Chennai may be the capital of Tamil Nadu – a southern state of India – but Madurai claims its soul.
One of the oldest cities in South Asia, MADURAI – on the banks of the River Vaigai – has been an important centre of worship and commerce for as long as there has been civilisation in south India.
It was often described as “the Athens of the East” and indeed, when the Greek ambassador Megasthenes visited in 302 BC, he wrote of its splendour and described its queen, Pandai, as “a daughter of Herakles”.
The Roman geographer Strabo also wrote of Madurai, complaining that the city’s silk, pearls and spices were draining the imperial coffers of Rome.
Apparently named for the nectar that flowed from Shiva’s hair as a blessing for the new city (Madhurai is the Tamil word for sweetness) — was built by the Pandian king Kulasekara and was the capital of a kingdom that ruled much of South India during the 4th century B.C., and conducted trade as far afield as Greece, Rome and China.
Tourists, Indian and foreign, usually come here primarily to see the Meenakshi Amman Temple – One of the holiest pilgrimage sites in India.
Sadly, most do-not spend too much time lingering in the city once they are done with the temple visit. However, a visit to Madurai doesnt have to be about temples alone, as noted by the starndard guidebook sights, but can go beyond that.
Get ready to be seduced by the chaotic everyday life. Be prepared to witness overwhelming sights like three rush-hour lanes of cars come to a halt to let a wooden oxen cart pass.
Or, be amused by a rural lady hawker balancing a huge basket on her head, but still manages to give you a smile and a wave! This is Madurai, the true Tamilian city that never sleeps..
Since you would be mostly arriving by a Train into Madurai – assuming you are one of the adventurous immersive traveler! – make your way straight to the luxurious [but affordable] Heritage hotel and check-in.
Set in 17 acres of gardens, it has charming villa-style accommodation, a pool designed like a stunning traditional temple-style pond and a spectacular spa.
This is a great place to taste the Heritage style of Madurai’s most stunning architectural jewel even before visiting it. Address: No.11, Melakkal Main Road, Kochadai, Madurai – 625016.
Breakfast of the Gods!
Though the Heritage hotel’s restaurant – The Banyan – has fine breakfast, give it a miss an head straight to The Murugan Idli shop – for a taste of even more authentic local cuisine!
If you have tried, or love Idlis – the fluffy, pillow-like steamed concoction of rice and lentils – then Murugan idli shop is the where the batter stops!
Reckoned as the best chain for this south indian delicacy, they now have branches outside Madurai[even overseas in places like Singapore!].
But still this outlet is the king of them all. The ground level of the restaurant is always buzzing with devotees, using their oothappams and dosas to mop up banana leaves awash with a range of chutneys.
Though the name might indicate they specialize only in Idlis, dont stop with that, do sampel their ‘Otthapam’ too.
The chutneys, deliciously hot from the kitchen, consisted of mint, tomato, coriander, coconut, and the traditional sambar. Address: W Masi St, Madurai Main, Madurai
Few things in India express the continuous presence of the gods better than the ancient, massive temple complexes of Tamil Nadu.
Walk through any city here and what catches your eye first are the soaring temple entrances known as ‘gopuras’ – sacred skyscrapers(pytramid gateways) decorated with a phantasmagoria of Hindu statues of multi-armed, bug-eyed gods, mythical beasts and chiseled warriors.
There is no better place to check out this marvellous piece of indigenous style of architecture than at the site of the Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple.
A 6m-high wall surrounds the complex, and 12 looming goparas– the most impressive in south India, with the four highest reaching 46m — mark the various entrances.
Garish stucco gods, demons, beasts, and heroes smother these towers in a writhing, fascinating mass of symbolism, vividly painted in a riot of bright Disneyesque colors – looking absolutely gorgeous.
Adress: Bounded by N., E., S., and W. Chitrai streets
Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple
Built at the same time as the Taj Mahal, it is an outstanding example of south Indian Hindu architecture with nine towering gopurams smothered in a riot of colourful stucco images.
This is an amazing place to absorb the atmosphere of Hinduism, with the dark pillared halls filled with thousands of pilgrims, bare-chested priests and the scent of flowers, coconut and ghee.
