From Thirunelveli, I arrive in Madurai late in the evening. Long famous for its Meenakshi Temple, it is the heartland of Tamil culture. I imagine something ancient and fabulous, untouched by time. By first impressions, I am disappointed. It is a typical modern Indian city with all its entrapments of traffic, noise, pollution and even rude behaviour. But really, it is foolish to generalize from a single encounter with the caretaker of a low budget lodge.
‘Even if you offer me the room, I won’t take it,’ I reply to him.
‘Even if you want it, I won’t give offer it,’ replies the caretaker who sports a generous application of holy ash across his forehead.
‘Even if you offer me the room, I won’t take it,’ I retort in the same tone.
‘Even if you want it, I won’t give offer it,’ comes back the sharp reply.
In this manner we rally, in a rather silly manner like kids at school. This is like a scene taken out of a Tamil movie in which Senthil and Koundamani enact their silly slapstick comedies. The shopkeepers nearby look on with amusement. I am embarassed with my own behaviour, walk away in a huff and soon enough find a place to stay on Town Hall Road. It is a basic room that costs a ridiculous Rs. 120 per night. I would have liked something more comfortable but it’s been a long day. I have no energy to continue searching for better options.
I have dinner and sit at the busy restaurant trying to think of what to do next. So near, yet so far. That’s how I feel right now about the Meenakshi Temple. Someone tells me that it’s barely a kilometer away. It’s quite late in the day. It’s better I visit it early in the morning.
At half eight in the morning, I see one of the temple’s huge gopurams for the first time. The view is framed by shops on both sides of a narrow street leading towards the gopuram. The sun is already a good way up from the eastern horizon and is beating down brightly on the gopuram. The details of colourful sculptures are hidden in this backlight. The gopuram is standing magnificently on nine levels. Its twin horns are plainly seen with decorated finials linking them on a line. The shops are still closed. The street is nearly empty and mostly quiet but for occasional sounds of men talking, motorbikes starting up, women sprinkling water and street vendors calling out this morning’s offer of fresh vegetables. This is Madurai waking up to another busy day.
Most people head straight into the temple for a darshan of the deities but I am overwhelmed by the gopuram towering over me. It is packed with sculptures in bright colours. Among the many, I notice one scene in which Vishnu is performing the marriage of Sundareshwarar and Meenakshi. Vishnu stands on the left, Meenakshi at the center and Sundareshwarar on the right. After taking my time to admire the Western gopuram, I walk around the temple. The streets are interestingly named after Tamil months – Masi, Avani, Chitrai. Streets of these names go around the temple on all four sides. It seems to me that the planning of the temple extends beyond the temple walls. The layout of the streets and their names suggest a link with astrology and its influence on religious order. These are stuff that I can never hope to understand without dedicated study and qualified guru.
Madurai is a place popular with foreign tourists to South India. As such, there is a definite order in and around the temple. Security is strict at all the four entrances. Cloak rooms and chappal stands are many. Neatly clipped lawns are maintained as buffers between some temple walls and the streets. The walls are painted in the traditional bands of red and white. Street stalls sell their usual stuff of flowers, garlands, coconuts, oil lamps and souvenirs for every pilgrim soul. Men in crisp white dhotis stand around looking for business. Their foreheads are smeared with holy vibudhi with a red dot at the center. Their hair is oiled and neatly combed. Ripe bananas hang by the dozens from long strings. There is much going on here but there is definitely a neatness in the way things are done here.
Amidst such busy scenes stand the magnificent sculptures of Madurai. The entire area in and around the temple is like an open air museum. What is more striking is that no one seems to notice these masterpieces of Indian art. They stand almost forgotten. They stand between shops and moving crowds in stone stillness. It appears at times that they looking at the world with contentment and self-satisfaction. At times they seem to be amused by the things people do and the pace of life. The smile on their lips, the mudras of their fingers and the look in their eyes are more than just sculptural masterpieces. They are an inspiration.
But really, these masterpieces are not forgotten. They give that impression only because the people of Madurai are used to such grandeur. Where everything is grand and wonderful, it is difficult to pick one and place it in memory. It is difficult to give one that special status. So when I arrive at the Eastern gopuram I am stunned by the mandapa facing it. A board announces this to be “puthu mandapa” or “new mandapa.” The central portion is off limits but the corridors running around the mandapa are packed with little shops. At nine this morning, most of the shops are closed. I’ll have to come back here later.
I take my time with the sculptures – Bhadrakali dressed in a bright blue saree, Shiva in a stance of Urdhava Tandava, the familiar marriage scene of Vishnu, Sundareshwarar and Meenakshi, yalis, warriors on horseback. There is a strange sculpture of a woman with three breasts. This is the tale of Meenakshi who was born with three breasts. It was said that the third one will disappear once she meets her future husband. Surely enough, when she met Sundareshwarar, it disappeared. Another great sculpture in the mandapa depicts Shiva killing a demon elephant – Gaja Samharar. Shiva dances on the head of the elephant that is stylistically depicted on the pillar with all four feet spread out. On another pillar, Ravana shakes Mt Kailash where Shiva sits with his consort Parvati. This is a popular theme in Indian temples. I remember seeing it in Belur, Karnataka but the most magnificent ones are in Ellora.
