Off to the temple market

PARALLEL LIFEIn Pudhu MandapamPhoto: R. Ashok  

As you step out of the East Tower of Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple and walk down stone steps into a hall across the street, the smells hit you first. Incense. Turmeric. Sandalwood. Then the temperature drops — there are stone walls and pillars all around. And you see rows upon rows of shops that sell everything from bags, bangles and books to brass bells and beads, amidst bobbing sea of heads. Where does one start? “ Akka, enna venum ? (sister, what do you want?)” “ Inga vaanga (come here)” “ Irumbu chattiya ? (iron pot?)” call out insistent voices.

“This is a pazhaya mandapam (old hall). But it's called pudhu mandapam (new hall),” says Karthikeyan. Seated next to an imposing statue of Lord Nataraja, his neighbour of 15 years, Karthikeyan stitches a pair of black and red shorts. “It's for karuppanna saami ,” he explains. The shorts have a gold-and-yellow-embroidered outline of a moustachioed man holding an aruvaal (sickle). Karthikeyan drew it on paper and traced it onto the cloth. “I do a different design for each god.”

The tiny tailoring shop in Pudhu Mandapam, one of the oldest shopping arcades in Madurai, has churned out apparel for gods, goddesses, men and women for over 50 years.

“All these shops belong to Goddess Meenakshi. We pay our rent to the temple authorities. It was my father who opened the shop. His brother ran it after him, and now it's my turn,” says Karthikeyan.

Ask any shopkeeper in Pudhu Mandapam and he will tell you that his shop once belonged to his ayya or kollu thaatha (great granddad). “My shop is 70 years old,” says Narayanan, who sells crowns, necklaces and other handmade accessories for the gods. “Ours is 100 years old,” says Shekar, who sells textiles. “It's been 90 years since our shop came up,” says Ismail, who sells iron kadais of all sizes.

The shops have been at the Mandapam since 1921, says 73-year-old M. Jamal, who sells school and college textbooks. “Then, these crowded streets were full of kaatu karuvelai trees. Merchants would set up shop on the road at 6 a.m.; my ancestors sold fabrics from Burma and England. Initially, they were just temporary shanties. The shops came up later. The Mandapam had huge wooden doors back then. It took 10 men to push it open.”

Pudhu Mandapam is close to the hearts of the people of Madurai and its surrounding villages. Many believe it is auspicious to shop here. “Where else can you find the traditional wooden nadaivandi but here?” asks Ganesan, as he builds a baby walker using wooden pieces from Ambasamudram. “Brassware is the cheapest here,” says Chidambaram. “There were days when people came from far-off places to shop for the kalyana seedhanam (wedding items). But business has gone down these days.”

Visitors from nearby villages spread out their yellow cloth bags and nap at the entrance of the Mandapam. It's here that tailor Raja Mohammed works all day. He stitches almost 10 blouses a day.

“My family has been occupying the spot for almost 80 years,” he says. “I can tailor a blouse for you by the time you go round the temple.”

Pudhu Mandapam also provides livelihood to people such as Subramaniam. Dressed in khaki shorts and a khadi shirt, the frail 70-year-old flits through the shops with a steel thookuvaali (vessel with a handle). He has been supplying vadais and polis to shopkeepers every day for the last 20 years. The shops at Pudhu Mandapam close around 8.30 p.m. “In all these years, not once has there been a kalavu (theft) here,” says a proud Karthikeyan. “It supports over 300 families.”