One of South India’s biggest, busiest pilgrimage sites, attracting up to 15,000 devotees a day, this sprawling temple, always undergoing renovation and repairs, is a place of intense spiritual activity.
At the heart of the complex are the sanctums of the goddess Meenakshi (Parvati) and of Sundareshvara (Shiva).
What often eludes visitors to the heaving temple at Madurai is the city’s deeply imbedded cult of fertility behind the reverence and severity of worship.
The Meenakshi Temple is a celebration of the divine union of the eternal lovers, represented symbolically at around 8:30pm (could be earlier or later; ask on the day).
When they are ceremoniously carried (a ritual you can observe until they enter the inner sanctum, which is off-limits to non-Hindus) before Shiva is deposited in the Meenakshi’s chamber (whose nose ring is even removed so as not to get in the way), retired for an evening of celestial fornication.
Golden Lotus Pond
Going through the various snactums of the temple , esp. Through the sea of crowd – can drain all the energy out of you!
This is the time to head for the stairs around the great tank, where devotees gather to chat and relax with a helping of the freshest ‘prasadam’ – snacks that are religious offerings.
The Temple closes by 1:00 PM after the morning operations, so do note to make it there well before this to give you enough time to experience everything.
1000 Pillar Hall
The only downside of a trip to the temple is that if you are not a ‘Hindu’ you will not be allowed into the inner sanctum of the temple.
But fret not, you can still click away a storage card full of brilliant pictures by visiting the 16th century 1,000 Pillar Hall – an architectural marvel – that is located at the outer part of the temple complex .
The thousand pillar mandapam is regared as the ‘wonder of the palace’. There are around 985 beautifully decorated columns. Each pillar is beautifully sculptured and presents the glory of the Dravidan sculpture. This hall also houses a Temple Art Museum, where you can see icons, photographs, drawings, etc., exhibiting the 1200 years old history. Other than this mandapam there many smaller and bigger mandapams in the temple.
To celebrate the fact that you have successfully checked from the list, the one most important tourist attraction of madurai, take a quick pitstop at Sri Gopi Iyengar Coffee Center, right next to the temple complex.
Your wait under a scorching sun will be rewarded with a small glass of fragrant, caramel-hued brew topped with a fluff of white foam.
In Tamil Nadu, the brew method of choice is slow drip in a brass filter, which can hold a cup of water or be sized for a crowd at up to 10 liters, and is kept gleaming via regular applications of tamarind paste.
Beans are Arabica, robusta or a mix of the two, always blended with chicory.
To prepare an order the vendor places sugar in a wide-lipped metal tumbler, adds a shot of coffee and a ladle of milk, and then simultaneously blends, cools and froths the liquid by pouring it back and forth between two tumblers, often from great heights (thus its nickname “meter coffee”).
Madurai is famous for its textile industry. The best items to purchase while shopping in Madurai are readymade garments, cotton fabrics and handloom sarees.
The Batik and Sungundi sarees in particular are a must buy. Also, Madurai silk is a must-have.The Best option is to buy it directly from weavers at a colony close to the Thiruparankundram Temple.
But since you might be pressed for time in this quick trip, it is definitely worthwihile dropping into the Pothy’s Silk Saree shop, located right next to Murugan Idly shop, where you stopped for breaker earlier in the day.
You will also find a number of tailors sitting near the garment shops in the market, next to the temple. So, if you purchased any fabrics, you can have it stitched custom made.
These highly skilled tailors can turn around orders for blouses, shirts, skirts and pants overnight.There are plenty of private shops and cooperative society owned shops offering variety of handloom textiles.
The Puthu Mandapam Market is a famous textile market in Madurai, based just inside the eastern entrance of Meenakshi Temple.
Mess-ing it up!
The best options to try out authentic regional cuisine at Madurai are not the restaurants but the ‘mess’es — so named because of the food preparation, that reproduces perfectly the taste of homemade food, compared to hotels and restaurants – some of which you wont get anywhere outside this city!
They are also referred to as ‘Military Hotels’ at times! For a sumptious lunch, cross the vaigai river to the most famous one -the Amma Mess.
