ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Madurai to see the temple town’s round-the-clock machinery of piety and commerce
At 4am, a metal gate creaks open and a woman washes the entrance to her home, swiftly drawing an intricate kollam (floral design). A vendor unloads baskets of fresh malli poo (jasmine), soon to be threaded into elaborate garlands for temple rituals, weddings or hair ornaments. In another street, the telltale aroma of sambar and freshly brewed coffee signals breakfast as trays of steaming idlis are deftly removed. Elsewhere, the unstoppable clatter of looms working through the night has produced reams of Sungundi saris. Madurai may be no New York but it certainly is Thoonga Nagaram, the city that never sleeps.
In mythology, Madurai was once Kadambavanam, the forest where Lord Indra atoned for the sin of slaying the pious demon Virudran (Vritra). Unable to complete his ritual with the right number of flowers, Indra prayed fervently beside a lake where a golden lotus magically bloomed. The famous Madurai Meenakshi Temple symbolizes this legend. The lingam is supposedly the one that Indra prayed to and the Potramarai (Golden Lotus) tank is the sacred lake. The golden spire over the sanctum sanctorum is called Indra Vimanam and Ashta Airavat (eight forms of Indra’s famous mount) guard Shiva’s shrine. On Chaitra Purnima, Indra allegedly visits the temple to perform puja.
It is said that when the city was being founded, Lord Shiva appeared and danced with joy, drizzling nectar (madhuram) from his matted locks as blessing. Hence the town was named Madurai. Under the Pandyas and Madurai Nayakas, Madurai flourished as a cultural capital, hosting the last Tamil Sangam, a literary conclave that produced the Tamil epic Silappathikaaram. When Greek envoy Megasthenes visited India in 3rd Century BC, he hailed Madurai as Athens of the East.
Temple of the Fish-eyed Goddess
While walking the busy streets of Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, it’s hard to discern that Madurai radiates around the iconic temple in concentric rectangles that symbolize the cosmos. Streets bear names of Tamil months – Adi, Chitare, Avani Mula, Masi and Veli. And wherever you may be, the rainbow-hued temple towers soaring 150ft skywards draw you in. As we entered the 16-acre complex, it was like breaching a portal to some Spiritual Wonderland – musical pillars, gilded domes, divine sculptures, devotees heaping ash over the Ganesha idol of Vibhuthi Pullaiyar, scenes portraying Shiva’s Thiruvilayadal (64 miracles) and murals depicting his marriage to Meenakshi.
Customarily, we worshipped the bejeweled emerald deity of Goddess Meenakshi first before Lord Sundareshwarar. ‘That’s why in Madurai, women are superior to males, unlike Tanjore’, joked our guide. ‘In the days of Sangam literature, poets and pundits would consecrate their works to the temple by throwing their manuscripts into the Pottramarai tank. If they sank, they weren’t considered good enough, if they floated, they had passed muster.’ The 2-hr tour ended at the Temple Art Museum inside the 1000-pillared Ayiramkal Mandapam, which incidentally has only 984!
Thirumalai Nayaka’s legacy
From the third longest temple corridor in Tamil Nadu, we found ourselves at one of South India’s largest man-made temple tanks. The 1100ft by 950ft Mariamman Theppakulam was excavated by King Thirumalai Nayaka to make bricks for the construction of his palace and later converted into a stepped tank fed by the Vaigai River through underground channels. As part of his birthday celebrations, the king initiated the Float Festival in 17th century where Madurai’s presiding deities were given a ride on a decorated theppa (raft) around the kulam (tank).
Built in 1636, the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace was sadly only a fourth of its original size, demolished by the king’s grandson Chokkanatha Nayaka who transplanted some portions to his new capital Trichy. The Swargavilasa or Celestial Pavilion was the only surviving relic. A massive open courtyard seemed to frame the sky as 13m high pillars lined the Indo-Saracenic building. The ceiling was rendered with floral designs like flying carpets hovering above. A golden throne marked the Durbar Hall while the adjoining hall Nataka Sala was where the king was entertained.
Opposite the palace, shops sold Madurai’s famous signature drink Jigar Thanda (Soul Coolant), a curious blend of chilled reduced milk, badam milk, nannari sherbet (sarsaparilla extract), kalpasi (China grass), sago, Boost (malt-based chocolate drink) and ice cream. A regular patron explained it was perfect for Madurai’s hot climate.
After a brief stop at St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the region, we crossed the dry Vaigai River to reach the Gandhi Memorial Museum, one of the seven museums in the country dedicated to the Mahatma. It was during his second visit to Madurai in 1921, that Gandhiji adopted his trademark loincloth to express his compassion towards the ill-clad peasants in the countryside. His 1934 visit spurred the ‘Temple Entry Movement’ for harijans (considered untouchables). Only after Vaidyanath Iyer opened the doors of the Madurai temple to all in 1939, did Gandhiji step inside the shrine in 1946!
