After Munnar and its beautiful tea plantations, we took the bus again to get down from the Western Ghats mountain range and reach the holy city of Madurai. The mountain road from Munnar down to the plains is stunning, but just like when we went up the mountain, we did fear for our lives a few times! Between the bus’ brakes screeching at every turn, the turns themselves being extremely tight, the absence of any security barriers, and passages so narrow that even the Indian drivers couldn’t pass each other, we got our fill of adrenaline… To crown it all, the 3 women sitting in front of us each took their turn being sick and regularly changed seats to throw up out the window. Mirella, Emmanuel’s sister, was even lucky (or rather unlucky) enough to get a bit of it on her sleeve.
Nonetheless, we survived all these emotions to get to Theni, from where we had to change buses to get to Madurai. This last bus is also the only one we took in India where we got some entertainment, in the form of reruns of a kind of Indian Pop Idol with children. Simply awesome!
Madurai: pilgrimage and religious fervor
The Sri Meenakshi Temple, the heart of Madurai
Visiting Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi temple
Let’s start with some practical considerations. The temple is particularly strict in terms of “appropriate dress”. For mens, it is imperative to wear a long-sleeve shirt and pants (or go Indian with a dhoti). So you’re usual shorts and t-shirt simply won’t do! For women, you need to cover your shoulders and legs, and you are not allowed to enter the temple during your period (this is the case in all Hindu temples). You also can’t bring a camera (smartphones are allowed), cigarettes or lighters, all forbidden. Don’t try getting in with those, you will be fully searched before you go in! Finally, you will be barefoot for the whole visit, since you have to leave your shoes at the entrance.
Leaving your shoes (chappal) is free, for other forbidden objects, it will cost you between 5 and 10 rupees (depending on the clerk’s mood…). Beware of the crowd there can be at the drop point at peak hours. At those times, you will have to push and shove to have a chance of dropping off or picking up your shoes! So also be mindful of the pickpockets which can take advantage of the compact crowd of Indians pushing each other to reach the counter first.
During the search (one line for women, one for women), as a foreigner, you will also have to fill a guestlist with your contact details, as well as your passport and visa numbers.
Entrance to the temple costs 50 rupees per person (as of late 2016), and 30 rupees to take pictures with your phone (250 rupees for video).
If you want a guided tour, it’s very interesting and we think it’s worth it: count 300-400 rupees for a 1h15min tour. Be careful to take an official guide who speaks English (or your own language) well. As everywhere in India, many hustlers pose as guides, even though they have neither the training nor the skills for it. Some even have fake laminated cards to make the scam more believable.
Regarding your visit timings, the best is early in the morning and then in the evening. Outside of those times, there can be very long lines, especially with the strict security checks. Be advised that the temple is closed from 12h30 to 16h. Your ticket is valid all day though, so you can go in the morning, and then come back at the end of the day.
Finally, there are many shops all around the temple that sell souvenirs. They will offer you to come visit their rooftop to get a view of the Sri Meenakshi temple from above, saying “Free to look! You don’t have to buy! Come! Come!”. Of course, you don’t have to go in, and if you do, the vendors know how to be very persuasive to get you to buy something. If you have the strength to resist their salesmen skills, go for it. Indeed, it’s one of the only ways to get a full view of the temple complex and grasp its splendor.
History of Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi temple
After arriving in the city in the afternoon, we quickly went to walk in the city, around the famous Sri Meenakshi temple. The temple is a huge complex, right in the heart of the city, adorned with 14 massive gopuram. The gopuram are a kind of pyramid, typical of South India, covered in hundreds if not thousands of sculptures and bas-reliefs, all painted in bright colors. The highest gopuram in Sri Meenakshi is 52m high, and it is estimated there are 33 000 sculptures throughout the temple complex!
The temple takes its name from Meenakshi, the Tamil name of Parvati, wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesha. It is without a doubt the most sacred hindu temple in South India, attracting between 15 000 and 25 000 visitors a day, and up to 1 million during the 10 day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival between April and May, which celebrates the marriage of the two gods. The temple is also considered as the height of Vijayanagar architecture, as important for South India’s heritage as the Taj Mahal is for the North!
Tamil texts dating back over 2 000 years mention the temple, although the current structure “only” dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries following its destruction in the 14th century by the Mughal invaders. The Sri Meenakshi temple is a breathtaking place, with a unique atmosphere where the weight of history, religious heritage, and bustling life collide. It is a particularly lively temple: people moving around everywhere, singing, playing music, praying, laughing… It is a living space in itself, filled every day with the intense fervor of the pilgrims who flock there.
Rituals in Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi temple
These pilgrims notably wait in line for hours to see the sanctum dedicated to Meenakshi. Unfortunately for us travelers, this holy area is forbidden to non-hindus. According to our research, it features a gigantic statue of Meenakshi, sculpted in a green stone, which is said to be emerald, but which is most likely rather jadeite. While you won’t be able to see that statue, don’t fret: you will see hundreds of others, along with the rituals practiced for each. Indeed, each god gets its own ritual! And there are many… know that there are over 300 million gods and goddesses in Hinduism!
