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The many faces of Madurai

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STEEPED IN TRADITION the thousand pillared hall at the Meenakshi temple
STEEPED IN TRADITION the thousand pillared hall at the Meenakshi temple

The intensity of sights, sounds and smells of Madurai are overwhelming

"Why do you want to go to Madurai?" I was asked, "It is a mad place." Even from those who knew me better, "You are going to Madurai? Again?" As though the only pleasure of a traveller is in the new, or as if it is possible to know an entire city just by visiting those places mentioned in the guidebook. When I arrived, Madurai's Meenakshi Temple seemed to wait down the end of every narrow street, but I resisted her charm. First I wanted to go to the markets to immerse myself in the throng of this busy temple town.

Flower power

Up a stairway so covered with trampled leaves that the steps were no longer discernible, was the flower market. It is a booming industry for a city that can attract up to 10,000 visitors a day. Loud and quiet negotiations hummed as wholesalers examined small bags of jasmine buds, tuberoses and marigolds from farmers who pleaded their quality.

Booming business

Sold, they were thrown onto huge piles or scooped up into large jute sacks. Over these piles, the temple flower sellers negotiated their purchases while garlands were strung, calculators thumped over and weighing scales heaped with white, purple, orange and yellow blooms. Many of the dealers gave me flowers as I passed, lotus buds, pale pink roses and zinnias, until I had to put my camera away to hold them all. It was then that I noticed the sweet heady scents, thick in the air, as if my sense of smell could only function when I stopped focussing on the melee of colour in front of me.

Colours everywhere

It was true, I thought, as I wandered into the wholesale vegetable market where mountains of tomatoes, coconuts, cauliflowers and brinjals sat heaped on the red earth, that even I felt like I had to gasp for air. That was, though, as far as my thoughts got in the narrow lanes where I was buffeted by sacks of onions, potatoes, pumpkins and garlic carried on the heads of jogging young men. There was no time to process an image, a scent or a thought. But that was because there was too much to see and I couldn't complain about that.

Intoxicating

After all, this was what brought me here the colours and the people. That night in the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, I thought I would sit and digest the day, looking out at the Meenakshi Temple dominating the skyline. But this was Madurai so there was a dosa festival serving 64 types of dosas, including one with jam. The place was packed and I, who was slow, had to share my table first with a French couple, then Tamilian newly weds and finally with a young family. The next day, after wandering around more markets, I took my giddy senses and careened through the streets full of pilgrims, where every building seemed to be a shop, to the bustle of the Meenakshi Temple.I visited the museum in the thousand-pillar hall adjoining the temple. I even managed to take a short break behind one of the pillars, breaking the rule of not sitting in the museum.

Hectic pace

The pace of Madurai was tiring me, though I did not want it to. But I failed to find a place to sit and so could not concentrate on the three-dimensional figure of Ganesh, the dancing Nataraja or the Chola bronzes.I hoped there would be somewhere I could rest in the next enclosure, past the elephant where it was darker, with only the occasional shaft of light and the dim glow of oil lamps.

With the gods

Large groups of Ayyappa devotees prostrated before the Nandi and prayed in front of the statue of Meenakshi's marriage. Around the pillar carved with Hanuman, a young mother and aunt played hide and seek with an unsteady toddler in a pink frilly dress. On the sides, families camped out for lunch. I could have found a place to sit and rest but I had forgotten I was tired. Inside the temple, I was not allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. But there was the golden lotus tank where people rested in the shade, read palms, laughed and discussed MP3 players.

Unforgettable

The pillared portico had paintings depicting miracles said to have been performed by Shiva. It also had verses from the Tirukkural. The Baroque-Dravidian south gopuram was bright and colourful, with its yalis protecting the entrance. The "Om nama shivaya" played in a loop over the loudspeakers and the neon signs tacked over the sanctum and mandapas for pilgrims to find their way in this `city within a city'... all these left an indelible impression on my mind.

Pleasantly tired

My tiredness only returned when I walked out through the arch of a thousand and eight brass lamps and into the bazaar, where everyone asked if I wanted postcards, film or an idol of Meenakshi. But I realised I was tired only because I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the sights, sounds and smells I had encountered in last two days.

ORIOLE HENRY

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