The highlight of any tourist visit to Madurai is an exploration of the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, an astounding piece of 17th-century architecture and one of the largest Hindu temples in India.
Quoting Wikipedia, the temple “is dedicated to Parvati who is known as Meenakshi and her consort, Shiva, named here as Sundareswarar. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2500 year old city of Madurai. The complex houses 14 gateway towers called gopurams, ranging from 45-50m in height, the tallest being the southern tower, 51.9 metres (170 ft) high, and two golden sculptured vimana, the shrine over sanctum of the main deities. The temple is a significant symbol for the Tamil people, and has been mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature, though the present structure is built during 1623 to 1655 CE.” The gopurams are astoundingly carved with thousands of figures, mostly gods and goddesses, all freshly painted in 2009.
We toured most of the temple and I took some nice photos, but they really pale in comparison to my collection from my visit three years ago. On that muggy day in May 2009, I happened to visit the temple, totally coincidentally, on the biggest festival day of the year (Chithirai Thiruvizha). That day was truly one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve ever had in India; read the blog and check out the photo album.
We visited on a Friday evening, which happens to be the most auspicious time for prayer, so the temple was very crowded with worshippers, families enjoying an evening out, and tourists. After checking our shoes with the shoe-keepers near the gate, and passing through airport-style security screening (most prominent historic and religious sites now include such screening, because they are attractive sites for terrorist attacks), we strolled through the temple’s many halls and courtyards. A tour guide spotted us (not hard, we’re readily obvious in this crowd) and offered to give us a guided tour. We’ve had mixed results with these sort of fellows, but he waived his government license at us and I engaged him in enough conversation about his services to be sure his English was reasonable. His guidance was helpful in navigating the complex temple grounds, and explaining the history and significance of various idols and sights. He offered to take us to a spot outside where we could get a rooftop view of the temple; I relished this opportunity because there is no other way to capture the grandeur of this immense place. When we arrived at the curio shop (of course!) I realized his true motivation for our visit. Yes, it had a rooftop observation platform, but to get there you had to climb through three levels of carvings, silk scarves, carpets, and the eager attendants insisting that you “just look” at their handicrafts. It is a routine we know well – the guide gets a kickback for bringing customers to the store – and we took a pass on the shopping.
We had actually enjoyed shopping at purthu mandalbam, the “new market” on the other side of the temple. It was built a few hundred years ago by one of the kings, and was packed with tiny stalls selling cheap handicrafts, handmade housewares (like iron tava griddles), and votive materials. Fun place to photograph! There were rows of men sitting at foot-powered treadle-style sewing machines, most of them working busily at sewing garments. Pam found a stall selling silk shirts and kurtas – you select the style and fabric, they take your measurements, and come back two hours later to pick up your finished clothing, all fabricated on-site and on-demand by this army of sewing men. Soon I’ll post more photos from that shopping market and from the streets nearby – many photogenic views there.
At this point we were tired and hungry and dark was falling. I had scoped out some dining options nearby so we walked around the temple and down the street looking for one of the restaurants. The streets were busy, noisy, and dirty – Madurai is not nearly as well developed as Bangalore or Mumbai. Andy has been feeling ill so he was tired and cranky. Finally we found the two places – neither looked particularly clean or inviting, but we ate at The Taj anyway. At least it was cheap.