WORDS: SHEENA DABHOLKAR
PHOTOGRAPHS: VINOBHA NATHAN
If Madurai were a book, it would be an anthology. Ruled by Pandyan kings for most of its history, it traded cotton with ancient Rome for silver and gold. Legend goes that Lord Shiva was present on the day the city was to be named, and, as some drops of nectar fell from his locks, the city came to be known as mathuram, meaning sweetness in Tamil.
It’s not all too surprising that one of India oldest cities is made up of stories. You’ll learn some of them on the Once upon a Madurai tour by Storytrails, a guided walk that takes you to temples and monuments, indifferent to their intricacies and splendour, focusing instead on their myths and fables.
One of the pitstops on the tour is the 17th-century Pudhu Mandapa, a pillared hall that now functions as a tailoring and shopping arcade. It’s yet to officially open for the morning tour, but come back later to see the whirring of sewing machines and buy sparkling costume jewellery and sari borders. It’s full of sculptures, including that of the three-breasted goddess Meenakshi, who, according to legend, lost her third mammary the moment she met the one who was her match in every way.
Mere footsteps away is the city’s pride and joy, the Meenakshi Amman Temple with its many storeyed and many storied gopurams – ornate statue-adorned towers that are a typical feature of the temples in the state. Built by four dynasties over six centuries, the temple was founded by the Pandyas, taken over by the Cholas and Vijayanagaras and completed during the Nayak reign. There’s much to discover inside the labyrinthine complex, including a hall with 985 pillars, known as the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, which now houses a museum of sculptures, murals depicting the life of the goddess, and a monolithic statue of Lord Ganesha. Two inner sanctums are devoted to Meenakshi and her consort Shiva. Reserve a few hours to explore. Mornings are a flurry of activity, but visitors also return to see the fascinating ritual to unite the god and goddess at bedtime.
After the tour, make your way to the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace on foot to avoid traffic snarls, and also pause at Famous Jigarthanda for the city’s favourite drink. The glass of milk cream sharbat with almond pisin (resin) and nannari (sarsaparilla plant) will provide a sugar rush that will last a few hours. The 17th-century abode of the king, the palace is an example of Dravidian-Islamic architecture with a curious melange of styles. Partly destroyed and pillaged by Thirumalai Nayak’s own grandson, only a fraction of the original structure remains, but it’s still quite grand with impressive stucco work, richly-decorated archways and a dance hall that will transport you back a hundred years.
It is believed that the soil for the palace was excavated from the Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam, a tank with a mandapa on an island. Though it only fills up in the monsoon and for the annual Float Festival, it is a great place at which to spend the evening, digest some of the stories and contemplate this fascinating dichotomy – a rapidly-changing city steeped in history.