Travel Tales: Exploring Tamil Nadu (Story 1)

Most of us know Tamil as a language. We know Tamil Nadu as a state in India. But if you ask a native of the land, they’ll tell you that Tamil is not just a language or state. It goes beyond geographical and language identities. Tamil is a culture. A culture that has a heritage of several centuries and has grown while keeping its inherent identity intact.

Most of my exposure to Tamil Nadu has been primarily Chennai, the modern capital of Tamil Nadu. And of course, a few tourist towns like Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry. I’ve driven past several other towns, not really stopping to explore. I’m familiar with the language, and some aspects of the culture – being a South Indian who has several friends from this identity – but the history is buried in the temples, the local lingo and the streets.

The first stop this time was at Madurai, the temple city of Tamil Nadu. The town had been on the list for a long, long time, especially the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.

The temple, which was supposedly built before the 7th Century AD, features in Tamil literature predominantly. The temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. The temple was repeatedly plundered in the 14th Century by various Mughal armies, and had to be restored in 16th Century. There are a total of 14 gopurams, one of which is seen in the photograph.

Starting off:

It is Diwali, and we drive on the highway looking at cracker bursting in the sky all through. The streets of Madurai are empty, even though it is barely 7.30 PM. We wonder if Diwali is big in Madurai. For the night, on our agenda, are three important places:

  • Amma Mess – known for its bone-marrow omelette
  • Arumugam Mess – Known for great meat dishes
  • Chandran Mess – Ditto
  • Jigar Thanda – a sweet delicacy of the region

The hotel is just a few metres away from all these places (What luck!) and we are set to try out all these and more in a few minutes. Except, when we get there, the street is entirely deserted and everything is shut. Turns out, Diwali is big in Madurai and no meat-serving place is open (lesson for the future!)

The hotel still serves meat, we figure, and are about to turn back when we catch sight of the bright, LED lights of a shop! It says “Jigar Thanda – Since 1952”. We figure we could tick one item off the list, and grab two specials. The place was fairly small and crowded with families, so we figure we hit on the authentic place.

Except, there is another place a few metres ahead and they too claim to be from the 50s. A quick google search tells us that the sweet drink is old, and there are several such places. The drink itself – a mix of kulfi, with an extreme dose of sweetness. Google tells us it has almonds and a few other things but all I can taste is cloying sweetness!

Day 2: We check out early and head towards the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. It is barely 10.00 AM in October, and the temperatures are hovering in the late 30s. The streets leading to the temple are quite narrow, and mostly have small garages and mechanic shops. All the roads that maps tell us to take are clogged, and we eventually end up at the ‘designated parking lot’ – which is basically a large, empty plot. The car will be hot enough to cook mutton when we return!

We reach the East Gateway. Opposite to the temple complex is another large structure, which currently holds some shops. Surprised that these ancient structures are still being used, we wander around a bit before deciding to explore it later. They are, after all, just shops.

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Tourism Boards have done their bit, and there are metal detectors at the entry of each gate.

There is also a free, safe service wherein you can leave your footwear, surrounded by notice boards that tell you not to tip the people behind the counter since they are paid.

We push our way through the crowds and leave our slippers and head to the entry only to be told that since I’m carrying a DSLR, we’ve to enter from the next gate.

Now, there were boards that said no cameras allowed but I figured I could tell them I’m gonna keep it in my bag. I wasn’t willing to walk all the way back to the car and dump in there, nor was I willing to leave my expensive gear at the footwear counter.

So, we head to the next gate, and head to the men’s & women’s lines respectively. I ask the cop on duty there if I can take my camera and that I won’t shoot, and he tells me to go back in and check it in the ‘locker’. The guy at the locker asks me if I have anything ‘important’ in my backpack and I say “Camera!”. So he tells me that I’ve to use the ‘special locker’ which costs 5 bucks instead of the simple ‘bag check-in counter’ that costs two bucks. Right.

The “Special Locker” is a tall metal locker with lopsided doors that even I could break with a firm push. The lady meticulously writes down the contents of my bag and asks me the value of the goods. Ummm… I’ve a fantastic DSLR + A couple of lenses, each worth a lakh and some basic accessories. Value? Maybe around 3 lakh rupees.

But, if I tell her the value is 3 lakhs, what if that’s cause for temptation? If I downplay it and lose it, what could be the flip side? In the end, I murmur something, collect my token, shout out a silent prayer to Goddess Meenakshi and head into the temple.

The difference is apparent the moment you step into the cool arches of the temple. The architecture, which has withstood centuries of travails, is built for the weather. High ceilings, heavy stones that can keep the stone out. The entryway has more shops, offering flowers, coconuts etc for the Goddess and other knick knacks.

The entry hallway is immensely long, and you can just about see the arches one after the other. The photographer in me in crying for a photograph, but I think one of the cops are gonna come & snatch the phone away. I get a couple of shots anyway!

We finally enter the actual Temple complex, with the Pond With The Golden Lotus and the wonderful gopura, only to see plenty of people happily taking selfies & photographs.

(Minor Rant: What’s the big deal about keeping cameras out in the age of super phones that have fantastic cameras? They don’t say photography not allowed. They only say “cameras not allowed.” One part of what I will call Tamil logic that eludes me!)

Tamil legends state that the pool could judge the worth of a new piece of literature. Authors place their works here. The good ones float and the poor ones sink.

The walls are decorated with beautiful scenes from Ramayana. If we had the time, we’d explore it panel-by-panel but I’m in a hurry to see the rest of the temple.

One section of the temple is locked (and as always, it evokes more curiosity). Different parts are dedicated to different Gods, and the sculptures / shrines of the smaller deities gleam like they were just carved & polished.

The Kambatadi Mandapam (“Hall of Temple Tree”) with its seated Nandi & a golden pillar has various manifestations of Shiva carved in stone. It also has the famous “Marriage of Meenakshi” sculpture. According to Wikipedia, the sculptures of Shiva and Kali are pelted with balls of ghee by devotees, which accounts for that fantastic shine. The tall golden pillar apparently signifies the human backbone.

We go back into the thousand-pillar hall, studying some of the sculptures. Each pillar is supposed to have a different one, and we find one with Vishnu (or one avatar of him) and several other gods & demi-gods. It seems like every single Indian god and their avatar has a place in this massive temple!

We choose not to go into the inner sanctum, because of lines that were longer than Black Friday lines. We figure we can live without having seen the actual statue, with a little bit of regret.

For more photographs, visit here.

Done with the temple, we hurried back, hoping that the food part of the trip could be completed and the mess’ would be open. No such luck. Everything remained firmly closed, and we had to eat at a smaller but pretty decent place right next door. The biryani was decent, so was the fish fry but it was no bone marrow omelette.

Thus done, we move to the next part of the trip – Rameshwaram with its famous Pamban Bridge, and India’s ghost town, Dhanushkodi – also the place from where Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita.

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