Steeped in legend and jasmine aroma, Madurai draws the bulk of its tourists with ornate temples. But a contributor discovers that the city holds a unique allure for each of her family members. By Devanshi Mody
It began a decade ago, our family’s love affair with Madurai. It was January 2011. My brother, Samir, and I had relocated to Chennai from the UK and wanted to discover Tamil Nadu. Madurai was foremost recommended to us. Taking mum along, we embarked. An eight-hour journey became 14 hours because the driver stopped for an inordinate dinner break and got waylaid after one too many vadais. The journey seemed endless. Then, it ended. At 2 am, with imprecations heaped on the driver and our resolve never to return to Madurai. Little did we realise that Madurai’s presiding deity, the beauteous Goddess Meenakshi, wields the might of destiny in her enigmatic smile. Or that there’s a story in every pillar of Madurai’s temples and every quivering petal of its jasmines that would keep luring us back.
Our first glimpse of Madurai was unforgettable. Hawkers selling onions, people standing around eating street food—at 2 am! Trudging through labyrinthine streets we reached our hotel, Heritage Madurai, a creation by legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa. It was nearing 3 am. But the staff received us as if we were divinity. Even our drooping eyes appreciated quintessential Bawa manifested in clean lines, spare interiors, vast open spaces, pillared pavilions, and stretches of sleek garden encrusted with a monumental sprawl of a pool replicating a temple tank.
We would bring in the New Year at this retreat again and again. As on our latest visit. Now Anu Abraham, (aka Abi) a brisk young Malayali, runs the hotel ensconced in acres of landscaped gardens swooning under an ancient banyan tree. If we imagined that post-COVID we’d be spared the combat for our preferred villa, we discover all of South India fiercely competing for its conquest. Abi, however, waves his magic wand. And doors open.
Everyone goes to Madurai for the Meenakshi Amman Temple, as did we. Everyone goes back to Madurai for the Meenakshi Amman Temple, as do we. This temple is a love poem in the rock of stupendous grandeur. Its towering gopurams echeloned in tight sculptures, superb temple tank, and Hall of 1000 Pillars are spellbinding. After queuing for four hours, you enter Meenakshi Amman’s shrine with its staggering wealth of sculpted pillars, which boast tremendous figures of a pantheon of gods and filigreed carvings. Petrified with awe, thronging visitors seem to only add to the sculpted profusion.
Tamil Nadu’s ancient temples are legend-steeped. This one more than most. Thiagaraja, Heritage Madurai’s owner, smiles wryly over extravagant tales attached to the temple, “Our people have a fine imagination.” His daughter Rukmini, the hotel’s young managing director, defies her father’s parochialism and narrates an opulent romance: Meenakshi, during a marvellous fiery genesis, unfurled from a fire pit. Thereupon, it was presaged that her congenital third breast would vanish when she encountered her match. Meenakshi ventured on a conquest of the world, vanquishing kings and gods. Enfin, she fell upon an anchorite, Siva. Their eyes met and clashed like swords: Meenakshi realised she was Parvati incarnate. Her third breast vanished, and she made the hermit, now named Sundareswarar (‘beautiful lord’), her consort.
Meenakshi bears a parrot symbolising Kama. A dagger-like tusk obtrudes from her girded waist signifying her supremacy. Remarkably, the temple’s sculpted pillar depicting the Kalyanasundaram (her marriage) portrays her receiving the groom’s hand, flouting the convention where the groom receives the bride’s hand. Siva might be the Lord of the Cosmos but it’s the ravishing goddess who reigns here! Siva is extraordinarily consigned to a smaller shrine. From here his utsava murti makes its nightly pilgrimage on a palanquin in a musical procession to the goddess’s intimate chamber. Ushered in with flowers, he is placed on a swing beside Meenakshi’s utsava murti. In this mirrored bower, in sensual irradiation of jasmine, Meenakshi passes the night in adoration of her amour.
In 2011, Samir’s college at Oxford requested that he advise a junior travelling in India. Samir vigorously recommended that she visit the Meenakshi Amman Temple. The Oxonian couldn’t quite place Tamil Nadu on the map. But my brother prevailed, and the girl, once back at Oxford, wrote back thanking him for leading her to the “most beautiful thing” she saw in India, “More beautiful by far than the Taj Mahal!”
There is more to Madurai than the Meenakshi Amman Temple. The temple town boasts two of Murugan’s six abodes, including the sixth-century Thiruparankundram. Legend has it that Murugan slew the demon Surapadman to rescue Indra, God of Heaven, whose daughter Devyani he gained as booty and married at the terrific rock-hewn cave temple where lofty pillars surge with the fervid entwinement of amorous couples. Murugan’s other Madurai abode is the hilltop Pazhamudircholai, close to the delightful Azhagar Kovil—it would be sacrilege to miss this Vishnu temple.
There is more to Madurai than temples. The Jain caves and the 17th-century Thirumalai Nayak Palace are renowned, but Rukmini, an immense source of esoteric knowledge, dispatches us to a hilltop shrine where a Siddha saint took samadhi. One morning, delicately conjuring the seductions of the jasmine farms—all dewy at dawn and exhaling the entrancing fragrance of the flower—she makes us discover the city’s lush outskirts.
