I had been to Madurai years back and save for the famous Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple I didn’t quite take to the town. For one, I had to stay in a dark and dingy lodge with fluorescent green and yellow walls that had no windows at all. The surroundings of the hotel were anything but green. Houses and other buildings were constructed with no gap between each other and there were hardly any trees. I abhor concrete jungles.
When my family decided to make a road trip to Madurai on the long weekend last week I decided to go only because of the Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple. My earlier visit to the temple town was a fleeting one and I didn’t get to see the entire temple. A most notable miss was the fabulous kalyani (temple pond).
We started early morning on Ganesh Chaturthi day which was a Friday. Our trip was along NH7 which I must say is a very green highway. The SUV was moving fast thanks to the fantastic condition of the road which made it difficult for me to take pictures. Mountains could be seen at a distance on both sides of the road. Surprisingly, in spite of it being a festive day, I hardly noticed any festive fervour. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha stared from hoardings at many points during the drive. A lot of lush green fields skirted the highway. It felt nice looking at the luscious green expanses.
We stopped at a place called Vedasandur for lunch. Aarti Hotel where we lunched is a very simple joint and the interiors are very quaint. Furniture is the 70s’ kind and the staff a mixture of old and young. The lunch thali was a simple Tamil Nadu spread of a bowl of rice with sambar, rasam, vatta kuzhambu, papad, butter milk, cabbage curry and Ivy gourd curry as accompaniments. I loved the vatta kuzhambu. I just couldn’t have enough of the tangy preparation so I asked for a second serving along with more rice.
Post-lunch was another green drive. We arrived at Madurai at 5pm. Our place of stay, The Gateway Hotel, atop the Pasumalai Hill has a green driveway. The sprawling 65 acre property which houses heritage buildings said to be owned by the Madura Coats group was once the residence of a British official. Painted in white and red, the beautiful colonial buildings perfectly complement the verdant greens they are surrounded by. Some of the trees on the property are labelled. I spotted a variety of trees of the Ficus family. Neem trees, sago palms, tamarind trees, frangipani trees, coconut trees, cork trees and many more varieties add to the tree wealth on the beautiful campus. There a lot of peacocks and peahens on the estate hopping around merrily. After a welcome drink we were ushered into our living space. The dim-lit interiors of the room had an old world charm and the period furniture glowed in the filtered light from the lampshades. There was a door which led to the backyard at the centre of which was a wrought-iron dining table and chairs painted in spotless white.
Just as we were having a recce of the room, we heard a peacock call from a distance. My niece nudged me to move outdoors and off we went in search of the bird. It wasn’t long before we spotted the fella near the swimming pool. I have never had such a close view of our National bird. Wow! He looked so magnificent that I found it difficult to take my eyes off him. A staff member was feeding him bajra and she invited us to join in. We stretched our bajra-covered palms out to the peacock and fed him. When he was picking the grains it felt like he was plucking our fingers. We loved the experience! In a while more peacocks joined in and a couple of squirrels too and I must say we had a party 🙂 🙂 . We were lucky we reached the spot at the feeding time because later we realized the peacocks don’t respond to calls unless there is a staff member with you.
An ornate wrought iron bench painted in white that overlooked granite mountains proved to be the perfect place for us to stretch our legs and relax even as we took in the beautiful panoramic views of the green surroundings.
Later in the evening, my niece played around in the swimming pool and I reclined on one of the deck chairs with a PG Wodehouse. As the evening wore on and night fell we had to move back to our room. The buffet dinner that night was a sumptuous multi-cuisine spread. I just loved it!
The next day
I woke up next morning around 5.30 to a peacock call. I opened the door to the backyard and spotted him perched on a tamarind tree. And there were Seven Sisters too [also called ‘Saath Bhai’ in Hindi, the jungle babblers usually move around in groups of seven].
Whoa! So many birds and the scent of mountain air made me feel I was in paradise. There was a slight drizzle and I could see a bright rainbow in the sky. Sadly my camera battery was drained so I couldn’t take a picture of the rainbow and the peacock who struck some fantastic poses (sigh!). He even danced! (sob sob why did my battery have to get drained 😦 😦 )
Like the dinner spread the last night, the breakfast spread had a lot of items. I particularly loved the Paal Kozhukattai [rice balls dipped in sweetened milk]. They tasted so much like Rosogullas. If it hadn’t been for the label on the container, I would have thought I had eaten Rosogullas (yum yum yum).
