This year we did not celebrate Christmas because of all the losses in the family. On 26th December it was one month since dad passed away and I still felt extremely low. I did art, reading, writing and while it did help me feel better, it was short-term. I had no idea what to do with myself. I decided that I probably needed to get away from home- take a break to a place that was different and yet would not get in our way; a place that would let us move at our pace. However, with the limited number of places that we could go to – all international destinations were a ‘No’, places in India where the Covid cases were rising were also ruled out, places which required us to do the test before traveling and be quarantined after traveling to were knocked off the list, places we weren’t familiar with, warm places and places which could only be reached by car were filtered out.
At the end of the filtering exercise we chose Madurai and Kodaikanal in the South of India. It satisfied the conditions – no medical test, a break from the familiar- in terms of the language spoken there, the culture of the people and the place. Madurai promised us culture and history while Kodaikanal, a hill station promised temperatures ranging from 14 – 8 degrees Centigrade (perfectly Christmassy) and an escape from the city to the hills.
When we booked the trip it was a last-minute rushed decision, I had no idea that the trip to both the places would end up being a journey that would feed the mind, body and soul. It proved to be just what we needed.
Madurai is a town in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. The history of the city goes back to 3 century BCE. Its one of the oldest towns in India and is most famous for the Meenakshi Madurai temple. Historically, it was also the seat of culture and literature and was mentioned in the writings of the Greek ambassador Megasthenes. Having read all this about the city, we went with an open mind, accepting all that the city had to offer.
Since we flew to the city on a Sunday, the 27th of December, just after Christmas, the airport and the flight was relatively empty. The airport at Madurai was small and non-descript. When we landed at around 4.30 p.m. after a two hour flight we found the rent-a-car, the travel booth and the money exchange booths (not that we needed to exchange money) were all closed. Other than the passengers who had landed and one or two police officers there was nobody else there. That was our first peek of the city.
Getting a taxi, thanks to Uber was not difficult. The hotel was an hour away from the airport and on the way there was nothing that took our breath away and yet the novelty of being in an unfamiliar environment had our adrenalin flowing. What met our eyes were dusty roads, mud baked houses and small roadside stores.
The hotel was in town but in stark contrast to the rest of the town. Built during the British era in India, it boasted of independent colonial-styled villas made of wood built on acres of neatly trimmed lawns, long walks lined with trees, century old banyan trees, a pool built like the Greek baths (which nobody was allowed to use because of Covid-19) and amazing food. The entire setting was in harmony with nature making it seem like a meditation retreat and the name of the hotel was apt – Heritage hotel. After keeping our bags we ventured out of the hotel and had dinner at a restaurant called . The chicken curry, spicy mutton fry and bread was mouthwatering and did everything to make us smile. It brought back happy memories of Dubai where the restaurant also has branches. Sadly, the restaurant does not exist in Mumbai.
What we saw in Madurai
The next day we visited the Tirumalai Nayakkar Palace which at first sight shocks because what meets the eye is an open dusty courtyard. The courtyard is surrounded by huge stone pillars painted in white, and in front of the courtyard is the celestial pavilion where the King once sat. The dome over the pavilion is 60-70 feet high. The pillars supporting the arches are 13m tall and carries a foliated valance and a beautifully carved and painted entablature which gives the pillars a total height of 20m. This is just quarter of the original palace. The rest of it no longer exists as it was destroyed by the King’s grandson. Stepping out of the courtyard, the surrounding area is filled with small stores and houses . It’s shocking to see that such a precious relic exists in the middle of regularity – there was nothing outside that indicated the grandeur of the pillars within.
The lake temple
To the east of Meenakshi temple is situated this temple in the middle of a lake. From the reviews I had read on Google the lake had been dry for the last 4 years. When we went, the lake was filled with water and made for a beautiful sight. Walkers, joggers and a few families sat around . When we got off the car to take a picture we noticed two men on a boat cleaning the lake -picking up junk that people had thrown into the lake. Around the lake, plastic wrappers lay strewn. Across the lake, on the other side of the road was a road-side vendor selling corn on the cob and behind him some children ran behind a cycle wheel, outside their homes.
On the way to the church, we stopped at Madurai’s famous ‘Jigar Thanda’ shop which literally translates to ‘cool heart.’ We had read about it in sites which listed ‘what to eat in Madurai’. Jigar thanda is a thick drink made of kulfi ice cream. It’s priced at Rs.30 per glass and is a regular amongst residents to beat the heat. As it was the 28th of December, the church was still lit up with Christmas lights and inside Christmas carols were being sung in Tamil. The church is a beautiful white building with blue trimmings.
