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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Friday, 21 January 2011

January 21st: Madurai in Southern India

On January 21st 1982 I was in Madurai, a large pilgrimage city in Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where the attraction is the temple of Meenakshi.  The temple is only 400 years old but the city is known to date back to 500BC and was visited by the Greek Megasthenes in the third century BC.

I came to Madurai by the same route as I had in 1973, descending from the hills in Kerala by bus this time, whereas I had driven before.  Madurai seemed bigger and even brighter and more colourful than I remembered it.  The journey seemed almost as good, a wide valley full of towns and temples and a very low pass not too long before Madurai.  Tamil Nadu seemed western Asia, as opposed to SE Asia in Kerala, with ploughed fields stretching to jagged hills, much poorer than Kerala and less developed, clusters of untouchable villages and some really poor-looking houses in the townships.  I don't think I can remember a single church, but some colourful temples.  There were donkeys and cows and goats, cotton-fields and coconut plantations, alternating with rice-fields.

In Madurai I went that day to the temple for an hour or more, wandering around the parts open to me, slowly and barefoot, and gradually relaxing and smiling, looking without a lot of thinking I suppose, and sat for a while by the tank, looking at the Golden Lotus and being chatted to by young Tamils. It all felt good.  There was devotional music over the loudspeaker system; I walked round the shopping precincts and took in the goddess who is given butter.  I had a fine view out of the Western Gate into a red sky with bright stove-lights in the street.  I took a walk around the streets surrounding the temple, where the trades were divided into different sections.  There were smells of incense, coffee, perfume and urine.

Next day I returned and spent a longer time in the temple, looking round the museum until I was too tired in the gloom - lack of electricity made for some interesting light in some places and gloom in others.  Then I sat by the tank, writing my thoughts:
The Golden Lotus Tank:  Picture by McKay Savage, CC, 2007
The temple bell is rung, a trumpet sounds, there is a movement of people away from the tank to the inner recesses forbidden to me.  But after a few moments the gentle rhythms of the temple reassert themselves.  An old man goes to bathe in the green water, a policeman dips in his feet.  The sounds of ambulatory pilgrims and tourists come through the consistent hum of the power plant.  Men walk round  with garlands or coconuts and bananas, the jingle of anklets, women wear their finest silk and flowers in the buns of their hair.

The temple defies symmetry, for although there are superficial patterns, nothing is alike in the end.  The tank typifies this, an even rectangle in shape, but around the edges the steps are sometimes closed off with red and white striped walls, and sometimes left complete.  The column and lamp standard is in the centre I think, but it is offset by the golden lotus which floats anchored to one side and near this corner is a square open box with gangway and inscriptions and bulls in the corners which provides a seat for a kingfisher.  The cloisters around have colonnades but each of the columns is individual and the friezes above are different on each of the four sides.  The colonnades have circular motifs painted above and on two walls there are rather faded frescoes; a third has a Tamil poem inscribed in more durable marble.  The stone steps on which I sit have internal geometric patterns in red and white, as do many of the floors of the temple and streets and villages in the south of India.

Above soar the lofty gopurams, studded with innumerable coloured statues, unrecognisable gods and goddesses with many arms, rakish moustaches or slender figures, riding on garlanded bulls perhaps or standing cross-legged, the higher ones could scarcely be seen or comprehended by anyone, except for the giant grotesque masks at very the top with great bulging eyes and gaping fanged mouths, where circle the kites and swifts and pigeons of the air.
Later in the day, I wandered beyond the temple and found I really liked what I saw.  I walked through the Pudu Mandapam, summer abode of Meenakshi and Sundareshvara, which is a very atmospheric place: the inner hall was locked off, but the outer corridor was used as a market, stalls set amongst the statues, some of which were quite fine, and some, being of gods, were covered with powder and with clothes, yet boys were working at their feet at sewing machines.  Then I wandered through ordinary streets where they weren't used to tourists, past a spice market and some grandiose buildings, where men pulled huge carts, and  round the closed palace built like a fortress, plaster over brick.  Some of the side streets here are tidy straight residential lanes, the traditional atmosphere intact.  I walked back along a long street of silversmiths and goldsmiths among striking architecture.

Michael Wood describes a visit to the temple in The Smile Of Murugan;  he came with Tamil friends on a pilgrimage tour and therefore describes the temple as seen by many Indian visitors.
Outside the Pudu Mandapam:  My picture

Madurai:  My picture

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