“So which spirit rules your home? Is it Madurai?” asks a turbaned fortune teller perched on a kerb, grinning cheekily. Before I can recover from my surprise and respond, he melts into the shadows of gathering dusk. I ponder his question as I stroll through the narrow lanes leading from the magnificent Meenakshi Amman or Meenakshi Sundareshwar temple.
It is an enquiry repeated often in this temple city and is bound to confuse visitors until they are aware of the myth that sparked it. For centuries, locals have embraced Meenakshi, the fish-eyed one, believed to be an incarnation of Parvati, as Madurai’s patron goddess. She was the daughter of a Pandya king who ruled these parts and married Lord Shiva. If the spirit of Madurai “rules your home”, the woman/wife is more powerful. That’s the way the goddess is celebrated and cherished at the Meenakshi Temple, while Shiva takes a backseat. Locals consider it the ultimate tribute to womanhood.
In the old days, life revolved around the temple, so the city’s streets were built in concentric circles around it. Even today this area is a thriving hotbed of activity, but there is a lot to experience within and beyond Madurai. Elephant Hill, for instance, is located on the city’s outskirts (25 km northeast of the temple). The 10-minute trek to the top affords a spellbinding view of the holy city, and the beautiful, ancient Jain inscriptions at a cave there offer a glimpse into its syncretic past.
I avoid auto rickshaws, cyclists, and a menagerie of animals on Manjanakara Street in central Madurai and come to a stop at a breathtaking sculpture. It is the gigantic, colourful Nandi that guards the entrance to the Pudhu Mandapam shopping centre.
Originally built in the 17th century as an annexe to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the labyrinth of stores is rumoured to be connected to the shrine via an underground passage. Nearly 300 shopkeepers sell their wares in a large hall punctuated by carved pillars and statues. You can buy everything here: glittering sequins, jewelled embellishments, hair accessories, and special dhotis to dress the gods. At Raja Stores, I find the rare thazhampookungumam, a rich red kumkum scented with the screw-pine flower, which is used in Maha Shivratri rituals.
Dozens of massive white pillars lead into the vast courtyard of Thirumalai Nayakar Palace. I am stunned by their girth: It would take at least three adults, arms linked, to encircle one. The palace’s beautiful arches and latticed windows appear European. That impression is confirmed by a signboard: King Thirumalai Nayak had commissioned an Italian architect to build the palace in 1636. Everywhere I look, a beautiful shade of sunshine yellow gleams from the archways.
The palace shrine’s inner dome is covered in gold, and intricate friezes of dancers and deities prance across the inner arches, many of them painted in brilliant red and green. It is said that the palace was originally four times larger but was destroyed in a fire started by Chokkanatha Nayak, Thirumalai Nayak’s grandson. It was partially restored in 1866-72 by Lord Napier, then Governor of Madras (daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry ₹5; sound & light show daily at 6.45 p.m.; tickets ₹10).
Hundreds of stone statues in various stages of completion dot Vellalar Street in Velacherry, 8 km southwest of the temple. A fiery yaksha (benevolent nature spirit) stares at me with beady eyes, while many others lie face down, bleached white by the blazing sun. The workshops are bare, but shelves sag with an array of terracotta sculptures. Beautifully painted mud and plaster-of-Paris idols are laid out to dry on the floor. All these handmade sculptures are much in demand during Navratri celebrations.
It looks like rose-tinted slush but tastes like ambrosia. The refreshing, although shockingly sweet jiggerthanda is a great way to experience Madurai’s culinary flourishes. There is no one recipe and most vendors won’t share information on the ingredients they put in it. For ₹35-50, patrons are served a glass of chilled milk, cream, rose syrup, vanilla ice cream, crushed almonds, china grass, and bits of fruity jelly. It is delicious and supposed to cool your heart—perfect for this arid land.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Guided by the Goddess”.
Madurai is the third largest city in Tamil Nadu, 460 km/9 hours southwest of the state capital Chennai. Several buses and trains run between the two cities, including the twice-weekly Chennai Central-Madurai Duronto and the Chennai Egmore-Guruvayoor Express that departs daily. Madurai Airport, 12 km from the city centre, is connected via several daily flights to Chennai.