Set in the beautiful Tamukkum Summer Palace of Nayaka queen Rani Mangammal, the museum showcased Gandhiji’s life through rare images, quotes, murals and letters. The Hall of Relics and Replicas contained 14 original artefacts used by Mahatma Gandhi including a shawl, spectacles, yarn and the bloodstained cloth worn by him when he was assassinated.
Madurai was also home to two of the six Aru Padai Veedu or Sacred Abodes of Lord Murugan. We climbed the hilly cave shrine of Subramanya Swamy at Tirupparankundram to the chants of “Vetrivel Muruganukku Arohara” (Hail to the Lance-wielding Lord). Women hurled butterballs to cool down the fierce image of Kali while others fed fish in the 11 teerthams (ponds). An hour’s drive away was Pazhamudhir Cholai, where Lord Subramanya had tested the wits of saint Avayya as a young boy. At the foothills stood the Azhagar Kovil temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu as Sundarajar or Azhagar, the brother of Meenakshi who solemnized her marriage to Lord Shiva.
What made all the hectic sightseeing worthwhile was returning to a 17-acre oasis called Heritage Madurai. Once a club for British managers of Madura Coats and today a heritage hotel, a small Chettinad village has been recreated in its old drive-in theatre where garland making, pottery and weaving were taught to guests. But we were off for the real deal. Chettinad was just 80km away and within a few hours we were rolling through a dusty stark landscape into a fantasy world of 100-room mansions and Chettinad cuisine.
From Aayiram Jaanal veedu or House of 1000 Windows in Karaikudi to MAM Ramaswamy’s Chettinad Palace in the heritage village of Kanadukathan, each building was a masterpiece. From the Art Deco style of Visalam, the Bangala’s colonial touch, the French minimalism of Saratha Vilas to the opulence of Chidambara Vilas near Tirumayam Fort; staying in these heritage hotels was the best way to experience true Chettiar hospitality.
Blending Burmese Teak, Italian Marble, Belgian chandeliers, English crockery and Japanese ceramic tiles with an Indian ethos, the enterprising Natukottai Chettiars had transformed a landlocked region into something unparalleled. Here, caretakers proudly showed off meter long keys and served cuisine livened up by rabbit chukka, sura puttu (shark mince) and kaada (quail) fry while Hindu deities, Victorian ladies and British soldiers stared down from the walls.
Back at Madurai, the lofty spires of the city’s temples broke the monotony of the flat landscape from our perch at Taj Gateway atop Pasumalai Hill. Madurai’s strategic position in the Tamil heartland made it an excellent gateway for more journeys. The road continued from Chettinad to Trichy via the cave shrines of Narthamalai and Sittanavasal with exquisite frescos. The locksmith town of Dindigul, Haider Ali’s stronghold famous for its historic fort and delicious biryani, the picturesque Kamarajar Valley and the misty cool climes of Kodaikanal, a colonial escape from the heat and dust of Madurai lured visitors north. Meanwhile in the golden light of dusk, temple bells rang out, muezzins called and the city continued its round-the-clock shift as we surrendered ourselves to its old-world charm.
At a Glance
Easily the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, Madurai is a temple town of palaces and museums. Located on the banks of the Vaigai and dotted with shops, eateries and shrines, it is centered around the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple. Bearing imprints of the Cholas, Pandyas, Telugu Nayakas, Nawabs of Arcot and the British, it is at its colourful best during festivals when temple prakaarams (outer precincts) and wide streets come alive with processions. Summers can be sweltering, so time your visit accordingly.
Things to Do
Sound & Light Show – The quadrangle of the Thirumala Nayaka Palace in Madurai serves as a seating area for the daily Sound and Light show narrating the glorious saga of the palace. Timings: 6:45pm-7:35pm Entry: Rs.50 Adults, Rs.25 Child (5-12yr)
Athangudi tile manufacture – Visit a local tile factory in the small village of Athangudi to watch artisans hand cast tiles using local sand, gravel, cement and some paint. The typical poo kallu or floral stones come in dark earthy hues with geometric, floral designs.
When to Go
Madurai is good to visit between September and March, when temperatures are cooler. During the Chithirai festival in Apr-May, witness Thiru Kalyanam or the grand reenactment of Meenakshi’s marriage to Lord Sundareswar when Lord Vishnu, her brother, is taken in a procession from Azhagar Kovil on a golden horse chariot to attend the rituals.
By Air: Madurai Airport, 12km south of the city, is connected by daily flights to Chennai and Bangalore though the nearest international airport is Trichy (134km northeast), a 2.5hr drive on NH-45B.