You will notably see the prayers dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant God, in front of his big statue, near the main entrance (South gate, pictures strictly prohibited). The faithful pull on their ear lobes with their arms crossed to ask forgiveness for their sins. Near the East gate, in front of the Nandi, Shiva’s sacred vehicle and protector, the pilgrims whisper their deepest desires in the cow’s ear for the Nandi to transmit them to Shiva who will make them come true. As we said above, each divinity has its own ritual, and with the thousands of statues in the temple, you can spot the subtleties of each.
Every evening, around 20h30-21h, there is a procession, led by the Brahmin priests, to bring the statue of Shiva to Meenakshi so the two can spend the night together. Together, they will bring order to the universe… This is without a doubt the most impressive ritual you will witness during your visit. Do not miss it!
The Hall of 1 000 pillars
One of the most amazing monuments in the temple, besides the gopurams, is certainly the thousand-pillar mandapa, near the East gate. This grand majestic hall is adorned with exactly 985 pillars, all different from one another. Among the noteworthy details, in the first row, two pillars are called “musical” because they emit notes when you strike them (beware, it is forbidden to touch them…). Also, near the back of the hall to the left, there are some small erotic bas-reliefs on the pillars (it took us a good 10 minutes to find them). Be advised, you have to pay an additional entry fee to the Hall of 1 000 pillars. It costs 50 rupees per person, plus 30 rupees if you want to take pictures with your smartphone.
Other things to see in Madurai
Just outside the East gate of the Sri Meenakshi temple, this 10th century temple is no longer a place of worship, but rather a place of commerce! You will find dozens of tailors who will offer all sorts of bespoke clothes, as well as sellers of cooking utensils, and craftsmen sculpting religious objects out of metal. It’s a striking mix of sacred and profane, and it’s free to boot!
Thirumalai Nayak Palace
This 17th century palace, built with the help of an Italian architect, was once a massive majestic monument 300m long by 220m wide. Now, it is just a shadow of its former self, as there is only a quarter of the original building left! The only parts that remain are a big courtyard infected with pigeons, the throne hall (with a poor copy of the original throne), an administrative hall and a dance hall. In the latter is a small museum with some poorly-featured artifacts, with no explanations. Finally, in a small courtyard outside, there are some ancient statues. The entrance costs 50 rupees plus 30 rupees for photos (real cameras are allowed here).
It’s not entirely worthless, but can certainly be skipped if you’re only staying for a short time in Madurai.
Gandhi Memorial Museum
Madurai is an important place in Gandhi’s history. Indeed, the city is where bapu decided to stop wearing European clothes in 1921. From that moment on, the father of the Indian nation only wore a modest dhoti for the rest of his life. This museum, dedicated to Gandhiji’s life and struggle for independence, contains many of his personal objects, including the dhoti he wore the day he was assassinated as well as the letter he wrote to Hitler in 1939. Stamp collectors will also be delighted to find a collection with every stamp in the world dedicated to Gandhi.
We did not visit the museum, so we can’t tell you if it’s worth it or not… If you do go there, it will cost you 50 rupees to take pictures. The entrance itself is officially free, but a donation is more than recommended!
Where to eat and sleep in Madurai
Where to sleep in Madurai
We slept at the Rani Mangammal Residencies, which had the best value for money when we booked (a day or two before we arrived), notably because it had triple rooms (as a reminder, Emmanuel’s sister, Mirella, was tagging along at that point). The triple room cost 2 025 rupees (taxes included) a night, with AC. The hotel was nothing special, with somewhat unwelcoming staff, and a bathroom with a strong stench of mold, although the room itself was quite clean. The hotel has a good location, a 10-15 minute walk to the Sri Meenakshi temple, and 5 minutes away from the train station.
There are certainly better places to stay in Madurai, but also much worse ones. On accommodation, as Madurai attracts many pilgrims throughout the year, it’s worth booking a bit ahead if you can.
Where to eat in Madurai
There are many cheap restaurants to eat a decent thali in the streets around the temple, notably on Town Hall Road and West Perumal Maistry Street. We don’t have specific names to recommend, notably as we forgot the name of the one we enjoyed a lot on West Perumal 🙂 So just do like us and walk around until you find one that suits you, it might be the same one!
For something a bit more stylish, we highly recommed the Surya Rooftop Restaurant, on the roof of the Hotel Supreme. The food there is very good for a decent, albeit slightly more expensive, price. The highlight though is definitely the panoramic view from the rooftop over the whole city, and especially over the Sri Meenakshi temple. We were even luckier since we were in Madurai during Diwali, so the backdrop to our dinner featured fireworks going off throughout the city!
After our two days in Madurai, it was time for us to continue our pilgrimage by going to Tanjore. Now called Thanjavur, this former capital of the Chola kingdom is famous for its temple, one of the most beautiful in South India, and for being the rice bowl of South India.