The first thing I notice when I enter the temple are the crowds. I wonder if the temple is always as crowded on any day at any given hour. I stop to look at a miniature model of the temple. One of the massive gopurams stands in the background across a large stepped tank. The tank is dried up. There is a golden lotus in it. I learn that this is the Golden Lotus Tank. This is supposed to be the place where the Third Tamil Sangam resided in the 3rd century AD. In ancient Tamil culture and literature, there were three sangams or gatherings of poets and scholars. It is said that the first two were held in cities today lost to the sea. The Third Tamil Sangam was based in Madurai. This morning, the scenes in the stone corridors around this tank are anything but poetic. I can see only a sea of bobbing heads making their way to the inner shrines; but a real poet is sure to find poetry even in this.
Inside the temple are wonderful sculptures, particularly at the Kalyana Mandapa – Lord with one leg (Ekpadar), Lord donating His wheel-weapon (Chakradaanar), Chandrasekhar, union of Shiva and Vishnu (Sankara Narayanan), half-man and half-woman (Ardha Nareeshwarar), Lord killing of demon (Kala Samharar), Lord killing demon elephant (Gaja Samharar), wedding scene of the trio, Meenakshi with three breasts, Bhadrakali. Pillars are sculpted with wonderful reliefs. Walls are in places painted with narrative scenes of legends of the Fish-Eyed Goddess (Meenakshi).
The ambience inside the temple is spectacular. Local devotees and visiting pilgrims throng the aisles and mandapas. Foreigners wearing red tilak on their foreheads and garlands on their necks walk around spellbound by the scenes. Little oil lamps flicker in front of a decorated relief of Hanuman. A young couple comes prepared for prayer. They take their time to pour out oil from a bottle into little clay lamps. The woman arranges a wick carefully in each of the lamps. They lit up the lamps together, some dozen of them. They take these as offerings to their favourite spots in the temple. Whatever their beliefs may be, this simple ritual of praying together definitely brings them closer and makes them stronger in the face of life’s difficulties. They may not perfect on their own but I think they are perfect for each other.
A baby is lying on its back on the temple floor before the Kalyana Mandapa while others are watching it carefully. It must be just a couple of months old. It’s been brought here for blessing. Elsewhere, two girls sit down before a colourful kolam. They bring out two small cymbals and start singing bhajans. They sing for many minutes, not minding the crowds around them. They sing sometimes with their eyes closed as if in deep reverie.
The layout of the temple is complex. It takes me many repeated walks to find my bearing. In every pillar, there seems to be something to look at and admire. The vast proportions of the temple are truly impressive. Darshan of the Goddess is more popular here. Sundareshwarar takes a secondary role. I stand in the queue for some minutes but the fans are off. The air is stuffy and the day is hot. Worse still, after quarter of an hour, I haven’t moved an inch. I lose patience and skip darshan. I wander around till almost one, the time the temple closes for the afternoon.
After a quick lunch, I walk to the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace. This is a palace from the 17th century. The Nayakas as we know gained prominence after the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire. The palace has some beautiful stucco work, painted ceilings and long perspectives of solid round pillars and cusped arches. Yet I am not all that excited by it. The museum in one of the rooms is quite boring. Beyond the open courtyard, in an octogonal space under a dome is a space where the throne might have stood in the past.
My walk through town takes me to the Koodal Alagar Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. Vishnu resides here in three forms – seated, reclined and finally standing. These three forms are stacked one above the other within the vimana. By paying a small fee, the temple priests allow visitors to climb up to the roof and enter the vimana on higher levels. The view of Madurai from here is dull. Buildings crowd the temple all around. I cannot see the gopurams of Meenakshi Temple.
Lord Koodal Alagar (Vishnu) completes the tale of Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar. He is the one seen in sculptures as giving away his sister in marriage to Sundareshwarar. The temple is small but the walls contain superb pilasters. Decorated palanquins used for processions line parts of the temple corridors. I wait for the temple to open for darshan. At precisely four, the sanctum is opened. I have darshan and return to wandering the streets.
It doesn’t take me long to get back to the Meenakshi Temple. I go inside once more to take in the scenes in the rich atmosphere of evening turning into night. The queues for darshan are longer now than this morning. Instead, I visit the 1000-pillared hall and its lacklustre collection of exhibits. They are attempting to make a museum in this space but so far they have only made a mess of the place. The real exhibits are the superb reliefs leaping out of stone pillars. Sculptures of yalis are so many and with so many variations. A man apparently smiles with his drooping moustache and flowing beard but everything about his body, jewellery and dress suggests a voluptuous female. On one pillar the composition revolves around the entire pillar – Kaumari rides on her heavenly peacock which is chiselled with beautiful feathers and jewellery, two attendants flank the goddess and the peacock while one of the attendants wears a beautiful nose ring with a hanging pendant. Such little details in these sculptures are remarkable.
Elsewhere, there is a 100-pillared hall where free yoga classes are conducted every morning from 6 am to 7 am. I can imagine what an atmosphere it must be to have a session of yoga within this great temple. I walk within the temple just absorbing images, sounds and smells of worship. When I am tired, I come out by the Eastern entrance. The mandapa I had seen this morning is now busy with brisk late business. Tailors are plenty. Their legs are busy peddling while skilful hands move around the quick moving needle. Vendors are trying to sell hand-stitched embroidered decorative cloths to foreign tourists. Women are standing undecided before a multitude of colourful bangles. Souvenirs are being offered on sale. Wooden spoons and ladles, iron woks and pans wait for kitchen use. This is perhaps Madurai as it was a few centuries ago.