Madurai has been a one night visit, which has been more than enough time enough to see the sights. Our arrival yesterday lunchtime was followed by a slightly zombified exploration of the town due to us both running on about 4 hours sleep. Not even the great 10 pence fresh black coffee that we have finally found on street stalls (only took 15 weeks to be offered something other than the ghastly Chai) could kick us into action!
The city itself is a relatively small Indian city, with noisy roads and buildings crammed into whatever space possible. Madurai is unusual in that it is a fairly big tourist destination and yet the city seems completely unprepared for them. There are none of the typical amenities like guesthouses (we are staying in a cheap-as Indian hotel) or traveller orientated cafes/restaurants and as a result we have spent hardly anything whilst here!
The food has all been South Indian thalis and currys, which are more rice based so don’t come with the usual accompaniment of rotis or chapattis – a shame as that is part of what I (Toby) love about them. I have to say that I prefer the North Indian cuisine over the South, with its breads and curried vegetables, an interesting point as Joe prefers the food of the South.
Today after a decent nights sleep we went and visited the Sri Meenkash temple complex. The roads surrounding it are fully pedestrianised and there’s quite a build up as you approach! The complex has four tall parabolic towers, one on each wing and they are intricately carved with Hindu figures and also extremely colourful – a big difference from the normal stone carving we’ve seen. They look fantastic stood up rising from the depths of the city and are nicely lit up at night.
The security of the temple was perhaps the strictest we’ve experienced. After pushing through crowds of people we covered our exposed legs with cloth before being touched in every place by guards who sent us both back because we were trying to cheekily sneak our cameras in. They weren’t happy, and it’s a shame we didn’t get many pictures because it’s very hard to convey the energy within this bizarre labyrinth! Within the temple there was a real buzz with throngs of people moving about and people mantra chanting next to shrines. In the usual unhelpful fashion nothing was labelled, and despite paying the premium foreigner fee there was no simple sheet to point out aspects of the complex, so even with our own handwritten notes we walked passed the main Shiva shrine three times until we confirmed with another English speaker that that was actually it!
The real highlight of the complex, despite the chanting worship and numerous carvings, caverns, shrines and pillars, was the temple elephant who could bless you! Dressed and painted, he would take donations from your hand, lay his trunk across your head then drop the money in a bucket. On discovering that ‘it takes coins!’ we proceeded to be blessed a few times – to the point the staff ended up shooing us away!
As beautiful as the temple was there was a big drawback in that it was so restrictive, with many guards dotted around and two large sections where we were forbidden to enter as we are not Hindu. It is difficult to get properly immersed when you feel you are constantly being watched and when you step down the wrong passage (remember nothing is labelled) have someone try to manhandle you due to not being Hindu – which they judge by the colour of your skin. It isn’t the nicest feeling especially after having to pay the foreigner only entry fee and doesn’t give an open welcoming feel that I think religions should. You would certainly struggle in India if you were a white Hindu. It’s our assertion that in time India will open up and dump outdated misguided rules such as this, so if any of you make the effort to visit here you will hopefully be in better luck!
We are now up on a rooftop cafe having just had some of the worst coffee ever (Instant would have even been preferable, yeah – THAT bad) and are about to head for our final train in India! An overnight sleeper class (non-air conditioned, cheap cheap) to Chennai. As the rough guide struggles to write about anything worth seeing in Chennai, we will be jumping straight onto a morning bus to take us south to our final destination in India: the deligtfully sounding Mamallapuram. This is a place we have both been looking forward to. It’s small town (A population of only 12,000 – TINY for India) on a white sandy beach with temples and caves surrounding it and a crocodile farm just down the road! Consequently it’s a big travellers’ hub and there are multiple western-orientated cafes and eateries to laze around in (when not on the beach!) and spend our final week. Plus, I’m sure the streets will be scattered with stalls for any final purchases before the shock of Australian prices hits us!