Travel Story Contributor: Gayatri
I wake up listening to the long whistle of the train. The hollow noise cuts through the morning sun rays and the vast sunflower stretches of Theni in Tamil Nadu. Yawning, I purchases some delectables from a vendor who arrives with his crass cacophonous advertising, selling breakfast on a hand tray with steaming idlis, ghee pongal and meduvadai on it, alongside a tumbler of chutney. He also carries a dispenser with hot chai. I worship my tummy god in a jiffy by savouring the venpongal and steaming tea, I await as the train makes its way into Madurai station in no hurry.
The town of Madurai is a 2500 year old heritage city that was an important center of education and pilgrimage from the times of the Pandya kings to this date that it has always been charming to visitors. Lovers of this town, refuse to leave. It vaunts of numerous temples, dotted with quaint churches, heritage mosques and a famous palace called the Nayakkar Mahal. The river Vaigai flows through and in summertime, it dries into a thin stream where women wash clothes and little children loosen the grip of heat.
My first pit stop at Madurai was the Tiruparankundram’s famous 15th century Muruka temple atop a hill. A local jeep plies 14 kilometres from Madurai town to Tiruparankundram and I hope on. As the temple is carved completely out of stone it’s a goldmine of exquisite art, paintings and sculptures etched on the walls. Macaque monkeys swarm towards me when I open a pack of popcorn and in no time, I lose it from my hands. Am I deterred? No way! Groundnut sellers wait for devotees to snack on a few, coned into a newspaper, as baby macaques wait stealthily to grab a fistful of those crunchy nuts.
The humble Madurai town is being gripped by buildings and offices, nevertheless, the lanes of Madurai have some of the best eateries, ever. I needed to bite into that part of Madurai that it holds closest to its soul. So I hunt down the best Paniyarams (little fried dumplings of rice and jaggery) and Jigarthanda (a traditional mocktail made of milk, cream and boiled sago) as those gave Madurai its distinct palate! This pleasant day, I walk into the by-lanes and streets, filled with colourful flowers, veshtis (dhotis) and pooja goodies. I smell fresh filter kaapi (coffee) aroma lingering along the soul- soothing incense vapours, amidst the divine aura of temples, churches and mosques, as my day is made exciting.
As evening arrives, I walk up to the famous 16th century the Nayakkar palace, made of white sandstone, laden with glass-work and stucco art on its walls. There is a light and sound show at the palace in the evenings, attracting the tourists to the events witnessed by the palace from time immemorial. The show begins at 6:00 pm but I arrive hours early, bargaining for the corn boiling, smeared in chilli paste and lemon, on pushcarts that also sold roasted groundnuts and sliced, spiced mangoes.
The light and sound show begins shortly and kings, pride, wars, celebrations, anger and wrath; all emotions unwind into sounds. At night, I am overwhelmed much with Madurai hospitality, at a friend’s house!
The glory I was about to assimilate the next day, at the most famous temple in India, the Madurai Meenakshi temple, and one of the oldest heritage sites in the world, was undeniably the best! As I enter, I am stunned of the aura of spirituality that engulfs me. The stone structures built on huge pillars whisper a thousand stories. Chants rise steadily. Everything around gleam and yellow lamps flicker. Old folks crouch under huge pillars, close their teary eyes, bringing their palms together singing praises. Meenakshi amman statue shone along her gold. The temple bells ring in unison and I get goose bumps as I witness. Devotees accept the Prasad; mix of flowers, saffron and sandal paste in utter humility, closing their eyes and placing the flowers on their hair. Priceless to experience.
A temple elephant with its mahout, stood guarding a hallway. Laxmi has been trained to accept donations and bless her fans with her trunk which she does, willfully. When she’s miffed, she splashes drops of water (or possible spit) on onlookers. I was one such lucky to be bestowed with her spit.
The 100o pillar hall is one of the prime attractions of this temple as the hall is famous as each pillar on being struck, produces a different musical tone from inside. It’s a marvel that still makes curious eyes horde. It indeed, makes us all wonder when we can ever push the past and build such a glory, technology-less.
Time had come to bid goodbye to this charming town of Madurai with a handful of yummy sweets alongside camera filled with beautiful snaps swelling with memoirs. Only to be back soon, to soak into the soul of this town; and never let go.
Madurai, allow me to be yours.