December 30, 2004

Madurai Mania & Psychedelic Temples

I was quite happy to leave Kanyakumari, and head north to an ancient capital, Madurai. During the train journey, I made pleasant conversation with my fellow Indian travellers. The mother of the family I was seated with, insisted that I share their dinner, which was curry and rice on a banana leaf. This is a traditional combination, which requires the eater to use his or her fingers to mix it up and place into the mouth; something that I was not overly keen to do, because my fingers were filthy. Regardless, I gratefully accepted, making several cultural errors, when I used my left hand to catch dropping rice. As you may or may not know, in India the left hand is used for duties best not mentioned here.

I arrived in Madurai at 10:30 in the evening. Immediately, I was struck at how it reminded me of the India I was familiar with up north. So far, the south had seemed calmer, cleaner and less intense, but Madurai instantly banished such thoughts.

I took a taxi to my hotel, which I must say, has become the second grottiest dive I have ever stayed at. The first honours still apply to the shithole on the Kashmir border, in Pathankot. However, my Madurai venue does gain first honours for being also the noisiest hotel I have ever stayed at, with the constant barrage of whizzing motorcycles and cars, as well as full-volume blasting temple songs. On top of this, the room was swarming with mosquitos. Luckily, I found enough hooks to assemble my mosquito net, otherwise I would have been eaten alive.

The next day, I took an auto rickshaw to the world famous Sri Meenakshi temple, which was constructed in the 16th. Century; although Hindu rites had been practised there for more than a millennium.

As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by touts trying to drag me into their oriental bazaars, with false tales of the temple being closed or that their shop offered free views of the site from the roof. Ignoring these pests, I continued on my way, entering the vibrantly decorated temple complex. Inside, I was struck by the towers that jut up into the sky. Each of the six towers are a psychedelic dance of engraved imagery, representing great Hindu myths and icons. The two central towers are the core of this religious experience. Within, is the Ayiramkaal Mandapam or the Hall of Thousand Pillars.

The ambience is very intense, with pilgrims praying and leaving offerings at every image of their gods. Statues and sculptures were stained with the remains of melted candle wax, and the flickering of tiny flames briefly swathed the shadows, as incense poured into the air.

Like all Asian temples, there are various sanctums that must be passed. I innocently passed into the inner most core of the temple, walking about enamoured by the atmosphere. After several minutes, a Hindu priest ran up to me, and told me sternly that I was in a place that only Hindus are allowed to go. I apologised, and quickly made my way for the exit. Two Saddhus rushed up to me, and informed me again of my error, but they were charming and told me that there was no problem. However, it was nice to get a glance of the "holy of holies".

As I left the temple, I was constantly accosted by beggars and touts, but through perserverence, I managed to escape with little more than a few lost rupees. My auto rickshaw driver was a nice enough fellow, but as to be expected, tried his best to get me to visit one of the souvenir stores or tailors nearby. After several refusals, he finally got the message.

By the evening, I was quite desperate to get out of Madurai. It is not a bad place, but it is filthy, busy and noisy. By this time, my shoddy hotel was beginning to wear me down. I arranged a train ticket in the direction of Pondicherry for my departure at 6:45 the following morning. I was very concerned that I would not wake-up, meaning yet another day of ear torture and pollution inhalation. However, there was no reason to fear, as a Hindu temple directly across from my hotel, started blasting music out at five in the morning. As much as I tried to carry on sleeping, it was impossible, so I had a good laugh - the maniacal kind, when you accept defeat - and went on my merry way, hoping that Pondicherry would give me a respite from chaos.

On the jouney northwards, I befriended an eleven year old boy who was seated next to me. He wants to be an engineer, and he certainly has the intelligence to succeed. We gave each other a quiz to pass the hours, and I was astounded at his general knowledge. He shamed me more than once, I am afraid to report.

After the seven hour journey, I finally arrived in Pondicherry. As a result of the "cruelty" that I endured at my last hotel, I decided to splash out and stay somewhere a little plusher. Sure it isn't costing $4 a night, but I hardly think $15 is breaking the bank. However, after settling into this haven of cleanliness and tranquility, my stomach ulcer decided to give me a miserable night of hell, resulting in terrible agony and no sleep. Hopefully, this will not be repeated tonight.

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