The principal reason to visit Madurai -- for you as well as for tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims -- is to experience the ecstatic spiritual life of Meenakshi Temple; though the numbers of international tourists traipsing about (and the introduction of an entrance fee for foreigners) has unfortunately made the experience a little more commercial, it is still a magnificent temple, particularly at 8:30pm when the evening "aarti" takes place .
Legend recalls that Meenakshi began life as a glorious princess, born of fire with three breasts and eyes like a fish. As she grew older, she overpowered all the gods with her impossible beauty until she encountered Shiva, upon which her third breast disappeared, as was foretold, and she immediately proposed to him. Madurai is where the divine couple was married, and where their celestial union is celebrated daily, making Madurai one of the holiest cities in India
While sitting inside the temple itself can provide hours of entertainment and a palpable sense of Tamil Nadu's deep spirituality (as well as a sense of its religious commerce), the streets immediately near the great temple are full of character, and are best experienced by just wandering around. Head down Nethaji Road (exit from the West Gate) and keep your camera handy for the great view back down the narrow stall-lined road, over which the magnificent goparum towers.
Not far from the temple, Tirumalai Nayak Mahal (Palace Rd.; 1.6km/1 mile north of temple, tel. 0452/233-2945; admission Rs 50; daily 9am-1pm and 2-5pm) is a 17th-century Indo-Saracenic palace built by Tirumalai Nayak, much of it dismantled by his grandson, who rebuilt his palace in Tiruchirapalli; the remaining parts were later restored by Madras governor Lord Napier in 1858. Aside from the "Heavenly Pavillion" -- a rectangular courtyard with 18m-high (59 ft.) colonnades -- not much of the original atmosphere survives, and it's a bit of a letdown after the vibrancy of the temple.
Fans of the Mahatma may be interested to know that it was in Madurai in 1921 that Gandhi historically exchanged his kurta and dhoti wardrobe for the loincloth, typically worn by the poor. Today the bloodstained khadi loincloth he wore when he was assassinated is encased in a glass shrine at Gandhi Memorial Museum, which chronicles India's history leading up to independence (Tamukkam, 5km/3 miles east of the city center; tel. 0452/253-1060; www.madurai.com/gandhi.htm; free admission; daily 10am-1pm and 2-5:45pm). Avoid the adjacent Government Museum, where visitors experience 2 million years of history in 30 seconds as they whiz past a 9th-century Vishnu statue, 12th-century Pandyan works, undated Chola statues, and a stuffed polar bear.
If the Meenakshi Temple doesn't blow you away, and you'd like to experience a truly authentic temple experience as yet untainted by any form of tourism, take a rickshaw to Thirupparankundram Temple, 8km (5 miles) from Madurai center, but very much part of the continuous sprawl of the temple town. While it's by no means as decorative as the Meenakshi Temple, this evocative cave temple is older and has a very sacred atmosphere, particularly on Friday, when women with marriage or family troubles place candles or sit on the temple floor and create rangoli patterns on the ground, using colored powders, ash, and flowers as offerings to Durga. Take a few rupees along to offer to the resident temple elephant, Owayat, who shuffles and waits to bestow blessings after gracefully accepting your offering in his cupped trunk. If you make it into the inner sanctum (strictly speaking not allowed, but the friendly priests may turn a blind eye) you will see the ghee-blackened carvings of the gods, carved into the holy mountainside on which the temple has been built.
Last, if you're up for one more temple experience, set aside a day (or preferably two, given the long drive) to visit Rameshwaram. An island off the southern tip of India, Rameshwaram has a legendary role in the epic of Lord Rama and is today considered by many to be the second holiest place in India for Hindus (after Varanasi). It's not en route to any other sites, so you will have to return the way you came; it's also a little far for a day trip (350km/217 miles round-trip), though many foreign visitors tend to opt for this, given the lack of pleasant accommodation options on the sacred island. (if you do decide to stay, we recommend the Hotel Royal Park, just 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the temple, with has standard amenities and room facilities; tel. 04573/221-680; www.hotelroyalpark.in).
It's also worth being warned that the smell from the nearby waters is, on certain days, appalling. Aside from the temple's incredible pillared courtyard, the key attraction and worth seeing, it is not architecturally on a par with the Meenakshi Temple, but the carnival-like atmosphere -- created by domestic pilgrims for whom a visit here is the fulfillment of a spiritual quest to visit the seven holy sites of Varanasi, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Pushkar, Kanchipuram, Madurai, and Rameshwaram -- is what a trip to the temple destinations of India is all about.
Perfume City -- While walking through the temple you will come across women selling garlands of jasmine flowers -- purchase one for a small donation (Rs 10/Rs 20) and ask the seller to tie the garland in your or your female companion's hair, or simply hang it around your neck and breathe in the sublime perfume of the Madurai jasmine flowers, said to give off a unique fragrance, for which tons are exported all over the world. If you're here for a few days make time to visit the city's bustling 24-hour flower market, located behind the equally compelling fruit and vegetable market (between North Chitrai and North Avani Moola sts.) where vendors deal in masses of the most gorgeous blooms, many of them destined to become temple or wedding garlands.
Pulling Out Sin -- You may notice devotees, particularly of Ganesh, standing before their god and tugging their ears -- this action is symbolic of pulling out sin!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.