People bail out of plans, but when you have to prove to yourself that you are a strong, independent woman who need no one, it becomes a Thomas Hardy novel (fatalism? destiny?). I have been dreaming of Madurai for a long time and this week was the only chance in the rather hectic college schedule. I polished my knife, a fruit knife for personal safety (things we do to survive), and set out to grab a train. That’s how Madurai happened.
Inside the Pandian Express, some people squeezed themselves and gave me seat. The people of my section were especially nice. I became friends with the guy next to me. Badshah was partially deaf. He told me about his work and life through actions, business card and occasionally, writing. He was working as a bike mechanic in Madurai. Hours passed and everyone in the compartment was silent and asleep. It started getting cold. Amusingly, when I opened my eyes I could see the skyline of Madurai at 6 am, the sun was rising and the city was still lit by the street lights from yesterday. Train neared the Madurai station and everyone got their luggage ready. I bid goodbye to Badshah, and he asked to call him if I ever needed some help. After getting down at the station I got freshened up at the waiting hall. If you are traveling to Madurai and are looking for some place to freshen up, the station has a facility where you can use an air conditioned waiting hall for 10 rupees per hour.
Entering into the streets of Madurai from the station, everything was calm. It was 7 am. I walked to Meenakshi Amman Kovil. On the streets people were getting ready for the day’s business. Shop keepers washed their stores with water and turmeric, flower selling women sat with their basket of flower garlands and cows roamed around on the almost deserted roads. I had breakfast at a local place; they had curry leaves in idly, just like the way Ammachy makes them.
When King Kulashekara Pandya adopted an abandoned baby girl, they were apprehensive about the future of Madurai, for women becoming rulers were quite unheard of. She was named Meenakshi, with ‘eyes that of a fish’. Meenakshi grew up to be a brave warrior, conquering all the lands. Finally she arrived at the kingdom of Sundarar. On the battlefield, Meenakshi saw the king, Sundarar, and fell in love, literally at the first sight. They married and are now worshipped at the Meenakshi Amman Kovil, a rather huge temple with a female presiding deity.
Having known the story of the temple, I started towards the shrine. There are five gates for the temple. I entered through the South Gate Tower. This tower was brilliantly filled with sculptures of most intricate designs. Entering into the temple is a different experience. No exaggeration, but one can understand why generations of people have been frequenting Meenakshi only by witnessing the architectural splendor of this temple oneself. It is very large and complex. Huge stone blocks arranged one over other, at a time when human labor was the only possibility. After waiting in the queue for more than half an hour, I got to enter Meenakshi’s shrine. Here the granite sculptures around glimmered in the lights, having been polished by hands of millions of devotees over more than five centuries. Inside I caught a glimpse of Meenakshi, hundred meters away in the most magnificent manner. Suddenly I had a crisis. I felt like breaking down. It was so beautiful to see the deity with flowers and lamps around her, the air filled with sandal scent. There was a sudden burst of emotion; I am not sure if was happy or sad. It felt great to experience a feeling that I have not known before.
Alagar Kovil is around one hour from the Madurai city. Located at the foot of a hill, this is a Vishnu temple which was mentioned in classical literature. I arrived at the Alagar village around 12 pm. It is a serene region, far from the madding crowd.
Every time you travel, you need to have the one moment where you feel that you are free and lost. A positive feeling of self-trust. The Alagar village did it for me. I didn’t know anyone or anything around me. Everything was raw and unexplored.
Here, I saw an old couple; the man had lost an arm and the lady couldn’t walk easily of an injury in her foot. They said they were coming from Kanchipuram. I thought I’d stick with them and help him carry one of the two huge bags he was carrying. The woman talked to me but I couldn’t understand most of it, much like Greek and Latin, Tamil is also alien.
Inside the Alagar Kovil, however, it was crowded and I lost them. After a couple of hours, I caught a bus back to Madurai. Due to the heat I went to the railway station and stayed there for another two hours. It was here that I contemplated a bit about life. I wrote in my diary, for the first time in two months. Oh how things have changed over those months.
When the heat calmed a bit, I went to the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal. This is an underrated architectural marvel. The huge pillars and beautiful ceiling goes unappreciated in the popular knowledge. Interestingly, this palace is an amalgamation of Dravidian and Rajput styles, as evident in the windows and doors. The ruler of Madurai, Thirumalai Nayak, built it in 1636.
As I got out, the sky darkened and there was a thunderstorm coming. It started to rain while I was in an auto to the Theppukulam. Theppukulam is a temple which was supposedly to be amidst a pond. Reaching there, there was a temple, but no pond. That’s the problem here; water shortage. The Vaigai river, devoid of any traces of water is another example of the crisis.
Due to the rains I couldn’t get out of the auto. The accompanying thunder was another deterrent. So I cancelled and went to my last destination which was the Prithu Mandapam Market. Prithu Mandapam is a pillared hall serving as an age old market for cotton fabric, handicrafts and metalwares. Here men sat in rows, sewing bags among other things.
The rain continued for hours. Drenched in water now, another crisis hit: the fast depleting battery of my phone. I went into a grocery store in the market and asked if they could charge my phone. The old man who ran the shop was very helpful and asked me to get inside, for it was raining heavily. He had a couple of other old men as storekeepers. While my battery charged from 0 to 19 %, we were having discussions on agriculture, the towns and the climate. I had more new friends now. If any of you readers are in Madurai and would like some wheat or dry chillies, you can visit APNR stores. They are nice people.
At the end of a long day, it was a different experience. And a sweet one, although there was a scorching sun and heavy lightning in a gap of two hours. (Drama adds to life.)
I have been sad for a year now. I don’t know if I am genuinely depressed, but each day was dark like the one before, and the one after. But now, I feel happiness. A strange kind of happiness and calm. Maybe it’s not forever, maybe it will disappear in a day. But if an ancient city could bring peace, even if for a few hours, I guess that makes Madurai one of the most beautiful decisions I have made.
Apparently, traveling alone isn’t depressing at all.