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As we made our way to the ancient city of Madurai, we entered the state of Tamil Nadu. Madurai was settled two millennia ago and is one of the world's oldest cities to have been continuously inhabited. We took an over night train from Mysore to Madurai and arrived early in the morning.
We had reservations for accommodations already and hired a taxi to head to our resting place. To our surprise it was very difficult speaking to the local people. Although we knew little Hindi is spoken in the southern states, like our previous destinations, we were expecting to get by on English alone. However, the local service providers, i.e. taxi drivers, shop keepers, restaurant staff, hotel staff, etc. hardly spoke English. On the ground level and areas tourists would visit, the staff of these locations could not communicate in English very well. It was very challenging. Most people only spoke Tamil, which we could hardly understand one word of. We had heard that in spite of lack of Hindi in these places, English had been adopted as the second main language. However after our struggles, it seemed maybe English was widely spoken by the educated class and not the general working class (who came into primary interaction with visitors).
My first impression of Madurai wasn't the greatest. It wasn't a beautiful city nor was it very clean. It was a very large city, and much more populated than Bangalore and Mysore. It was also warmer.
We had one main destination to visit in Madurai and that was the temple Meenakshi Amma ( literally meaning Mother Meenakshi, referring to the goddess Parvati, wife of Lord Shiv). This is one of the few very large temples devoted to a goddess. The temple is believed to be in existence since the 7th century. However due to destruction by Muslim invaders, the temple was rebuilt by the former Nayak dynasty in the mid 17th century influencing its current architecture. It is one of India's oldest and very popular temples.
The temple was very crowded and there was a long line to get inside. Once inside there was a long line to view the stone deity at the centre of the temple for which majority of the people were here to see. Many devotees and religious folks came to offer prayers, or were on a religious pilgrimage. For Maneesh and I the main interest was to see this very old Indian structure. We had read and learned much about India's magnificent historical structures and were fascinated to actually see this kind of history.
In spite of the age of the temple, it was very well maintained. It was mainly made of stone walls and floors. The temple was an extremely large compound, like a maze. We had to go bear foot inside as per the custom. We spent 2-3 hours inside the temple making our way through.
I like to describe the spiritual belief system of India as a giant web. It has many many intertwining threads. Visiting some of the ancient temples not only provided deeper learning of aspects of Indian history and the social/cultural thread, but also provided greater insights into Indian mythology. Although I wasn't there on a religious pilgrimage, many other visitors at the temples were on a pilgrimage (like it was a mission). There was a dress code observed by many and most were barefoot (sign of humility). People travelled from far and wide to fulfil their sense of religious duty or to bring some kind of offering to the deity presiding at the temple. The temples were built in historical destinations that coincided with some event associated with the deity the temple is dedicated to. It was fascinating to see the conviction people set out with to fulfil the rituals, which are believed to either lead to a heightened sense of enlightenment, washing/clearing of sins or to have prayers answered by performing the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is also a form of austerity for some, to fortify a religious or spiritual discipline.
Once we were finished at the temple, we went on a city tour of Madurai. We visited another palace (belonging to the Nayak dynasty), where we caught a light and sound show. Through the use of lights and narration, the palace was set up like a stage, and the audience was told a story of the place. In addition we visited a couple more old temples (with similar history and construction as the Meenakshi Amma temple).
There were also a couple of other temples we visited. They had a similar structure to the Amman Meenakshi temple and were also colourfully painted. one of the temples was sculpted out of a cave in the 8th century. Similar the Murugan Temple we visited used cave sculpting techniques and had colorful tower. The exact age of the temple is unknown, but most likely its from 6th century or later, according to the architectural influences.
One of our best and favourite South Indian meals was had in Madurai at a restaurant called Sabrees. We had the typical South Indian cuisine of dosas, idly, uthpams and discovered something called pongal here. It became our new favourite dish. Pongal is basically rice and lentils boiled together like a pudding and had the South Indian flavouring. It was a dish similar to a popular North Indian dish known as 'kichidhi'. It was very flavourful.
With that we wound up our stay in Madurai and headed to Rameshwaram!