I decided to take a photo of the friendlier one. I didn’t look at the other to check whether his frown had changed to a scowl.

I’d cooled down enough to walk around again. I’d missed the decorated statue of the Virgin on one side of the apse. It was the kind of painted clay idol which we’d seen on temples everywhere in and around Madurai. “Probably done by the same people,” I told The Family. She agreed. These statues are not replaced so very often, so there can’t be too many people making them, we thought. Later in the day we would find out how wrong we were.

Off on one side I saw a painted relief. I’m not sure I know the story which is being told here, but I noticed that the modeling of human figures and expressions was quite good. When the church was built enough money must have been spent to get the best of artisans and artists to decorate it. Lunch called us. We walked out, past schoolboys buying little treats from the auntie at the gate, pausing only to take a photo.

The north gopuram of the Meenakshi temple

The Meenakshi temple was rebuilt in the 16th century CE. The 47 meter high north gopuram was built in the second half of the 16th century by one of the Nayak kings. This tower was my first sight of the Meenakshi temple. The east gopuram is the closest entrance to the parking lot, but the crowds are thinner here. So we made our way to the entrance. We had to leave our footwear and phones and other electronics at a booth outside the temple, and proceed through a metal detector and a pat-down search. Everything was orderly and quick. When we came out again I looked carefully at the sculptures on the gopuram.

This gate was completed only in the 19th century CE. In the intervening three centuries it had come to be called mottai gopuram, meaning a roofless gate. I guess the four hundred odd sculptures which decorate this tower date from the 16th century. Apparently there is a twelve year cycle of maintenance and repair. The sculptures looked in fairly good shape. My first reaction on seeing these decorations was that the colour scheme was much more muted than in the modern temples that I’d seen. Could this mean that the unusual colour combinations that I’d seen elsewhere were a twentieth century style?

As we walked back towards the parking lot, I realized that the outer walls of the temple had decorations spaced regularly. This is a Shaiva temple; Meenakshi is the consort of Shiva. In a Vaishnav temple I would think that the figure in the photo above is a cowherd, associated with Krishna, who is an avatar of Vishnu. But in a Shaiva temple I’m not sure how I should interpret this fierce guy flanked by two cows. I ran into these problems of interpretation every now and then. It seems that a large fraction of the figures which decorate the temple refer to the usual pan-Indian mythology, but there is a significant part of these which deal with local stories. I would need help to understand those.

Meenakshi Temple Gripes

I fell in love with the Meenakshi temple of Madurai. Today you can only photograph it from outside, because security requires that you do not carry any electronics in. If a camera were allowed inside, I could have spent days photographing the incredible architecture, the tall columns and the clever use of sunlight, and the sheer scale of the temple. I could capture none of this. The colourful processions of priests, accompanied by nadaswaram and cymbals, the little foodstalls where the only things I recognized by name were laddus and murukku, the people waiting patiently for a darshan, are all things that I have to narrate. Cameras were allowed earlier, and I hope that peace returns to the world so that they can be allowed again.

In the intervening years we will all have to do what I did. Spend time walking around the temple, taking photos of the gopura. This will be a long story. I begin with my first glimpse of the east gopuram. This is supposed to be the oldest of the outer gopura, and was built in the early part of the 13th century.

Great food you won’t see on Instagram

I love the ritual of eating on a banana leaf: sprinkling just enough water over it to clean it without drenching it. I’d just cleaned the leaf which was put in front of us when we sat down in Kumar’s Mess in Madurai. Before I could look at the menu, one of the waiters came by with fried meat balls and asked whether I would like some. That’s a no-brainer. I took the default, so did The Family and Sathiamoorthy.

Earlier, when I told Sathiamoorthy that I would like to have my first lunch in Madurai at Kumar’s, he seemed very happy. It seemed to be a place he was fond of. You had to climb a flight of stairs to the restaurant. At the bottom of the stairs some printouts advertising the day’s special were pinned to a board. They looked interesting. Turkey is already more variety than you would find in most restaurants in Mumbai. When I looked at the menu I was blown away: rabbit, dove, and quail! This is in addition to Tamil Nadu’s special fishes: airai and nettheli. We were in for a treat, clearly.

The Family and I agreed to start with an order of rabbit. Sathiammorthy asked for nandu, Tamil for crab. We were halfway through the rabbit before I realized that I was supposed to take photos of what we ate. This food was incredibly flavourful, but that does not translate to great visuals. You are unlikely to see really great Instagram shots of Chettinad food. The typical good kitchen is focused on flavours and ingredients; presentation is not a winning point.

A very friendly waiter hovered around us. After he told us about the rabbit chukka (chukka turns out to be the local word for a dry preparation, possibly derived from the Hindi sukha) he guided us through the rest of the menu. There were the intriguing fish dosai. The Family made an instant decision when she noticed this. The previous incarnations which I’ve dispatched were all thin crepes wrapped around fish, looking just like any other dosai. This one was the thick pancake which you see in the photo above. Wonderfully redolent of fish, but a surprise in the way it was put together.

Having read any number of breathless blogs about kothu porotta in Madurai, I couldn’t possibly pass up the version with mutton. I was surprised again by the look of what I got. It looked more like a farmer’s omelette, and was quite as heavy. My visions of working through the menu were clearly fantasy, if these were regular servings. After working our way though the kothu porotta and fish dosai, I had to turn down Sathiamoorthy’s generous offer of sharing a crab. Everything I’d tasted was wonderful, including the buttermilk with which we washed down our food.

I didn’t have enough days to try out everything, but it was already clear that what passes for Chettinad food in Chennai is a pale shadow of this. Madurai is food heaven if you want to taste Tamil food.

Temple life

The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is such a grand structure that I had to take it slowly, in little bits and pieces. Here was my first gentle entry into the life of the temple: a squirrel which skittered along a wall before I could take a photo. Then it paused on the far side with the brush of its tail showing above the wall. I had a sudden sharp memory of buying very delicate paint brushes when I was a school child; they were made of squirrel hair.

In Tamil Nadu red and white stripes on a building denote a temple.