Heading south for a couple weeks – from Mumbai to Chennai to Madurai and throughout the entire southern region of Kerala on the west coast and north to Kochi. Madurai has been a major settlement for two thousand years and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Madurai, India Tuesday, June 9, 2009 My flight from Mumbai to Madurai via a stop in Chennai was uneventful if uncomfortable. BIG difference between international flights and the India domestic flight! The plane was old. And you know how I could tell? My window was being held together by duct tape! Yea – you read that right – freaking duct tape! The seat in front of me was falling apart and the stupid tray table wouldn’t stay upright. I was told by the flight attendant to “return my tray to it’s upright position” and explaining the situation got me nowhere. So, I held it up with my hand until we landed. I declined the in flight food service and did I mention that it was a full flight of unwashed bodies?
One of the good things about hiring a private guided tour is that a tour guide will be patiently waiting for me at the airport no matter what time I get off the plane. So, I put my headphones on – pulled out my book and just chilled for the whole flight. Then, I waited in my seat until everyone else had deplaned, leisurely retrieved my backpack from the upper compartment and slowly cruised down the isle, off the plane, down the busy hallways to baggage claim and into the welcoming arms of my driver. Until you’ve been in an Indian airport, you won’t fully appreciate this little luxury.
We drove about 20 minutes from the airport to my new home for the next few days – The Gateway Hotel. Let’s just call this a little piece of paradise tucked up in the hills on 63 acres of lush green grass and peaceful landscaped gardens complete with dozens of peacocks. The hotel is 118 years old and the architecture is old colonial.
The rooms are spacious – the staff is friendly and I fell in love with the place at first glance!
We arrived around 3:30 and after checking in, I spent some time with my tour contact, Brendan. He reviewed all the details of the next 14 days and I was able to ask a few questions. I also asked him about northern India and told him what I wanted to do there in 9 days. He promised to help me out with some of his contacts. Then I spent an hour or so just walking around the property. It’s beautiful – with gorgeous views of the city and this incredible quiet that is in such contrast to the hustle and bustle of Madurai.
Dinner that night was truly beautiful as well…and not just because the temperature had dropped to a more comfortable 85 degrees. My table was on the grass outside next to a low stone wall that overlooked the city lights of Madurai. I had two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc with Chicken Cordon Bleu and just enjoyed the night air and the view of the city below. Speaking of air – I realized that I hadn’t taken a really deep breath in days. But up in the hills – the air was clean and lightly scented with jasmine – a lovely scent. Madurai is famous for its jasmine plantations – I heard there are on average 2,000 farmers who sell these flowers daily at the flower market.
India has very distinctive smells – some good and some really bad. Incense can be good, if sometimes a little overpowering. The streets – not so good. So being up above the city was a real treat! Luke, my Madurai guide, and Baskar, my driver for the entire trip, picked me up at 9 am on Wednesday morning and we headed into town.
That’s Baskar on the left and Luke on the right.
Luke and I strolled down the market street for a while and I purchased some fruit. A half a dozen bananas – 10 rupees (about $.20) and some apples which were actually expensive – relatively speaking – because they were imported – from Washington State! Two apples for 50Rs (about $1). And of course we drove through the city and up and down various streets.
I didn’t have to wonder too long what kind of animal this was – after all – cows are sacred.
The goats are goners…
Anyone who is still thinking that they’ll see a picture of a clean street in India – is going to be disappointed.
Where are those pesky garbage trucks?
1.2 million jobs coming soon to this area – that’s big! Madurai is promoted as a second-tier city for IT and some software companies like Honeywell Technology Solutions have opened their offices in Madurai. We passed a Honeywell plant and I asked what the average wage was for one of their employees? About $800 a month. Honeywell is getting a bargain.
Madurai has a population of 1,017,865 – religious groups include a majority of Hindus with a large number of Christians and Muslims – a smaller number of Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains.
Our next stop was the famous Meenakshi Temple, a historic hindu temple. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and his goddess Parvati. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2500 year old city. The present structure was built during 1623 to 1655 CE. The temple attracts 15,000 visitors a day, which grows to around 25,000 on Fridays.
The colors interested me the most. I wondered how they had managed to accomplish this hundreds of years ago…
There are 14 towers just like these all around the temple.
Distance view of the temple — not my shot obviously
Not one of mine either…but a really beautiful picture of the temple. There are an estimated 33,000 sculptures in the temple, and it was in the list of top 30 nominees for the “New Seven Wonders of the World“.
Back to the painting question… Answer: It wasn’t painted when it was built. Look at the bottom of the tower – the grey concrete part – that’s what the whole thing looked like for centuries until the 1960’s Then the pollution and smog was so bad in the city that the carvings were all turning black.
They were forced to paint them to protect them from the smog! They are re-painted every 10 years and the whole job takes one year to complete.
