Sunset at the west gate of Meenakshi temple

We saw the west gopuram of the Meenakshi temple in the best possible light. It was late in the afternoon, just before the sun dipped below the line of the buildings around it. When we reached, the long shadows of these buildings had begun to creep across the road, and by the time we left they were climbing up the walls of the tower. This 47 meter high tower is the second oldest of the outer gopura, having been built between 1315 and 1347 CE in the reign of the Pandya king Parakrama.

By the time I came to this tower my confusion was complete. I’d expected that this temple to Meenakshi, consort of Shiva, was firmly in the Shaiva tradition. On the other hand, this gopuram has an image of Vishnu’s avatar as Narasimha, and several other Vaishnava images. Later reading told me that, in the south Indian tradition, Meenakshi is Vishnu’s sister. As a result, this temple is important in both traditions.

That certainly put a lot of the imagery in perspective.

A fruit market

My first encounter with trigonometry had left me completely at sea. A person whose day job was to run a wholesale fruit business was found to be a suitable tutor by my family. I spent a couple of days in his shop, listening to his explanations, while crates of fruit were loaded and unloaded around me. Although he never complained about his job, it was clear that he loved maths. He also explained it well. This turned out to be a very fruitful time for me, so to say. Angles and distances have never bothered me since then. I also understood that among the scores of boxes of fruits, one or two pieces would be bruised, and over ripe. They would fill the surroundings with a heady smell.

I took a walk through Simmakkal fruit market in Madurai with my phone at the ready, and recognized this smell of ripening oranges and pineapples. I saw people picking out and separating these fruits, just as my erstwhile tutor would. Most people were busy but friendly, and smiled at the camera if they noticed me. Just one turned her face away. Now looking at these photos as I edit them, I wonder whether there are people here whose hearts and minds are not in the business they are engaged in. Could there be secret mathematicians, novelists or sculptors among the people I saw in this fruit market?

Pudhu mandapam

Pudhu Mandapam (literally, new pavilion) stands outside the east gopuram of the Meenakshi temple. Today it is mainly a market full of jewellery, cloth, and tailors. It looked totally incongruous, makeshift shops cluttered at the base of wonderful 17th century sculptures. It was constructed between 1628 and 1635 CE, during the reign of Thirumala Nayakkar, as a place for temple festivals.

My first view of the place was at night just as it was being locked down. We returned the next afternoon to look at it again. We walked through the large 100 meters by 32 meters rectangular structure, held up by 124 pillars. Each pillar is worth looking at. The gallery above contains some of the highlights: the lions bowing to the gods and kings who pass through these corridors, the dancers celebrating the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareswar, Meenakshi with three breasts, in her aspect of nurture. Other sculptures commemorate the Nayak kings. I’m sure a person more well-read than me in Tamil history will be able to identify them by name. The Family took a few photos of the tailors at work, one of them is included in the gallery here.

It seems that the surrounding market spilled into this mandapam in 1902. I wonder how the place looked before it became encased in a nest of wires, haphazardly erected stalls, and oddly placed lights.

Quick breakfasts

We had a long breakfast before starting, but The Family proposed a short break for a filter coffee. I thought it was a wonderful idea. But 10:30 in the morning turns out to be a little late for coffee in Madurai. Most of the wonderful little holes in the wall declared that it was too late.

Satghiamoorthy was not a person who gave up easily. He found a promising place within a few hundred meters. We crossed the road and went up to the stall to check, and found we were in luck. While we had our long coffee we saw that there was still a trickle of people coming in for their elevenses.

There were plates of pakoras laid out next to the cashier. At a counter inside idlis and vadas were piled high. This is what is called tiffin in Tamil Nadu, the small snacks which you can find all day. The previous night we did not want a large meal for dinner, and found a little shop where we had a serving of idlis. I’m sure most places make competent idlis in Madurai, just as they make competent coffee. We finished our competent coffee and were ready to start the day.

Cock fights

I saw a very lean cock strutting about a little village we passed through. It couldn’t possibly be the kind of free range chicken which is good to eat, I thought. There was too little meat on it. Only when I saw its other wing, bloody from cuts, that the penny dropped.

This was a fighting cock. I’d only seen photos of black fighting cocks before; the white variety was new to me. A law passed in 1960 made all animal fights illegal, but a search will immediately yield reports and videos of fights.

The amazing south gate of the Meenakshi temple

I don’t think it is incorrect to call the south gopuram the high point of our visits to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Its 49 meters of height makes it the tallest of the towers of the Meenakshi temple. The web page of the temple trust records that it was constructed in 1559 CE by Siramalai Sevanthi Murthy Chetti. I couldn’t find any information about the donor. I guess he must have been a rich merchant, because the custom of businessmen donating to, or constructing, temples persists even today.

