Visitors often complain that India is too chaotic. But is it chaos they’re experiencing or simply a far more complex way of life than they’re used to at home?
India is, after all, about a third the size of the United States yet it has five times as many people. The flow of every day life therefore has to have far more layers, because there are exponentially more interactions between human beings going on every moment.
And this daily “bustle” shapes the country’s psyche. India’s primary religion, Hinduism, embraces thousands of deities. Onto the saris and tunic/pant combinations that women wear daily, the most intricate of patterns are dyed and embroidered. Even the traffic patterns are baffling to an outsider, as bikes, motorcycles, cars and cows zig and zag out of their lanes, seemingly missing one another by inches.
This complexity marks the culture throughout India, but in the Southern India’s famed “Temple City”, Madurai, it takes on a particularly messy beauty, and likely has since this city of 3 million people was founded in the third century B.C.
Today, most visitors simply drop by for an afternoon to wander in awe through the Meenakshi Amman Temple, built at the same time as the Taj Mahal, but as different as a peacock is from an eagle. While that more famous monument is an austere white, this temple complex, is arrayed around seven ¬gopurams (stepped, 9-story gateway pyramids) which sculptures of more than 10,000 deities, all painted in hues usually only seen on sorbet. In fact, most every surface holds murals and bas reliefs and sculptures, a whirling collage of art. Since it’s a working temple, visitors witness many of the daily rituals, from the temple elephant blessing pilgrims to a unique nightly “parade” of priests carrying an icon of the God Vishnu in a palanquin to the “bedchamber” of Meenakshi, the three-breasted goddess for whom the temple is named.
If the visitor stays, say four rather than two hours, he’ll also take in the city’s grand, if now empty, Dravidian Tirumalai Nayak Palace; and its passionately curated Gandhi Museum, which has—along with photos, books and no-holds-barred wall text about British atrocities—the blood-stained dhoti Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated.
(The Author's Daughter Being Blessed By the Temple Elephant)
But I’d like to make a pitch for staying two-nights—or more. You could easily spend your time shopping. A cotton trading hub for centuries, the town is filled with small tailors who’ll sell you fabrics in a downright splendiforous array of patterns and colors and can whip you up an outfit in just an hour (my drop-dead-gorgeous, custom-made tunic and pants cost just $18). You’ll find dozens of friendly shops, each with their own specialties, in the neighborhood behind the palace; and in the Pudhu Mandapa, a massive hall in the Meenakshi Temple complex.
Staying overnight will also allow you to take the Vanakam Madurai Tour, a 6am eye-opener that introduces visitors the city as it wakes up for the day, led by Lena, an insightful and very well-spoken guide. We visited a cowshed, and learned the many uses for cow dung (when dried it’s used for fuel and, if you can believe it, tooth paste); we helped a woman create a kolam (a design created daily in white powder at the door to a residence); we sampled hot cotton milk seed tea, a local specialty sold from carts; and we learned about the everyday sights all around us, like the massive posters of happy couples that we had mistaken for movie advertisements but were, in fact, invitations to the neighborhood to attend an upcoming wedding.
More off-the-beaten path sights can be seen with excellent local guide Baskar Ganesan. In his company, I visited a sacred spring in the hills outside the city and its attached temple, where barbers were hard at work shaving heads so that the hair could be given as a sacrifice to the Gods. (Many crying babies were being shaved because Hindus believe that the hair one comes into the world with is from your past life; at the age of 1, you give it up to the gods as a form of rebirth). We also stopped at smaller, privately owned temples; toured a village neighborhood; and saw many sights I wouldn’t have found on my own.
I hope to return some day to Madurai to discover more and, let’s be truthful, expand my wardrobe!
If you go
Meenakshi Amman Temple: Open 4am—12:30pm and 4pm—10pm. Free entry, but modest dress that covers the arms and legs is required.
Gandhi Memorial Museum: Gandhi Museum Road, open Tuesday—Sunday 10am—1pm and 2—5:45 pm. Free entry
Tirumalai Nayak Palace: Palace Road, open daily 9am—5pm with a sound and light show many evenings. Entry 30 rupees.
Vannakam Madurai Tour: Cost is approximately $20/person. For more information, go to www.vannakammadurai.com or call 08220005543.
Baskar Ganesan: Daylong tours cost approximately $50 per group, with transportation (if needed) extra. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org