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.


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.