We hired a taxi to take us first to the Thiruparankundram Muruga Temple and then to the Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple. We had to make it fast because the temples close doors at noon.
The 1200-year-old Thiruparankundram Temple is a rock-cut temple. The deities are carved in stone and inside a cave. The gopuras of the temple are colourful and majestic but sadly I couldn’t take a picture because of time crunch. Constructed by the Pandya dynasty in the 8th century AD, the spot is believed to be one of the six abodes of Lord Murugan. Legend has it that it was at the spot where the temple stands that he was married to Devyani, the daughter of Indra, the King of Gods. The mandapas which lead to the temple were constructed by the Nayaka dynasty during the 17 and 18th century AD. After paying our obeisance to the deities we moved on. There is another shrine atop the granite hill and to reach that we would have to climb 600 steps. We decided not to go again because of time crunch.
Our next stop was the Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple. The 12 gopuras of the Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple are majestic and adorned with stucco work depicting deities, mythical animals and demons. Every 12 years, the gopuras undergo a makeover followed by a ceremony. As the name suggests, this ancient temple is dedicated to Meenakshi (fish-eyed avatar of Goddess Parvathi) and Sundareshvara (another name of Shiva which translates to ‘the handsome God’ in Tamil). Meenakshi is however the key deity of the temple. Our guide tells us that during the 7the century AD the spot where the temple stands was a field. Farmers discovered a Shiva Linga in the field and informed the ruling Pandya kings who in turn decided to construct a temple and dedicate it to Shiva. Local lore has it that Meenakshi was the daughter born to an issue-less Pandya king after he performed a yagna. When the princess who was fish-eyed was of marriageable age a swayamvar was organized by her father. She chose Shiva as her husband. The two have since ruled Madurai as deities of the temple.
Subsequent dynasties like the Nayakas added to the original structure. The gopura at the eastern side of the temple is the main entrance. The sculptures that adorn the temple are simply fascinating. It is only here that Nataraja (the dancing avatar of Shiva) is seen performing the Tandava Nritya with his right leg raised. Our guide also pointed towards a painting of a Linga on the ceiling which turns towards a person as he or she turns. This was simply amazing! A work of a versatile artist!
The kalyani (or temple pond) is another attraction here. Also called the Potramarai Kulam (or Golden Lotus Tank), it is surrounded by pillared corridors.
At the temple, you can’t miss the Thousand Pillared Hall. It has 985 ornate pillars and doubles up as a museum.
After leaving the Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple we headed to a handloom shop. Madurai is also famous for its handlooms. Our lunch stop was at Sree Sabareesh, a popular restaurant in this part of Madurai. Lunch done we headed towards our hotel.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wooing peacocks. Try as I did I couldn’t get the pictures that I wanted. The peacocks refused to give me a good pose. In the evening, I headed to the wonderful seat overlooking the hills and continued reading the PG Wodehouse book. As dusk fell and I was retreating towards the room I noticed a pair of oh-so-cute curious owls. I just loved their expressions 🙂
Late in the night, I spent a good one hour trying my hand at table tennis and realized that I can hold a TT racquet and strike a ping pong ball. Yay!!
Dinner was another mouth-watering fare. Kudos to the chefs of The Gateway Hotel! The Bundhelkandi Masala Rice was my favourite and I helped myself to another serving.
The last day
Day 2 started wonderfully well with the call of peacocks. My niece managed to feed a peacock and was on cloud nine. A couple of squirrels too joined the peacock. After a hearty breakfast it was time to leave. It was rather painful bidding goodbye to such a beautiful place.
I spent the journey back home dreaming about the paradise that we left and the lovely peacocks. For once, I forgot about the existence of my camera. It was even sadder to think that the next day I would have to wake up to an alarm and not the call of a peacock.
And I no longer think Madurai is a concrete jungle. The temple town has a lot of green patches too.