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.

One meter of coffee, please

Everything had gone well. We missed all traffic in Mumbai because we had to reach the airport in the middle of the morning on a holiday. It was the beginning of the Ganesh festival, but it was too early for crowds. The flight was on time. Sathiamoorthy was waiting for us at the airport in Madurai with his car: a clean and well-maintained little thing, just right for the two of us at the back. We were on the highway almost immediately.

Before I was prepared for anything to happen, I saw one of the odd sights that trips usually hand you: an elephant riding a truck. I fumbled for my phone and took a bad shot as we passed by. What was it doing on a truck. Tame elephants just walk from one place to another. Maybe this was being taken too far away for a half day’s walk. It didn’t look unhappy with its situation. We zipped along, and I was fairly sure that we would reach Rameswaram in three hours, just after sunset.

Our luck ran out soon, as we hit a road block. Tamil Nadu has been in a political turmoil recently, with two major party leaders dying. Parties have to keep spirits up in such situations. One party had a campaign in which workers cycled from village to village. They were going to use the same route that we planned to use; so the roadblock. We had to wait until the whole cavalcade passed. The police and the political workers were a friendly lot, so I managed to take some photos.

The Family decided to make use of the stop to get some coffee. Right at the crossing there was a small highway food stall. The usual small snacks, tea, and coffee were available. I looked at the goodies on display and got a hundred grams of wonderfully crisp ragi murukku to go with the coffee. The filter coffee is always the star of the show in Tamil Nadu, and this place was no disappointment. The piping hot coffee was poured into a small cup in a meter long stream for each of us. The aroma, the sweet milky taste, and the jolt of caffeine wake you into the beginning of a holiday.

Unfortunately we were delayed by a couple of hours between the roadblock and a detour. We reached Rameswaram late.

The kings of the South

When I plan to travel, some parts of southern India slip out of my mind. I recently remembered that Madurai is as old as Ujjain, Banaras, or Patna. This post is an attempt to get the outline of the chronology straight in my mind.

The statecraft of the Pandya, Chola and Chera kingdoms find mention in the 3rd century BCE treatise on administration and economics called Arthashastra. Ashoka’s edicts, from about this time, mention some of these kings. Trade routes linked the northern and southern kingdoms, and Ujjain, which lay on one of these routes, prospered as a result. This early period of Tamil culture was recorded in the literature of this, the Sangam, era. The literary tradition is believed to have continued until about the end of the 4th century CE. Madurai hosted some of these early meetings (called sangam) of poets, playwrights, and writers.

The next records come from the early period of Hindu revival in the 7th century CE. The shore temples of Mahabalipuram (featured photo) were built in the the early part of the 8th century CE by a Pallava king. There was a resurgence of the Pandyas of Madurai at this time. The conflict between the Pallavas and Pandyas presented an opportunity for the growth of the Chola empire. By the 11th century this empire extended all the way to South East Asia. The southern kingdoms were great sea traders, having links to the east as well as westwards to Africa and the Arabs. The earliest known travel guide, the Skanda Purana, from just before the start of this era, lists several sites in southern India as important points in grand religious tours of India. There are scattered remnants of the great architectural works of this time through the south of India, but most of the sites mentioned in the Skanda Purana were rebuilt later.

The medieval period was a time of warring kingdoms. The slow decline of the Cholas allowed smaller kingdoms to gain hold again. The rise and fall of these kingdoms was interrupted by outside events in the 13th century CE. During the Mongol era, the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate was contained within India. Iltutmish of Delhi held off the hordes of Genghis Khan to the west of the Indus, but also sent his forces as far south as Madurai, which his generals sacked in 1316 CE. This led to the formation of the Sultanate of Madurai, independent of Delhi, The subsequent centuries, with their mix of Hindu and Muslim kingdoms saw some of the best of the architecture that we can see today.

In the 17th century CE, the Maratha armies captured parts of Tamil Nadu, and were then displaced by the Mughals. In the power vacuum of the later Mughal period, local kings again held power. Many of the major temples of southern India were rebuilt or extended in the 17th and 18th centuries. After this European maritime powers captured large parts of southern India and launched operations into the rest of India from these bases.

Heading for the hills

Map of the Munnar-Valparai-Kodai area

April is pretty cruel over most of the Indian plains. Just the right time to head to the hills. Unfortunately the Himalayas are a little too far for a quick trip, and the Sahayadris are not high enough to provide a respite from the hot and humid weather in Mumbai. Our thoughts turned to the region where we spent a nice weekend about a year back. We just heard about Valparai, booked a hotel, and went off. So now, we looked at the map and realized that we had found an area ripe for summer.

The hot plains towns of the south, Kochi on the Kerala coast, Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, form a tringle of entry points to the wonderful hill towns of the Western ghats. The most well-known of these are Munnar in Kerala and Kodaikanal and Valparai in Tamil Nadu. Forests, now protected, rise from the plains at the foot of the Ghats to the elevation of around 1500 meters, which is about the altitude of most of these hill towns. They still hold spectacular species of animals like the Nilgiri Tahr and lion-tailed macaques, along with such a variety of birds that just thinking of them puts a shine in The Family’s eyes. When you peer deeper into the map you find more half-forgotten names from your long-ago school days. There is space here for a lifetime of summers. We will be scratching the surface with a weekend’s trip.

So where do we go? Kochi to Munnar or Madurai to Kodaikanal? Any tips?

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.