The main attraction of Madurai was the Meenakshi temple, which reigns over the centre of the city like a fantasy fairground attraction.
A visit is essential but we had to get there so, as is customary in new places, we decided to stimulate our senses by walking the back streets.
Within a hop and skip of our smart business hotel we were in the residential area. The two-story buildings were constructed of a sand-stone type of rock. Doors and windows were covered with complex yet decorative iron grills, many depicting gods and animals.
Because it was Pongal many Hindus had decorated their front steps with patterns, shapes and words, a practice called ‘kolam’ carried out by the women. Traditionally this was done with rice powder and is thought to bestow prosperity to the homes. Shapes frequently included fish and other simple to draw animals, filled in with coloured powder.
We would nod and say “happy Pongal” to whoever stared at us (everyone) and this always raised a smile.
We found the Tamils to be very friendly and we felt quite at home roving those back streets towards the temple.
At the end of the residential area we hit the backstreet market where a cacophony of ladies in very bright saris yapped and chirped as they bought fruit and veg off each other.
Younger, prettier girls shied coyly from the camera, and then got upset when I didn’t take their picture.
It became a game and I imagined that those I didn’t photograph were probably offended, so I made of point of taking pictures of all of them. Ugly old toothless crones, school girls, butch middle-aged mums and the occasional pretty one too.
They loved the attention and I loved photographing them, but trying to get them to pose naturally was very difficult. They simply could not avert their eyes from the camera!
Around the corner we found the men, working hard on an old building site, smashing sledge hammers on old broken down walls. As soon as they spotted the camera, they too wanted their photo taken but they were much easier to persuade to act natural. Any opportunity of showing off their manhood, they carelessly swung their tools as I clicked away.
In that same area were many, many 4×4 vehicles and it didn’t take long to realise these were hired by the many thousands of pilgrims who visit Meenakshi temple, coming from hundreds of miles away. We got speaking to some of them and they explained that there was a famous circuit of six temples that they take in, two of which were in Madurai.
Most of the pilgrims here were young, enthusiastic men who insisted on having their photograph taken. They were fascinated by Liz, a blond-haired, tall woman with a tattoo down her arm, but not as fascianted as the front of my lens. I lost count of the amount of times these men shouted “Just one photo” at us.
It was in this area that we came across two brothers who didn’t mind me taking their portrait. They were anorexic looking, and one had the most incredible beard. Look into their eyes and tell me what their story is:
Before visiting the temple for the first time (we went twice) we checked out the famous covered market to the east. It was a fascinating wander around the tailors’ stalls.
Typically we couldn’t refuse the offer of trousers being made to measure for us, ready in the space of a few hours. Since getting these light, loose fitting pantaloons I have been wearing them ever since, so comfortable are they.
We ventured further east and drifted down a road whose walls either side were carved in mysterious shapes (above and middle image, below).
On the north side we came across a ‘mall’, a four story building with small shops around the bottom and a hidden, central courtyard.
As we approached a number of men beckoned to us to come over (right). No other tourist was in the area and it seemed that these men wanted to show off their shops. They sold blankets and pillows, why on earth would we want to see this? Still, we were attracted by their animated waving.
We were in for a fantastic surprise. In the centre of this mall was a large shrine, with statues at the bottom and a tower with ornaments that reached up through the centre of the floors to the roof, which was open in the middle.
On each floor around the statue were small shops, all dealing in something to do with bed-wear. Occasionally we’d spot a skinny Indian walking up the Escher-style staircase with an extremely large sack on his head, stuffed full of what looked like wool.
The view from the rooftop was quite unique, looking west back down the peculiarly walled street, towards the covered market and then the Meenakshi temple. After surveying the view from the roof, a view I guess few tourists see since we were somewhere rather off the beaten track, we made our way slowly back down each staircase. On the upper most floor we found a number of lads teasing this wool, which turned out to be synthetic stuffing.
It was a very strange setting: industrious lads sitting crossed-legged, stuffing pillows and duvets, in front of this long-forgotten shrine that was masked in dust particles coming from the workers. I couldn’t work out if the building was once a temple or if the shrine had been built into the mall on purpose. It was very odd but after spending over half an hour investigating we thanked the men on the street for showing us this strange wonder.
And that’s the beauty of India, it is full of strange wonders, and Madurai must have more strange wonders than most.