Rummaging through the menu card, you are sure to be overwhelmed at the variety of dishes on offer – rabbit, quails, pigeon etc, apart from the usual suspects – all homemade preparations cooked under the supervision of the womenfolk.
Make sure you try their ‘Mutton Liver fry’ , ‘Botti , kotthu kari’ , ‘Sukka varuval’, ‘Kothu Parotta’ and ‘Biriyani’ along with any curry of your choice.
And if you are a lover of seafood, the “Ayirai Meen Kulambu” and “Viraal Meen Fry” and divine delicacies not to be missed! The decent way to eat at these places is to send a limousine, Madurai mafiosi style, with a driver and his sidekick to collect the food in boxes.
Address: 125, Alagar Kovil Main Rd, Chinna Chokkikulam, Madurai.
After all the sightseeing and shopping excursions under the hot southern-Indian sun, you must be tired by now and it it time to take a quick power nap/rest and then head out for a quick swim at the architecturally chic pool, at the hotel , or relax with an Ayurvedic massage at the spa before kickstarting the evening with a glass of Shiraz or a cold pint of beer at the Hotel’s Swig & Tee Bar.
Sundowner @ Swig & Tee
The ‘Swig & Tee’ bar epitomises the colonial club culture of British Madurai. One section of the bar is part of the main clubhouse building of the 1970’s, while the new extension features a contemporary bar counter.
Situated adjacent to one of the oldest Banyan trees of the resort, the bar is an ideal place to enjoy a sundowner. Just ask the barman for the Heritage Special. The backdrop of the Banyan Tree adds an Eerie but surreal touch to the bar!
Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal
It is a 375-year-old monument that stands testimony to the glorious years of the Nayak regime. Now, only one-fourth of its original structure remains intact, and yet the King’s palace, popularly known as Thirumalai Nayak Mahal, here continues to enthral tourists and historians alike.
Widely considered as the most illustrious of the Madurai Nayak dynasty,the building was constructed with methods and techniques that were considered very novel in those years and its architecture is a confluence of three major cultures.
A classic example of the Indo-saracenic style, the piece de resistance of this mahal is its carved dome out-soars without the support of girders or rafters. The stucco work on its domes and arches is remarkable.
Try and catch the Light and Sound show about Thirumalai Nayakar and Silapathikaram (Tamil Epic) that runs at6.45 pm [English] and 8:15 PM[Tamil].
Address : Panthadi 1st St, Mahal Area, Madurai Main, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625001.
Jil Jil Jigarthanda
For those who do not know what Jigarthanda is, here’s a little intro. Jil Jil Jigarthanda is a rich milk-based drink that owes its origins to Madurai city.
Apparently, the drink was invented to cool the hearts of Muslim settlers in India. It is thought that the Mughals brought it in and it is similar to Falooda it is quite different!
It is a drink of such terrifying mystique – with ingredients that appear to have been dredged up from the deep waters around the Gulf of Mannar – that just whispering the name and going in search of it to a depot near the palace of the Nayaks, or Maratha kings, is to live dangerously.
Since this is something so very unique to Madurai, you cannot skip this one. The best place to try this is right next to the Mahal at the ‘Famous Jigirthanda Stall’.
Address:94, E Marret St, Madurai Main, Madurai.
Good Night from Gateway Hotel
Now that you are done with all the touristy stuff, it is time to head out of the city [dont worry, not more than a few kilometres, as thats how combat this city is!] to a completely different setting.
Just after a few minutes drive from the city centre, you will arrive at The Gateway Hotel, located in Pasumalai – a quieter suburb of this vibrant temple town.
Set in 62-acre gardens high above the bustle of Madurai, the hotel is spread out over a collection of 1930s-style buildings, giving it the atmosphere of a rather grand colonial suburb.
Here you’ll find a charmed spot – at the terrace restaruant – to relax and take in picturesque views of the Temple City and the Kodai hills while sipping on some fine chardonnay or a cold cocktail! After a few drinks down, you wont believe yo uare still in Madurai.
Best way to end the night and trip on a High!
Address: No 40, Tpk Road, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625004.
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