There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Madurai: Part 8 of India's Deep South

Omelette, sambar and fruit made a good breakfast after which we set out with Thomas on the long morning’s drive to Madurai. The tanker drivers’ strike, he told us, had been settled last night, which was good news and meant we would not have to push the car any time soon.
Tea plantations in the Kannan Devan Hills, Kerala
Descending the Kannan Devan Hills from Munnar to the plain was no great distance, but it took some time, partly because the road twisted and turned and partly because the countryside demanded a series of picture stops.
Tea Plantations in the Kannan Devan Hills, Kerala
I shall not reproduce them all here but the view of tessellated tea bushes with wind breaks of silver oak and stands of eucalyptus trees surrounded by rugged hills was endlessly changing and fascinating.
Tea Plantations in the Kannan Devan Hills, Kerala
The silver oak is not a true oak. Native to Australia it has adapted well to the local conditions
 Lower down a small lake nestled among the tea bushes...
A lake among the tea bushes, Kannan Dean Hills
 ....and further down again the tea gave way to forest. I am never quite sure where the Cardamom Hills are, the name seems to be applied to various southern parts of the Western Ghats, but with cardamom dominating the underbrush this area had as good a claim as any.
Cardamom growing beneath the trees on the lower slopes of the Kannan Devan Hills
 Somewhere on the lower slopes we crossed from Kerala back into Tamil Nadu.
In this post we travel from Munnar to Madurai
The demarcation between the hills and plain was sharp and as we approached the flat land a turn in the road gave us one last look at the enchanted hills.
A last look at the Kannan Devan Hills
The temperature had increased as we had descended from the pleasant warmth of Munnar to the furnace of the plain, but cocooned in the air conditioned car we hardly noticed as we sped along on the wider and straighter road.

On the way we encountered a water jar salesman - most rural Indians collect their water daily from a well, tank or stream and the arrival of the lightweight plastic jar has made life much easier.
Travelling water jar salesman, Tamil Nadu
 We passed through small towns and villages...

Shop in a small  town, Tamil Nadu
 ... and nearing Madurai we passed this family heading into town for a day out.
Family day out, near Madurai, Tamil Nadu
 Madurai is surprisingly little known outside India but it has been a major religious and commercial centre for over 2,000 years and is now, with 1.5 million inhabitants, the third biggest city in Tamil Nadu.

We checked in to our hotel, an upmarket glass and marble affair beside a busy road. With no shops or other restaurants nearby, the hotel was the only option for lunch and at great expense (by local standards) I enjoyed sambar with chapattis while Lynne ate a chicken sandwich with chutney. ‘Better to eat local,’ I said sagely but she did not listen.

When the fierceness of the heat had subsided a local guide arrived and we set off for the Ghandi Museum. Opened in 1959, the museum is housed in the Tamukkam Palace, built for Rani Mangammal, wife of a Nayak ruler and Queen Regent after his death in 1684. Following the fall of the Nayaks the house endured a chequered history and was, at one time, the residence of the British Collector of Madurai. On independence it passed to the Tamil Nadu government who donated it for use as a museum.
Gandhi Museum, Tamukkam Place, Madurai

 The museum tells the Gandhi story from his birth in 1868, through his training as a barrister in London, and years in South Africa to the struggle for Indian independence. As one of the five Gandhi Sanghralayas it exhibits a part of the bloodied clothing he was wearing when shot down in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist.

Gandhi walking, Pondicherry 2009
The statue of Gandhi walking seen rather distantly outside the museum is repeated all over India
It is not an easy museum to visit if you are British; we are very much the villains of the piece. On the whole that is fair enough (no one could try to excuse, for example, the 1919 Amritsar massacre) and Gandhi’s consistent commitment to non-violent resistance is inspirational, but the attack does feel relentless. A 'what have the Romans ever done for us' moment might have provided balance – so I am supplying one myself.
Gandhi walking with followers, Hassan, Karnataka, 2010

When the British arrived India was a patchwork of often warring states ruled by hereditary despots, when they left it was a united country committed to nurturing its new democracy, an ideal espoused by Gandhi and those who struggled for independence alongside him – a happy consequence of their British educations. The creation of an all-India consciousness – even if only in opposition to us - was a remarkable achievement. On this journey we travelled through Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, three states with a combined population of over 170m (the same as the UK, France and Spain combined) with three different official languages each written in a different alphabet. Neighbours among India’s 29 states and 7 territories often differ from each other far more than do any of the 50 states of the USA, yet each is as committed to its Indian identity as Texas and Vermont are to being American.

I am not defending colonialism, merely suggesting we should not judge 19th century people by 21st century standards and now the dust has settled both countries have reasons to be grateful to each other – we gave them cricket and they gave us curry, gifts whose importance should not be underestimated. 