I cannot fathom how anyone manages to use Madurai as a base to explore Rameswaram, Dhanushkodi, and Kanyakumari. The goddess and her city have exerted such a fascination on us that we’ve never managed to escape its captivation, which, to my mother, inheres entirely in the famous Tailor’s Market. Over a week we somehow always feel hectic and breathless, because, as Samir rightly diagnoses, each Madurai trip involves visiting the Tailor’s Market a billion times! Mum felicitates Samir on being able to count to a billion and merrily trots away to the market with its bewitching array of vibrant fabric, glittering jewellery, hair adornments and what-not. But most arresting to me are the august sculptures of Nataraj and Kali at the principal entrance.
Little shops with their heady onslaught of resplendent fare beckon Mum whose shopping sprees are punctuated but by lunch at Murugan Idli Store, which no longer dispenses those cloud-soft idlis floating off the plate that made for its fame. But perhaps the driver took us to the modern and sanitised branch that hasn’t quite the local flavour as the tacky original outlet. Thereafter, lunch is always at the Heritage Madurai, on golden ghee dosas.
Abi has us discover Madurai like even we, self-appointed veterans, never envisaged. He suggests we visit the Gandhi Memorial Museum. Is there one in Madurai? Shocking that nobody in 10 years bothered mentioning it! Especially as it was in Madurai that the Mahatma moulted off his western garb and donned his iconic loincloth. Housed in a period building, the museum, now among the country’s five Gandhi Sangrahalayas, is one of the best museums in India. Abi is right that it’s a must-visit. He is wrong that it can be done in one hour. So elaborate are the descriptions attached to each exhibit that we don’t manage to get beyond the first room in an entire day. This is one museum unapologetically brutal in its exposition of the Raj. We read with mutinous fury about British savageries, including how “natives” were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to bits, and how Nobel Laureate Winston Churchill wilfully provoked a famine in Bengal that consumed one million Indian lives. These details were politely omitted from the British history textbooks that Samir and I were taught. We had learned only that Gandhi was a “half-naked seditious fakir” and that the British “civilised” India. Despite multiple visits we never complete seeing the museum, mostly because it closes for lunch and shuts early, always before we manage to extract mum from the wretched Tailor’s Market!
Madurai’s street food is renowned. And we marvel at how locals—maskless—cluster around vendors—maskless—gobbling dispensations of kuzhi paniyaram (ghee-fried balls of cotton-like batter), idiyappam, kottu roti, etc. In saner times, on a Madurai Food Safari its conceiver, Praveena, would whisk one off on a marathon meal deal unveiling the city’s street food secrets. She would take you to the best Murugan Idli Store and the best Jigarthanda stall, serving the eponymous cloyingly sweet and rich but eminently drinkable vermicelli-snaked drink ambrosial with almonds and roses that is Madurai’s second biggest claim to fame. Praveena’s itinerary also includes local messes serving brain. In a temple town like Madurai, such carnivorous excesses stupefy.
Back at the hotel, mum is enthralled by the North and South Indian specialities on the buffet. Indeed, we have better North Indian food in Madurai than in North India. Then, Abi surprises us one evening with a devouringly good South Indian thali, surpassed but by one Rukmini curated for us four years ago deploying ingredients from Madurai’s famous Flower and Spice Markets. Amid fluttering candlelight, on a table dappled in jasmine, we were presented jasmine-infused water. Think one kilogram of jasmine incorporated into a single glass of this elixir. Supper culminated in jigarthanda (a sweet vermicelli-snaked drink with almonds and roses). The hotel acknowledges its interpretation is clinical, punchless. For the real thing, you must hit the streets.
There was a time when Goddess Meenakshi’s benedictions sufficed to lure us. Lately, Samir has sported a blasé mien, “I’m not coming to Madurai if Puppy won’t be there to amuse us.” Puppy is the flamboyant young owner, ever apparelled in a blaze of pink, of the eponymous and equally outrageously pink bakery outside Heritage Madurai whom we met some years ago. She can be most elusive; the gourmet globetrotter spends her time scouring the world’s epicurean addresses for inspiration, imparting culinary class at her Madurai addresses. Who’d have imagined you’d go to Madurai for top-notch Christmas cake, sumptuous pure-cream ice creams, and addictive brownies? They are served up with thespian feats as Puppy delivers—over a fiesta of Belgian Chocolate Pop, traditional palkova ice cream, and Rose and Pistachio Kulfi—her dramatic views on the dismal state of gastronomy in her hometown. So showbiz is her persona that she presented a blockbuster cinema-themed restaurant, until COVID-19 brought the curtains tumbling theatrically down.
The pandemic has now made accessing temples more civilised. Previously, on January 1 at the Meenakshi Temple, a crush and heave of people spilled us, eventually, into the temple after a six-hour wait. But we’d endure pulverisation again. Preferably after a New Year’s Eve gala on the delicious lawns of Heritage Madurai where, when midnight strikes, the heavens scintillate in a bedazzlement of fireworks, as if the gods were casting about jewels from an inexhaustible treasure trove.
Madurai airport has direct connectivity with major Indian cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Hyderabad.
Lounge by the Olympic-sized temple tank pool or luxuriate in a plunge pool in your own private villa at Heritage Madurai. From INR 5,500
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on #IndiaFightsCorona for all the latest travel guidelines.