FOOTLOOSE on the streets of Madurai with tour guide Sivagurunathan and a family from England, T. SARAVANAN learns the finer details of the city
“Squat on the floor with hands locked on your knees. Lift your head, inhale and down your head to exhale.” I cannot make out why our tour guide A. Sivagurunathan wants 13-year-old Rachael, daughter of the English tourists Geoffrey and Ann Berger, to do that exercise. “I saw her yawning,” he explains. “She is yet to come out of the slumber. Now she should feel better.”
This guide is apparently here not only to disseminate information but also to keep his guests in good humour. It is 10 a.m. and we are at the Tirumalai Naick Palace. It is a sight to behold, a streak of sunlight illuminating the mammoth pillars in the open royal court.
“The palace is a wonderful specimen of Indo-Saracenic architecture.” Siva’s voice breaks the tranquility of the place and pigeons come out of their lofts and flap their wings. “Normally granite pillars are either square or rectangle in shape. Only here we find rounded and plastered pillars. Egg white was used as an important component for plastering to withstand the heat,” he explains.
As more tourists arrive in the court, Siva takes us inside to the dance hall of the King and the stone exhibits.
At the temple
Our next stop is the famed Meenakshi Amman Temple. The busy stretch leading to the temple is crowded with vendors. Annamma, a wig seller, comes running to us to sell one or two hairpieces. Rachael, who already has long hair, prefers hair clips from a fancy store.
At the footwear stand Siva’s friend Narayanan welcomes us and provides an exclusive space to leave our footwear. As we go through the security check, we hear, “Hello, welcome to our country.” Manimaran, the policeman on duty, says cordially, “Where are you from? England? Have a good time?” Siva says the man can speak five or six languages including French and English.
The aroma of incense sticks and vermillion made of ‘thalampoo’ (screw pine flower) greets us as we walk in. Melodious hymns play over the speakers.
Ahead of us are women dressed in heavy silks, yards of jasmine hiding their plaits; they turn into Amman Sannidhi from the east tower entrance. Rachel wonders why the women’s faces are yellow. “They have applied turmeric on their faces,” he says and lists the medical benefits of turmeric. “It is a good antiseptic and nature’s gift to us,” he says.
After the customary inside view of the east tower from the tank, Siva takes us to the Oonjal Mandapam. “Look at the ceiling,” he says. “What you see is one of the oldest paintings of the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi inside the temple. The painting was sponsored by Rani Mangammal.”
Ann calls Rachael to photograph the women lighting lamps made out of lemon skins. We move on to see Mukkuruni Vinayagar, the painting of a lingam that rotates 360 degrees, creating an optical illusion, and a 12-foot-tall statue of a Dwarapalakar. By this time Geoffrey is desperate for a drink of water.
Re-energised in the open air, we stroll into the Pudhu Mandapam market, where tailors are busy at work. We walk through Elukadal Street and cross the bisecting East Masi Road to reach the Pookadai Theru. We enjoy walking along the path flanked by shops selling textiles and flowers. Rachael and Ann clamour for Geoffrey to videograph the bustle of the streets.
As we turn left the Vazhakai Mandi (banana market) unfolds in front of us. Only bananas are sold here. Along a narrow aisle we hear, “Saidu, saidu,” a man with a head load shouting for us to give way. Even under the bright sunshine, the place is dark with the heavy bunches stacked on all sides.
At the market
The Nelpettai vegetable market is a crush of humanity. “Come sir, buy this drumstick for Rs.10 each,” Ponnuthai offers. She enquires about the talcum Rachael uses so that her granddaughter too will look fair.
Siva jumps in. “This is one market which is busy right from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That is why I bring my guests to this place, so that they will get a feel of locals.”
By 9 p.m. we are back at the temple to watch the ‘palliyarai’ pooja. “It is one of the important ceremonies of the temple,” says Siva.
“It is important because it is the only ceremony the visiting foreign guests can witness. Otherwise they are not permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. It is mentioned in every single guidebook from Routard Inde to Lonely Planet.”
The pooja lasts for just 10 minutes. By that time the east tower gates are closed and Siva leads us out through the Amman Sannidhi entrance. Ann and Rachael are still curious to explore the crowded brass utensils market area.
Siva is a full-time guide who knows something about everything. He is one of the few registered State tourist guides in the city. He gathers information about his guests’ personal interests well in advance and acts accordingly. He also watches their body language. “If you rest your hands on your hips, then it means you are tired and not interested,” he says.
“Siva is an amiable person and very knowledgeable,” Geoffrey says. Though Siva was with us for less than 10 hours, he left us with a lasting impression.
“At the end of the day,” says Siva, “we toil hard only for this compliment.”
(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).