Madurai the jasmin city
The city of Temples
The Meenakshi Ammanahanaleshvara temple
The city is centred around the spectacular Meenakshi Amman Temple, with, amongst other sights, the 100 pillared Mandapa Nayaka Mandapam, a pillared corridor with different animal sculptures at the top of each column.
Every night at around 9pm there is a festival where an effigy of Meenakshi is taken by sedan chair, with lots of hustle and bustle and shouting, through the temple to spend the night with Shiva, her husband and the same ritual is carried out every morning to return her to her chamber.
The temple is huge and surrounded by four huge towers; East, West, North and South, which, at the time of building were the highest buildings in India.
Pilgrims are everywhere here, dressed in brightly-coloured saris and garments and many have their heads shaved in the surrounding streets before entering the temple – both men and women.
Photography is not allowed inside, but at times people are able to take smart phones in, but this changes at the drop of a hat, so check it out.
In the evenings the atmosphere is further enhanced by long rows of ghee lamps, whose flames dance on the ceilings and off the golden statues in the temple.
There are many areas in the temple which are closed off to non-Hindus, so make sure that you don’t stray into these areas by accident.
Around the temple
In the temple courtyard is a bit of an eerie sight, which are wooden cradles suspended on a tree with dolls inside, these are Golu dolls, offered to Lord Krishna by couples so that he will bless them with a baby.
The huge temple pool, is partly accessible, as is the majority of the temple, being roped off at times, it has a huge golden lotus flower, which acts as a spout for the fountain.
Depending on the time of year you are here, you are almost likely to be swept along by one of the religious festivals that take place in Madurai throughout the year.
Madurai is a real assault on the senses at 110%, it is exciting, colourful and full of smells and sounds that is quite unlike any other city in India we have been to so far.
What to see
At the entrance to the city is the flower market, which is a bubbling mix of sounds, smells and colour like I have never seen before.
Flowers are mainly used as offering to the Gods and by women in their hair, the smell of jasmin in the market is almost overpowering – the jasmin from Madurai, is called Madurai Malli by the locals and is famous throughout India.
Apparently Christian Dior visits Madurai flower market every year to get some inspiration for the perfumes they make.
The flower market is one of the least visited places by tourists in Madurai, which is unbelievable, given the spectacle that is on show – we saw no tourists at the market. Do get here early in the morning if you want to see all the flowers onsale and the animated haggling of sellers and buyers as they tend to pack up by the end of the morning as the heat sets in.
There are a lot of tailor shops around the temple – we were followed by a man, from a discreet distance, who turned out to be a tailor, anyway, to cut a long story short, I had some shirts and trousers made and my wife had some dresses made to measure in about 2 hours, amazing quality and amazing prices too.
We came from Rameswaram on a two-day stopover in Madurai (any less time is simply not enough) on our way up to Kodaikanal. The road was good until we hit the traffic of madurai, which, according to our driver, is always hellishly busy.
It took us about three hours to get to the outskirts of Madurai and another hour-and-a-half to get to our hotel near the centre.
Where to stay & eat
We stayed at a pretty budget hotel, Mani’s Residency, not far from the temple, about ten minutes on foot and were surprised to see other tourists in the hotel as it looked typically Indian. It was cheap, air-conditioned, comfortable and clean, but the best part was the proximity to the temple.
There are lots of street food, restaurants and cafés in the area, as well as a very cool view from a rooftop restaurant to the temple, which is lit up at night.
Some delicious street food to try in Madurai, which is surprisingly non-veg for a city of devotional hindus, are Kari Dosa – the usual three layered dosa with egg and spiced, minced meat. Succulent crunchy Kola Urundai – lamb meatballs fried util the outside is crispy and served, as with the dosa with tomato, coconut or coriander chutney. Fish from Rameswaram are used in a gorgeously spicy curry called Meen Kuzhambu – for a typical dessert, try the Kalkandu Sadam, which is sticky-sweet rice pudding with nuts and spices, served wrapped up in a banana leaf.
Jigarthanda is Madurai’s version of Lassi – an ice-cream, made with condensed milk, fruit and almond jelly. For breakfast try the Keerai Vada, doughnut shaped fried breads served with the usual south Indian chutneys or sambal. Beer and wine is available in the bigger tourist hotels too.
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