2/22/2014 – Entering Madurai I was immediately struck by the sense of calm. Relative calm mind you. Indian calm–cows and motorbikes still vied for space on the road and colorfully-painted structures leaned gently upon each other on its outskirts. But unlike Mumbai and Chennai, Madurai lacked a certain frenzy that I’d begun to equate with India. From our hilltop hotel the city stretched out before us, a jumble of ice cream hued buildings with temple towers rather than offices buildings dominating the skyline.

And that is precisely why we’d come–to visit the formidable Menakshi Temple to which those soaring towers belong. We had yet to visit an active Hindu temple so I found myself relying on tidbits from a college course on South India to try to imagine what it would be like. In fact I was feeling quite smugly knowledgable as we approached the temple and I saw that the signs pointing to the entrance read “this way for darshan.” Then we stepped inside and all that pretense fell away…

The entrance hall, supported by lion-topped granite pillars and topped by a ceiling painted with brilliantly colorful mandalas, was lined with vendors selling small religious icons, rainbow hued bangles, tiny handmade oil lamps, shopping bags and fried snacks served in newspaper cones. Incense wafted down the corridor and ornate, brass lamps cast their warm glow on the scene…and
this was just the entryway. As we walked deeper into the temple interior, alcoves began to appear housing small shrines to lesser deities. Each statue had been lovingly rubbed with sesame oil, clothed in gilded fabric and festooned with flowers. Devotees lit ghee filled lamps before them and dipped their fingers in bowls of crimson and orange powders, applying the bhindi to just the right spot on their foreheads with practiced grace (I on the other hand ended up sporting a sprinkling of red down the side of my nose).

Still deeper into the temple we walked, encountered a wide shallow pool surrounded by ghats and elegant arcades on all sides. Traditional musicians with drums and long, golden horns had set up shop along the walkways and their music mingled with the voices of thousands of faithful Hindus waiting in line to visit the most holy inner shrine to the goddess Menakshi. As non-Hindus we were not permitted inside this area, but our visit was hardly over. Halls and halls of smaller shrines radiated out from the pool. Sacred chants reverberated off stone walls from a PA system and in secluded corners pilgrims sat meditating. A priest carrying a large torch and followed by a posse of boys ringing bells visited each sub-shrine as faithful visitors prostrated themselves on tiles worn smooth from centuries of use. Other pilgrims circumambulated a shrine of personified planets orbiting the sun built hundreds of years before Galileo. In another area, a veritable forest of ornate stone pillars fill a wide hall with such precision that they line up perfectly, one directly behind the other, vertically, horizontally and on the diagonal. The whole experience was absolutely, unforgettably beautiful.

Following the temple visit we climbed aboard cycle-rickshaws for a tour through the streets and alleys that make up the old center of Madurai, surrounding the temple complex. Our practiced drivers hurled themselves and us into traffic, dodging scooters and auto-rickshaws and down impossibly narrow lanes lined with open shop fronts and workshops. As we passed, local children ran alongside practicing their English and shopkeepers waved and smiled shyly. Bollywood tunes blared from stereos and the scent of spices and flowers and fruit perfumed the air. At a large open air market, a stunning variety of richly colored vegetables were being hawked by proprietors who had set up shop in make-shift wooden carts, on tarps or from baskets sitting on the edge of the road. Nearby we watched as a metalsmith used a hand file to grind down a key he’s duplicated. Beyond him, an entire street of gleaming steel and copper cookware twinkles. The uncluttered, sanitized environment which we all call home is receding further and further into the distance…