The intricacy of the painting and the varied colors are stunning!
Inside the temple you can find vendors selling just about everything under the sun! I asked what they pay in rent? Answer: about $120 per month. The vendors outside the temple on the streets and corners will pay up to $10,000 per year. This temple is also the numero uno place to play hide and seek! There were kids running all over the place! Adults were carrying around bowls filled with…coconuts?
It would seem that Coconuts are the most recently accepted / approved sacrificial item to Lord Shiva. The first sacrifices were, of course, humans. It didn’t take too long for this to become a problem so they approved animals to take our place. This lasted until humans realized that animals were valuable – there was a famine across India that year. The coconut offered a good alternative…it’s abundant and what isn’t offered in sacrifice…can be eaten later because it doesn’t go bad. Common sense meets the sacrificial rules of the land – who knew?
I visited two temples today and had two different experiences…or I should say my feet had two different experiences 😦 You must be barefoot in the temples…it’s the rule. You must leave your shoes in the safe custody of the shoe man.
When you pick up your shoes, you give him 10 Rs (about 20 cents)
Caretaker of my sandals…
The first one, the ever popular Meenakshi Temple (pictured above), came with a newly laid cobblestone street running around the structure in its entirety. The inside of the temple looked like it was swept hourly and there were nice cross breezes moving through the huge complex. The next one – not so much.
In the afternoon, we visited a temple where young boys spend 8 years studying to become priests. It’s a sort of hindu seminary school. We gave up our shoes on a street some distance from the temple…that was the first problem. Have you noticed the city streets? Well I got up close and personal with them for my brief 100 yard walk to the temple and it wasn’t pretty. Dirt was the least of my worries as I tiptoed around shards of glass, cow dung and rotting food in my bare feet.
I practically leaped through the main entrance to the temple – and we go from the frying pan to the fire – dear lord. There were puddles of what I hoped was water everywhere and piles of decaying food. And while these two things on their own made me cringe a little..it was the flies it all attracked that put me over the edge. I tried to be tolerant as long as I could. I just kept swishing my skirt around my legs and tried to keep my feet moving at all times. But it didn’t take long before I was getting freaked out by swarms of the flying beasts! In addition to the water and food – it seems that another method of tribute is the throwing of butter globs! Yes – each and every one of those little yellow blobs in the picture is yak butter. This is not helping me with my fly problem.
Dude who hands out the butter globs…
Deity who is being covered with butter globs…
Just in case you were still unsure about this – a close-up! That is yak butter.
A little further in came the only moment I smiled. I was blessed by an elephant. I handed the elephant a 10Rs note, which she took from me with her trunk and then she blessed me with her trunk a couple of times on my head!
As Luke and I strolled – I mean slowly strolled through the place – all I wanted to do was RUN! And Luke was determined that I would take photos and video of the boys coming into the temple for prayers – which wouldn’t start for another 10 minutes. So I moved around as best I could – all the while poor Luke was trying to tell me about the temple and the boys education – like I cared at that point.
Serious studying — with a break to call mom on your cell phone.
As soon as I saw the first group of boys appear – I click, click, clicked away as fast as I could and then said “Thank you – I’m good to go!” Across the street one more time and back into my sandals! And so long flies!
Back at my hotel both feet and sandals were scrubbed till all were squeaky clean again. I escaped from that little horror of an experience with two fly bites on my right shoulder – how I got those I’ll never know as I wore a shirt with sleeves- and four bites on my legs. I think I got off easy. After a veggie burger and french fries for dinner – oh yes – and one glass of wine – I’m ready to head back out again to the Meenakshi Temple for one last ceremonial service. This one takes place every single night at 9:00pm – so that’s where we’ll be!
Every traditional Hindu temple such as Meenakshi temple opens at the crack of dawn with a custom of waking God and Goddess up from their divine rest by playing classical music with an opening prayer of the beautiful day.
At night during the final prayer of the day, God Siva, husband of Meenakshi would typically be carried in a palanquin from his shrine and escorted to his residing place, where Goddess Meenakshi waits in her shrine for her husband to come home.
This lively divine procession is accompanied by a piece of music along with a gathering of devotees. Once the God Siva reaches his home, they rest in their bed chamber made of pure silver.
And that, my friends, is the end of my stay in Madurai. As I type, I’m safely ensconced in the backseat of our air-conditioned Toyota whatever. Baskar is driving and we’re on our way to Kerala, to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the largest wildlife reserves in India. The trip will take four hours and I’m using this time well to get the Madurai blog page all wrapped up. Between the writing, the pictures and editing video – believe it or not – the blog is actually quite time-consuming. But I’ve never documented a trip so thoroughly before and I know the time is well spent! The roads twist and turn – we start and stop – I don’t know why I’m not carsick yet – but there you have it. Onward Baskar – drive like the wind!