We visited Madurai in 2009 on our first trip to India. The huge Meenakshi Amman Temple dominating the city centre, may be the world’s finest Hindu temple but in 2009 its 14 richly decorated gopuram (gateway towers) were covered in scaffolding for repainting and the scaffolding was hung with banana leaves to protect the painters from the sun. We saw only the bare outlines. Before returning we had checked that no repainting was scheduled, but now it was already half past four and the local guide wanted to take us to the Nayak’s Palace, I began to fret that we would only see the temple in the dark.
One of the scaffolding and banana leaf covered gopuram, Madurai 2009

After some discussion we went along with his plan. We saw the palace in 2009, but since then more has been restored and it was worth re-visiting. The Nayak dynasty ruled a region similar to modern Tamil Nadu from1529 to 1736 and the Thirumalai Palace was built in 1636 by King Thirumalai (who else?). We saw the King’s Hall….
King's Hall, Nayak's Palace, Madurai

 …the pillars and corridors that connect the ceremonial rooms….
Pillars and corridors, Nayak's Palace, Madurai

 …the decorated ceilings….
Decorated ceiling, Nayak's Palace. Masurai

 …and the auditorium with a display of statues from Nayak times and from the earlier Pandyan Kingdom.
Royal auditorium, Nayak's Palace, Madurai
Impressive though the rooms are, what remains is only a quarter of the royal complex  once occupying this site.
Leaving the palace we drove the 2km to the temple first passing through the wholesale vegetable market. Each street is dedicated to a single vegetable and our route took us down the onion road….
Just a few of the onions, Madurai
 …and then past a rather poverty stricken retail market.
Retail fruit and veg, Madurai
 We parked and walked to the temple through the posher streets occupied by Brahmins – for all Gandhi’s efforts to modernise India and destroy the caste system, it still hangs on.
Brahmin dwellings around the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
 And then we emerged beside the temple. There was still plenty of light to see the gopuram, but the narrow streets meant we were too close to get an overall view…
North gopura, Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
 …though parts of the north gopura are impressive enough in close-up.
North gopura, Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
 Originating in the 6th century BC, the current Meenakshi Amman Temple was mostly constructed in the 17th century. It is dedicated to Meenakshi, also known as Parvati and it was here she married Sundareswarar (Shiva) to whom it is secondarily dedicated. In 2009 in Kanchipuram near Chennai we saw the mango tree beneath which Parvati and Shiva were married - fortunately gods can easily remarry as different avatars.

To enter the temple we had to deposit our bags, shoes and cameras, which would have been mildly annoying had they not allowed camera phones to be taken in – and even sold a permit to use them – which made it very annoying.

I have no photos of the interior from this visit, but I do have some from 2009 when the rules were more relaxed – and the paint was very fresh.

Lynne at Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Feb 2009
We spent over an hour in the temple, partly because it is huge and there is always something to see in a Hindu temple, partly because it is exciting just being among the shrines and stone pillars but mostly because we were waiting for the procession.

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Feb 2009
Every evening Meenakshi is taken to her husband. Screened by gold curtains and sitting on a decorated plinth she is carried on bamboo poles by six priests behind a white ox, an elephant and a group of musicians.

Painter at work, Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Feb 2010
We found the elephant in a stone recess swaying ominously. Elephants are large (and hairy) even more so when seen close up in a confined space and this one seemed restless. The ox was nearby, standing placidly with a drum strapped to his back and a vacant expression on his face.

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Feb 2010
The procession formed up with the ox and drummer at the front then the elephant and lastly the musicians. After a short wait the goddess arrived, the drum was struck and the musicians blew, very hard, down their …. let’s call them ‘pipes’ and with the ear splitting sound echoing round the stone chamber they set off at a smart lick. I think of processions as being slow and dignified but here everybody walked as though they were frightened of missing a train and the priests at the back, shouldering their bamboo poles, struggled to keep up.

They walked several times round the interior and although there was a crowd, it was easy to slip between the pillars and catch them two or three times on each circuit. I am sure I would have some excellent pictures if I had a camera phone. Eventually they disappeared into a sanctuary where only Hindus could follow.

Left alone, we caught our breath, adjusted to the ringing in our ears and went to reclaim our shoes, bag and cameras.

Outside the light was beginning to fade...

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
....and we were shown up to the roof of an antiques shop with a view over the whole site. 

The Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
Lynne was unwell when we returned to the hotel. We retreated to the bar for a kill or cure but they had no gin so she drank rum, which may be equally efficacious. Afterwards she came to the dining room to watch me eat and toyed with some noodles. She was ill for the rest of the evening and first part of the night – I warned her about that chicken sandwich!

Top of a gopura at dusk
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

Lynne felt better in the morning and we set off for Rameshwaram.
Madurai's morning traffic
Our first stop was still in Madurai, only 2km south of the temple at the Vandiyur Mariamman Temple pond. The hole created when material was excavated to make the bricks for the Thirumalai Palace is kept full of water by its connection to the nearby Vagai River. 305m long by 290m wide it is the largest temple tank in Tamil Nadu and is the scene of a major float festival in the tenth or twelfth month of the Tamil calendar (depending on which source you read) when the Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareshwarar are brought from the temple to oversee proceedings. Unfortunately we were a fortnight too late (or too early).
Vandiyur Mariamman Temple pond, Madurai
 Beside the tank some men were stringing out long lines of dyed cotton. I think they were drying it, or maybe something else – who knows?
Busy doing something, Vandiyur Mariamman Temple pond, Madurai
We drove on towards Rameshwaram.

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