By Road: NH-7 connects Madurai to Tirunelveli (154km south, 2hr 40m) and Kanyakumari (245km, 4hrs), NH-45B connects it to Thoothukudi (142km southeast, 2.5hrs) and NH-49 to Munnar (156km west, 3 hrs). Karaikudi is 80km east on NH-210.
The Vaigai River diagonally cuts across Madurai and runs parallel to NH-85. Being a large congested city, Madurai has several bus stands. Arapalayam (4km north of railway station) on Puttuthoppu Road has north and westbound buses to Theni, Salem, Dindigul and Kodaikanal. The new Madurai Integrated Bus Terminus (MIBT) at Mattu Thavani (t0452 4219938) on Kurivikaran Road connects destinations to the north and east. Periyar Bus Stand (200m from railway station) has buses for the airport and Alagarkoil whereas Palanganatham has southbound buses for Tirunelveli, Nagercoil and Kanyakumari. It’s best to engage an auto rickshaw or a cab to cover local sights. Thirumalai Nayaka Palace and St Mary’s Cathedral are 1.5km south-east of the temple and Teppakulam 4km away on NH-49. Gandhi Memorial and the Government Museum are north of the Vaigai on Alagar Kovil Road en-route to Pazhamudircholai. Thirupparankundram is 8km south-west on Thirumangalam road.
For classic South Indian vegetarian fare, eat at Meenakshi Bhavan (t0452 4391588) on Collector Office Road near Anna Bus Stand, New Arya Bhavan (t0452 3299104) or Murugan Idli Shop (t0452 2341379) on West Masi Street. The iconic shop opened in 1966 and their trademark soft idlis are served with 4 chutneys besides dosas, uthappams and other tiffin items. To whet your carnivorous pangs, head straight to Anjappar Chettinad at Hotel Annamalai International on 120 Feet Road.
For biryani lovers, there’s no better place than Kalyana Biriyani (t9894145555) on Nethaji Road or Sri Velu Dindigul Biryani (t0452 4510010) on Tamil Sangam Road. In Karaikudi, Saffron at Hotel Subhalakshmi Palace dishes out good veg fare while Friend’s Garden Restaurant and ARC are local eateries serving Chettinad staples like kada fry, rabbit chukka and non veg meals. For fine dining, head to Taj Gateway or Heritage Madurai.
11, Melakkal Main Road, Kochadai, Madurai 625016 t0452 2385455, 3244185
www.heritagemadurai.com Tariff Rs.6,400-10,000 35 luxury villas, 37 deluxe rooms
Voted the Best Heritage Hotel-South India in 2011, Heritage Madurai was renovated by architect Geoffrey Bawa on the condition that all materials used must come from a 30km radius around Madurai. The granite floor is from an old mill, brass temple lamps have been reincarnated as light fixtures while the restaurant is landscaped around a 200-year-old banyan tree lit by a British warship searchlight. Spacious villas come with plunge pools whereas the swimming pool is inspired by the Teppakulam Tank. Enjoy Ayurvedic and Thai massages at Svasti Spa and relish South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine.
The Gateway Hotel
40 TPK Road, Pasumalai Hills, Madurai 625004 t0452 2371601
www.thegatewayhotels.com Tariff Rs.5,500-8,000 63 rooms
Contoured around the Pasumalai Hills near Thirupparankunram, the palatial bungalow was built by William Harvey in the 1890s and served as the official residence of the MDs of Harvey Mills (later Madura Mills). Today, the heritage hotel retains its colonial flavour with period rooms, wooden floors and deluxe cottages amidst landscaped gardens. The restaurant, aptly called View, overlooks Madurai while Harvey’s Lounge bar is a great place to escape the city’s bustle.
38 Madakkulam Main Road (TPK Road), NH7, Palanganatham Signal Junction, Madurai 625003 t0452 237 1155 www.grtregency.com Tariff Rs.4,750-5,750 57 rooms
The swanky city hotel by GRT, near Palanganatham Bus Stand in the southern part of town, comes with a multi-gym, swimming pool, boutique, bar and Ayush Ayurvedic therapy center offering authentic Kerala oil massages. Aaharam serves elaborate multi-cuisine buffets for breakfast and lunch and a la carte dinner. Free wi-fi is a bonus.
Alagarkoil Road, Madurai 625002 t0452 4244555, 2537531 www.sangamhotels.com Tariff Rs.4,000-5,500 60 rooms
A decent hotel with a bar, pool, shopping arcade and a restaurant that whips up excellent Indian, Continental and Chinese with classical performances, veena recitals and folk dances.
TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Off Tirumayam Fort Ph 0433 3267070, 9843348531 E firstname.lastname@example.org www.chidambaravilas.com 24 heritage rooms
If you’re in the mood for extravagance try Chettinad’s most luxurious heritage hotel. Chidambara Vilas is the century-old home of TS Krishnappa Chettiar. An exquisite doorway leads to inner courtyards lined by teak, rosewood and granite pillars. Enjoy rooftop views, a swimming pool, spa and cultural performances while relishing Chettinad meals on banana leaf in a renovated Bomma kottai (Hall of Dolls).
Devakottai Road, Senjai, Karaikudi 630001 Ph 04565-220221, 250221 E email@example.com www.thebangala.com Tariff Rs.5,650-6,350 (breakfast Rs.300, meals Rs.600) 25 rooms
A colonial family home run by Mrs. Meyyappan, the Bangala hosted lavish tea parties and tennis tournaments in the 1900s. Sir Athur Hope, the Governor of Madras, visited in the 1940s and all the furniture, cutlery and crockery used by him are still in circulation. Rooms overlook a central garden with a swimming pool and spa. Excellent Chettinad meals, cooking demos, kitchen tours and local sightseeing enrich your stay.
LF Road, Kanadukathan 630103 Ph 04565 273301, 273354 E firstname.lastname@example.org www.cghearth.com 15 rooms
An Art Deco home renovated and infused with CGH Earth’s philosophy, Visalam is a step back in time with large brass urns, sepia tinted photos and period furniture. Three dining areas for different meals lend a bit of variety. Relax by the pool, browse the library or learn about spices at the interactive kitchen, with bullock cart rides and nadaswaram recitals organized on request.
S.A.R.M. House, Behind Raja’s Palace, T.K.R. Street, Kanadukathan Ph 04565 273080, 94434 95598 E email@example.com www.chettinadumansion.com Tariff Rs.5,000 (meals Rs.600) 12 rooms
Run by the affable Mr. Chandramouli, the 40,000 sq ft mansion was built over a century ago by S.A.Rm.Ramaswamy Chettiar. Its succession of courtyards with bright pillars, balconies and 100 rooms are a delight, as is dining in the lavishly decorated hall.
832, Main Road, Kothamangalam 630105 Ph 98842 03175, 98849 36158 E firstname.lastname@example.org www.sarathavilas.com Tariff Rs.5,200-5,600 8 rooms Restored by French architects Michel Adment & Bernard Dragon who fell in love with Chettinad, Saratha Vilas is a Tamil home stripped of its showy past and replaced by a muted French sensibility. Old sakarapattis (sugar granaries) adorn the rooms and idli grindstones serve as sinks. Enjoy Franco-Tamil cuisine, Ayurvedic massages or relax in the garden.
Athoor Village, Via Sembatti, Dindigul District 624701 t0451 2556765, 9360691793 www.cardamomhouse.com Tariff Rs.3,300-5,500 6 rooms
A charming eco farm run by a retired British physician, its rooms are named after Indian herbs and spices. A fixed menu (Rs.1,200/person) caters primarily to a European palate, with meals served at Four Winds, a nature-cooled area and sundowners on the terrace.
Kamarajar Lake, Athoor Village, Dindigul District 624701 t0451 3202817, 9894563935 www.lakeside.co.in Tariff Rs.2,500-3,950 9 rooms
Run by English couple Peter and Dorinda Balchin, the resort offers five stone cottages, four en-suite twin bedrooms in the main house and a swimming pool. Meals (Rs.940/person) are served at the lake-view verandah or the large rooftop.
Double Dutch Resort
Holland House, Athoor, Dindigul District 624701 t0454 3294499, 0451 2556763, 9443828742 www.doubledutchresort.com Tariff Rs.1,750-2,400 6 rooms
Located on the spurs of Palani Hills bordered by Kamarajar Lake this Dutch run resort is spread over 8-acres. Food is a mix of Indian, European, Indonesian and Mexican cuisine (Rs.900/person), enriched with farm fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese and curd, besides homemade jams, bread and Dutch coffee.
Kannivadi Hills, Sadayandi Kovil Road, Athoor Village, Dindigul District 624701
t0451 2471572, 2470454 www.wildrock.asia Tariff Rs.4,000-6,000 5 rooms
Built in local granite, stone and marble, the country house comes with a swimming pool overlooking the lake. A restaurant, barbeque counter and fruit and salad kiosk serve delicious Indian fare (Rs.950/person). Adventure sports, trekking and farm visits are organized.
Perumal Kovil Pathy, Karunya PO, Coimbatore 641101 t0422 2615779/442, 6560111 www.tamararesorts.com Tariff 3,800-6,000 8 tents
An Aitken Spence Hotel, Tamara is a boutique resort 30km from Coimbatore and 25km from Siruvani. Eight luxurious tents stand against a stunning backdrop of the Western Ghats. There’s pool table–cum–recreation facilities, kids play area, multi cuisine restaurant and Internet access within the comfort of your tent.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Sep-Nov 2012 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine.