If I had any concerns about waking in time for the train, they were shattered at about 6am when the brass band started playing outside my window. There is a wedding in the hotel next door, and as we leave our own hotel a stream of guests are arriving, though there is no sign yet of the bride or groom. The bus drops us at a station about an hour away at Villapuram, where we board a 3AC sleeper coach for the five hour journey to Madurai. Nearly everyone sleeps, the windows are tinted so there is no chance for photos, and consequently it’s an uneventful journey.
At Madurai we dodge the rickshaw wallahs and walk the ten minutes to the hotel, the Madurai Residency. A sign at the door announces that it is hosting Priya’s* puberty party this evening (I can’t think of anything I would have wanted less at that particular point in time!). I am greatly relieved to take delivery of a vat of boiling hot water at last. Which does, sadly, mean that I have an afternoon of laundry ahead of me. Oh the glamour…
Madurai is an ancient town, in which the first tourists were apparently the Greeks in the first century BC. This is our tour leader’s home town, and he is happy to show us around.
After a lightning quick orientation, we board tuktuks to visit his mother at their family home – all 12 of us have been invited for dinner, which is a real honour. Just as we arrive, there is one of India’s famous power cuts, but it barely makes a difference – we have delicious dhal, curry, and fresh chapattis, and some sweet halva, all seated in a circle. I think everyone is feeling very lucky to have had another fleeting glimpse of day-to-day family life. We’re all in high spirits on the return journey, and vote unanimously to take the local bus instead of tuktuks, squeezing on and doing our best not to fall out the open door until we get closer to our stop, where proximity to the exit is key if you want to get out before the new passengers force their way in.
We all gatecrash Charles’s hotel room for drinks that evening, and spend most of the evening in hysterics watching old Tamil movies (Tollywood?), the highlight being a bizarre 60s cult space movie starring none other than Jayalalitha, the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in a costume that appears to have been made of tinfoil (for a more current photo see the poster of the venerable Minister in the rice shop, in my post on Ooty). Arnold Schwarzenegger should be very afraid…
Early the next morning we all receive a call from Charles, confirming the dress code for the day – long trousers and no low cut tops please. We are just around the corner from the magnificent Minakshi Temple, and after our last excursion he’s taking no chances that we might be refused entry.
The temple is a short walk from our breakfast stop, in a hotel down the road from our own. Turning the corner, the distinctive brightly-coloured tower over the entrance looms at the end of the street, which is blocked off to traffic. It is strange (but quite pleasant!) to be walking along an Indian road without fear of being deafened by horns or knocked over by a speeding rickshaw!
Security is the tightest I have seen for any temple: after leaving our shoes we are screened and patted down by guards (there is a separate queue for women, attended by female guards behind a curtain, just like airport security here). One of the girls in front of me has a kindle, which takes some explaining – I don’t think they’ve seen one before – but it paves the way for mine and, by the time the member of our group who carries an epi-pen passes through, they barely bat an eyelid.
The complex inside the wall is vast. To our left is an ancient banyan tree, hung with brightly painted miniature cradles by childless women who want to conceive. Behind it the temple walls loom, painted in the red and white stripes that indicate a Saivite (i.e. Shiva) temple.
We enter a hall in which a group of women are gathered. One is heavily pregnant, and the other women are placing glass bangles on her wrists – she will wear them until the baby is born, and they will make a sweet tinkling sound as she moves, which is supposed to be a pleasing sound to unborn ears.
Through arcades of shops and stalks selling bangles, incense, bells and random plastic toys, we slowly make our way to the inner sanctum.
The complex is crowded – today is clearly an auspicious day for a wedding, and we pass numerous couples shyly posing for photos near the water tank, the women with garlands of fragrant jasmine cascading down behind them.
Some families choose a simple temple wedding over the raucous hotel extravaganza we saw yesterday morning (rich families, apparently, can have the priest come to them). In a corner, the mother of one of the brides is stringing beads onto gold thread, weaving together a string which will be worn as part of the ceremony.
A family walks past us, the father carrying a child of about 18 months, her eyes ringed heavily with kohl (so as not to attract the attention of malevolent spirits by being too cute) and her hair shaved close to the skull. She has just had her ears pierced, one of the first age-related ceremonies.
A posse of holy men dressed in orange appear – they’re happy to pose for photos, for a (considerable) price… Further inside, small ghee lamps are being lit and placed in front of statues. There is a particular carving on one pillar that is attracting a lot of attention, its body covered by green skirts. We are told it is, again, for women who want to conceive – apparently the carving beneath the skirt is quite something (see Michael Woods’s book on South India for a full description!).
It would be easy to spend hours here, just watching the people going about their worship (and other business), but we have just enough time to see the hall of one thousand pillars, at the end of which stands the figure of Nataraja, Shiva, god of destruction, dancing the cosmic dance (and stomping out the dwarf of ignorance, according to one interpretation).
We retreat from the temple, retrieve our shoes, and spend a few minutes admiring exquisite handmade rugs over a cup of spiced green tea in a nearby carpet emporium, before a (not so) quick lunch of chilly toast at the hotel, and then it’s time to bid farewell to Madurai.
*not her actual name