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.

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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.

Teppakulam

We did the drive from Aryaman beach to Madurai in the hottest part of the day. The car air conditioning laboured hard to keep the metal box warm as it sped across a hot plain next to the Vaigai river, swollen with the waters from the fringes of the weather pattern which flooded Kerala in the previous week. I was fighting a losing battle with sleep when I spotted the temple gopuram which you can see in the featured photo. I sat up and asked Sathiamoorthy whether we were in Madurai. He said “Yes. This is the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.”

The temple tank, called a teppakulam, is historic. I’d read somewhere that the Nayak kings’ palace of Madurai was built with bricks made from mud dug out from here. The pit was then remodelled into Tamil Nadu’s largest temple tank. In a festival which begin in January, the idols of Meenakshi and her consort are carried from their temple in the center of the old city to this place. I’d seen photos where the tank was full of water. The game of cricket being played in the grassy bottom of the dry tank was not something I’d expected to see.

Tamil Nadu is in rain shadow during the Indian Ocean summer monsoon. It gets its rain in a later pattern which starts in late September. We’d got an early shower or two. I wondered whether the tank would be full by January. I’m sure the festival is colourful. Maybe I will come back to see it one day.

Doors on wheels

On my way into Madurai I looked out of the car and saw the perfect subject for today’s post. A single door was trundling along the road on the back of a rickshaw. Driving a rickshaw needs a bit of skill, since the pedals are harder than a bicycle, and you really need to push down on them. The hardest part is to start. After it is going, on a level road inertia is a bit of help, and you spend less effort than in starting. By the looks of it, this man wants to give the rickshaw a running start.

Food in Aryaman Beach

Around the parking lot in Aryaman beach are food stalls. I strolled around the perimeter looking at the choices available. We’d planned on eating at the beach, after the previous day’s spectacular lunch prepared by fishermen in Dhanushkodi. There were the obligatory few ice cream vendors. As you can see in the photo below, they weren’t doing much business. Elsewhere people were just setting up their make-shift stalls and cleaning out pots and pans. It looked like it was too early in the day for customers to turn up.

On one edge of the parking lot someone had already started frying fish. I liked the roof: a canvas hoarding for a movie would lead a zombie life here providing shade (photo below). No coal fire in this stall; the cook was using wood. He’d probably just collected it from the area around him, because the wood was not completely dry. The fire sputtered a little, and produced quite a bit of smoke. The fish sizzled in hot oil. Any time is fried fish time I suppose, but maybe not just before you get into the water. There didn’t seem to be a cooler full of fish with these guys, so either they just shut down their shop when the fish on display was sold, or they got fresh supplies from local fishermen.

Fishing boats were drawn up on the beach. Fishing nets had dried and were bundled up next to the boats. Maybe they fish at night here, like the fisherfolk in Mumbai. We walked along the beach and came across two men washing cleaned fish in the waters of the Palk straits. Sathiamoorthy had many questions for them while I took photos. In the featured photo you can see how gentle the slope of the beach is. Sathiamoorthy summarized the long conversation for us. These were not fishermen, but they’d bought the pan full of fish from the morning’s landing. They are preparing for people who’ll appear for lunch. There wasn’t much choice of catch here, so we decided to drive on.

Stopping by a beach on a hot morning

When I was looking for a hotel in Pamban island, one suggestion thrown up by a search was on Aryaman beach. I searched for this beach and found it described in superlatives: silky sand, long beach, beautiful, uncrowded. But it was ten kilometers away from Pamban, on the mainland, so we decided not to stay here. But it sounded like the perfect place to stop after an early check out when we left Rameswaram. Our plan to spend the morning here, eat something on the beach if possible, and then to go on to Madurai.

Sathiamoorthy was excited about it. While driving he told us that it became famous after it was used as a location for a blockbuster Tamil movie. I filed the information away to check on later. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to search out this movie (if you have a clue, please leave a comment). As he parked he said that something should be done to improve the beach. Why, was it dirty? No, there was just no place to eat here.