Set in a large white building at the end of a long drive flanked with trees, it’s the perfect place for someone who believed in peace. The museum exhibits the entire history of India starting from the first invasion of the country until it won its freedom and the constitution was made in the form of maps. We spent around two hours there going through the maps and reading the information. Strangely none of us, across two generations, was bored. Maybe it had to do with the lockdown and our immense gratitude for freedom. We absorbed the information and thought of all those who had fought so hard, given up their life so we could be born into a free country. We thought of the soldiers guarding our borders and sent up a prayer for their safety. The museum had visitors other than us and most of them were locals. It was nice to see that people actually took the time to come and spent their day off at the museum. No wonder Madurai was historically considered to be a seat of learning. Thankfully, that hadn’t changed.
Meenakshi Amman Temple
The temple is one of the oldest temples in South India built in 1216 BCE. It was plundered and destroyed in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 17th century. It is considered to be a pilgrimage destination by many Hindus. In order to avoid the crowds, we went early in the morning on the second day of our stay at Madurai. Since the temple is built in the center of the old city of Madurai and the four gopurams ( a large pyramidal tower at the top of the temple) face each of the four directions, it can be seen from anywhere in the city. We managed to get a photograph of the gopuram from outside the temple. However, as cameras were not allowed inside, we could not take any photographs of the inside of the temple. I don’t think having a camera would have helped. Every inch of the temple is carved and the sheer size and beauty of it all would be difficult if not impossible to capture it. Instead, we captured it in our minds absorbing in awe the magnificence of it. The narrow entrance did not prepare us for the grandeur and the enormity of the temple. The entrance led to a long corridor whose floor was covered with black stone which felt cool under the feet. There were pillars everywhere and every inch of it was carved from floor to ceiling which in turn was intricately painted. The craftsmanship is outstanding. In all there are a thousand pillars spread over fourteen acres of land.
We hadn’t planned on going to the temple. We wanted to but we weren’t sure if it would be open during Covid or if it would be crowded. I’m glad we went because it left us speechless. The sculptures, shrines and sheer size of it was overwhelming. To think such a beautiful structure was built so long ago when there were no specialized tools leaves you in awe of it. I remember I had a similar feeling when I visited the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the cathedral in Munich and the palaces in Rajasthan. Only this was many times more.
After finishing our prayers at the temple, we returned to the hotel for breakfast.
Later in the day we returned for shopping. The area around the temple is famous for sari shopping and so I read. We went looking for ‘Puthu Mandapam’ market and after walking in circles realized it is literally opposite the Nandi statue (bull statue in the above photograph) just below the gopuram of the temple. It looks dark from outside and is easy to miss or pass by. At the entrance there are several tailors sitting with their tailoring machines ready to stitch a sari blouse or a traditional long skirt or a salwar kameez, all in a day’s time. Several small shops selling jewelry, handicrafts and paintings are packed on either side of the narrow corridor fit for a single person to walk, at a time. Historically, the market was a place where the royalty came to view cultural festivals. A canal was built outside it to keep the temperatures cool. Now, the canal stands drained and on either sides are stores selling books and utensils.
Food in Madurai
We left the next day to Kodaikanal which I will write about in my next post. But ending this post without a mention of the food or the people in Madurai, would be unfair. The buffet breakfast at the hotel was satisfying providing a wide range of dishes from continental to traditional South Indian. In fact, every restaurant we had food in, managed to satisfy our palate. The only reason we couldn’t try out the restaurants mentioned by Trip Advisor was because they were crowded and nobody was wearing a mask! However, we managed to have the local cuisine at restaurant and we relished every bite. It maybe that we got bored of Mumbai food or we were bored of my cooking- which is what I have been doing since the last one and a half years- and cooking isn’t really something that comes naturally to me. I wish it did but it doesn’t.
The people of Madurai were helpful and friendly- from the rickshaw driver to the ordinary passerby on the street, to the staff at the restaurants, they assisted us with a smile.
After the break, I can only say, ‘Thank God we went!’
Going away was important for me to come back. To all those who think we were lucky to take it I want to say, ‘ Choosing to be happy has nothing to do with luck. If someone is blessed with good health that is lucky, but grabbing whatever is available, whatever you can afford and appreciating it and being grateful for it, is a matter of choice and the choice is entirely up to you.’
If you enjoyed reading this, join me on our trip to Kodaikanal – ‘The princess of hills’ Closure : From Madurai to Kodaikanal
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