This tall tower is said to be decorated with 1511 figures. I liked the colours. The figures in the Meenakshi temple are very colourful, but not nearly as bright as in the small modern neighbourhood temples. This gate seems to be at the end of the 12 year cycle of restoration. I wished I’d come here with binoculars. In the absence of a pair, The Family and I clicked away at everything that caught our attention. You can see a small sample of them in the gallery above (as always, click on any photo to start a slideshow).

Treatise on Arts

It is often said that the old city of Madurai is laid out according to the principles of the Shilpa Shastra, a set of Sanskrit texts which together make up a treatise on the sixty four classical arts. In actual practice, it means that the streets are laid out in concentric squares surrounding the square ground plan of the Meenakshi temple. The primary axis of the city runs east-west, facing the Vaigai river to the east. We spent a couple of afternoons in the innermost layer of the old city. This is the Chittarai street, which runs around the temple wall.

The afternoons were hot, and sensible people kept indoors. In response, many of the shops were closed. You had to be a crazy photographer on a limited time-budget to look for street life at this time. The Family ducked into jewelry shops which line the street and emerged with occasional bargains to display. This area is known for jewelry, clothing, and bookshops. By and large the bookshops were closed.

I saw a large family waiting in the queue to get into the temple. A young boy broke away to go sit in the shade below one of the bookstores. The father was not very pleased, but the boy successfully convinced his father that he would sit in the shade until the rest of the family reached the head of the queue. This distraction gave me enough time to take a photo. After a while the boy’s younger sister joined him in the shade.

Most doors which were closed were locked up. The one which you see above was just tied shut. It didn’t have a signboard. Was it a business? If it was, then wasn’t the owner worried about the merchandise being stolen? I’m afraid this has turned out to be one of those things destined to remain an eternal mystery.

I liked the colour of this door, and since the lady selling jasmine flowers outside wore a matching sari, I had to take a photo. The Family bought some jasmine, and put it in our hotel room. The light smell stayed for the two days we spent there. I wonder whether she buys these at the Mattuthavani flower market.

One of the things you are advised to eat in Madurai is halwa. I wasn’t sure whether that is the Thirunalvelli halwa or the Nagapattinam halwa. These two old friends in the shop were so deep in conversation that they did not notice me taking a photo. I could have a halwa anywhere, but I would not get this photo again.

Ganesha in Rameswaram

Very close to the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram we passed a large idol of Ganesha on a truck. Since we visited Rameswaram at the beginning of the Ganapati festival, this was not unusual. What made me stop was the drumming. A group of boys was ranked in front of the idol, wearing a white dhoti and a purple angravastram, playing a staccato rhythm on drums. It was loud, and the rhythm was not very complicated, but it was clearly the first act.

Behind them were older men with a yellow angavastram, with drums. I waited for them to start. It was a treat when they did. I discovered a wonderful new sound, made by rubbing the curved stick across the stretched membrane of the drum. Note the oldest man in the ensemble (at the center of the photo above, facing the camera). If the colour of the angavastram is anything to go by, then he was clearly special. He was absolutely focussed on the music, and seemed to be directing the others.

The drums are an announcement of an approaching event, and my guess was that this was merely the start. It would be some time before the truck moved, and the drummers would move behind it, announcing the approach of Ganesha.

The long corridor

The Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram is reputed to have the longest corridors, 1220 meters long with 1200 pillars. The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is a close runner up with 985 pillars and fifteen more replaced by a couple of shrines. I suppose that means that the corridors are over a kilometer in length. Unfortunately it is not possible to take photos of these any longer, since electronics is forbidden inside the temple: one of my gripes.

So I was forced to stand outside the security barriers in front of the east gopuram and take photos down the corridor. At daytime the inside is very dark, so the photos you see here were taken at night. The security men obligingly moves out of the frame. The entrance is lined with shops which sell paraphernalia needed for religious ceremonies in the temple. I took these photos less than an hour from the time when the gates are shut. The crowds were thin, but many of the shops were still open. These photos show you the scale of the corridor, but do not convey the calmness of the light which filters in during the day.

During the day the colours of the paintings really show up. The blues and greens do not show well at night, but at daytime you realize that these are the main colours in the paintings. The yellows, reds and golds are highlights. There is a twelve year cycle of maintenance, during which the plaster and clay decorations are touched up, and replaced if necessary. I don’t know whether the paintings are restored in the same cycle, but since they are integrated with the idols in the niches here, I am quite certain that it would make sense to restore them together.

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.