It is a lovely beach. The sand is indeed silky smooth. The beach slopes very gently into the calm waters of the Palk Strait. It was a hot day; we saw a few families with children taking dips in the sea. Little fish swam in the shallow wate. We spotted a turtle swim away into the sea. But for our tastes the sea was too calm, almost a swimming pool. The lack of waves also meant that there was no breeze. If we’d been here really early, we might have enjoyed a long walk along the beach. You can see in the featured photo how long it is. But it was getting too hot for comfort, and we called an end to our morning. We had miles to go before lunch.

Snacking on a beach

Across the world there’s always food on the beach. Ice cream is a standard, and Dhanushkodi was no exception. No stalls or trucks, though. Ice cream was served out of the back of a three wheeler along this beach. I liked the attention to fashion that this ice cream man showed. The haircut is copied from Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, and so is the body language. He’d just shown the kid his place for asking for a flavour he did not have. He wasn’t put off at not having made a sale. But then Kohli is not very put off by not winning a match.

What The Family and I couldn’t have enough of was the other staple on this beach: slices of cucumber, pineapple and watermelon, with a dash of powdered red chili sprinkled over them. The beach was lined with women selling these long slices in paper cups. The cucumber and melon was grown on the island, we were told, but the pineapple comes from inland. On a hot day on the beach, the juicy fruits with their jolt of sugar and chili were addictive.

Three temples

Rameswaram is a temple town, centered on the ancient temple of Ramanathaswamy, which is another name for Shiva. Every few centuries a layer of gopura (gates) was added to the core temple with the shiva lingas. No cameras are allowed inside. We walked through the famous corridors, gaping at the long painted outermost corridor lined with statues. Then we passed into the next circle; no plaster and colour here, only finely carved stone. The carvings were finest and most exuberant in the innermost layer.

Later in the day I was at the western gopuram while the setting sun shone on it. This was a wonderful sight, I thought, as I took the featured photo. In this wonderful light I could zoom in on the clay idols which decorate the gopuram. At the top is a gigantic representation of the mythical Makara. This recurs in the rest of the structure as well. But the different layers of the structure contain well-modeled human figures. I could see elements of the Ramayana depicted here. The uniform golden colour of the gates of this temple are unusual.

This style of decoration is followed in smaller temples. At the edge of Rameswaram town, on the way to Dhanushkodi, we saw a temple to Nayaki Amman. The gate was simple: two pillars with a beam laid across it. This is a modern temple, so the gate was made of concrete, with baked clay idols put over it as decoration. The bright colours are characteristic of south Indian temples. The female figures on the pillars are modelled pretty well, although I found it difficult to tell because of the foreshortening. The figures over the beam are less well done.

On the way to the Pamban bridge I saw this lonely but bright temple on the sea side. In the bright sulight it looked like it could have been the subject of a painting by an Indian De Chirico. Coming closer, I realized that it was a temple for Kali. I’d begun to recognize the red and white stripes as a sign denoting a temple. There was no one around, except a person who tried to sell us sliced fruit.

The clay figures decorating the spire above the temple were clearly the work of an amateur. Parvati, Ganesha and Murugan were done fairly well for an amateur. They stand in wooden poses, but are not misshapen. The lions, on the other hand, are clearly done by an artist who has never seen the animal. I would see such extremes in temples through the rest of the trip. As always, the quality of the work depends on whether you are able to pay for the services of a good artisan.

Freshwater on a beach

I’m a city person. As far as I’m concerned, water comes out of a tap. I’d not thought much about the water supply to the fishermen who live in Dhanushkodi until I noticed a woman drawing water from a well outside the church of coral. Suddenly the absurdity of my assumption struck me: the villagers could not possibly have had water piped in from the mainland. I walked up to the well and looked in. The water was fairly close to the surface. I wondered whether this was potable water, or strongly contaminated by the sea. At lunch we asked the fisher family which managed the shack we ate in. They said that they could drink the water. I was intrigued by the shallow aquifer near the sea.

There must be studies of this, The Family said. A quick search led me to many studies of the quality of ground water in this region. It seems that seepage of sea water into these aquifers is a continuing problem. But the papers don’t answer the question which puzzles me: how large must the aquifers be on this island? It has seen large numbers of visitors over centuries, even before the population exploded in the last hundred years or so. For there to be any potable water at all, the aquifers must be either large, or quickly replenished.

There is a lot about the geology of this area that is not well understood. The Ramarpalam which is visible above the ground, and the water table below are probably just two aspects of the interesting geology of this area.