Madurai & Rameswaram - Wednesday 15 – Monday 20 April 2009
Madurai is a very full on sort of a city. Set on the Vaigai River it is hugely famous for its Sri Meenakshi temple and is one of the Souths's oldest cities dating from approx the 4th century BC.
It has been a major centre for pilgrimage and learning for many years. The temple dominates the centre of town and is a typical example of Dravidian architecture with gopurams covered from head to foot with a riotous colourful jumble of gods animals and mythical creature.
I think the really compelling thing about the temples here is they are so living. The activity is crazy from morning to night -going to the temple is an extremely "hands on" experience from pushing past the cows on the way in - going past the flower sellers - queuing to get in -and then joining the throngs praying around the various shrines.
Religion is a very strong part of Hindu existence - school kids scrawl their exam numbers around the gods who focus on education, ladies pray for divine assistance in becoming pregnant - and tie offerings of wooden dolls onto trees to thank the gods if this is successful. The whole place was a seething mass of humanity from 6am to 9pm at night.
We took a guide to show us around which was a godsend as he shoved through the queues in a way which we'd never have dared! The temple complex most of which dated from the mid 16th century is six hectares and has 12 gopurams - the largest being 50 metres high. Within the temple walls long corridors lead to gold topped shrines to the gods. There is also within the complex a temple art museum located within the 1,000 (985 actually!) pillar hall, and a central golden lotus pond.
The art painted on the ceiling featuring gods and divine animals - like the ele-cow - a cross between an elephant and a cow! - looked very fresh. This was because the entire temple is completely repainted every decade a process which takes 2 years. During this time it is shut to the public so we were lucky it happened 2 years ago.
After our tour our guide took is to a nearby viewing area. This was on the 6th floor of a shop and it was indeed a good view. However we then got the hard sell to buy something on each floor down - Kashmir carpets, scarves, artifacts - actually they were very nice but we resisted - which cheesed our guide off a bit as they get a healthy commission which probably pays more than their guide fees!
We then went to see the Tirumalai Nayak Palace - just a short walk from the temple. This dates from 1636 and only a small amount remains - the main hall and the dance hall. There is a huge renovation project which has been underway since September 2007 - supposedly it will be complete in 1 month but we thought 1 year was more likely!- and the whole place was in chaos. This didn't stop business as usual though and we looked around dodging bamboo scaffolding and stepping over holes! There were several old 10th century statues covered in a thick film of dust. Anyone working in OH & S in the West would have a heart attack!!
The renovation looked like it would be spectacular however and you could see the former grandeur - the hall had 244 pillars through it - taking shape in what was once one of the finest buildings in South India.
After all this on a more serene note we then went to see the Ghandi Memorial Museum. This was housed in a lovely old palace. Madurai is a big textile centre and has a big hand spinning industry. Ghandi visited here and made a statement about only wearing home spun clothing. This was a big part of the struggle for independence against the English as they were suppressing India by taking their raw materials off them at a pittance of the value whilst demanding high rents and then selling cloth made in Manchester & Leeds back to Indians. Ghandi stopped this and led a movement in which he urged all followers to wear only homespun clothes as a protest.
There was a fascinating display on the great man - including his artifacts - his bowl, sandals -and somewhat macabrely the loin cloth he was wearing when he was shot down! I have to say I was cringing a bit as the English do not come out of this well - we treated these people appallingly. Luckily for me there seems to be no lasting resentment!
The museum was also a centre for a Ghandian study centre and had a display of Chola era statues and somewhat bizarrely a large plastic dinosaur! It was worth a visit.
On Friday 17 April we left Madurai and headed on to our next destination Rameswaram another major pilgrimage site. There was a moment of white faced panic on the way when the horn ceased to work - maybe over use!! We managed to find a workshop which specialized in "horn refurbishment" in about 5 minutes and they sorted us out for 50 rp - or about $1.40 Aus - in 30 minutes …whew!!!!
We are now going a bit off the main tourist track and so perhaps we are a bit too shocking. We tried to stop at a Tamil Nadu hotel on the way and they wouldn't let us camp. We gave up there and drove on to Rameswaram and got the same knock back! In desperation - it was dark by now and the driver was very tired- we got out our previous TN receipts and after a few phone calls they agreed to let us camp. We find in India that they are quite happy once we are there but when we arrive at a new place they find the whole thing a bit perplexing. I think they see tourists as being very rich and there is a real status attached to that, so the way we slum it - camping in the car - is a bit of a shock. We often share the bathroom and camp near the drivers /security guards who find us a real novelty. They soon get used to us though and ask for pens for their kids. They often have limited English and one told us "I have 2 gents and 2 ladies all need pens"!
Anyway safely once more within the TN enclave we set off for a wander. Rameswaram is a big focal point for pilgrims - the god Rama allegedly offered thanks to Siva here -making it hugely important to Hindus. It is a small fishing village absolutely inundated by pilgrims. A lot of the pilgrims' boarding houses look a bit grim, and as many pilgrims are on their bare bones financially to get here they sleep everywhere and use huge central washrooms and latrines set up for the purpose. Not sure how good the plumbing is - it's a bit whiffy down wind of them! There also seems to be a view that pilgrims will be very anxious to buy tat made from seashells - that was all any of the shops seemed to sell and there were loads of them!!!
The temple boasts what we were variously told was the longest corridor in India, Asia …the world ….not sure which is true but it was long- the temple measuring 1.2km to walk inside around the perimeter.
There are 4 long corridors interconnecting in the temple all lined with sculptured pillars. Dating from the 12th century the temple has 22 theertham or tanks. Devotees start bathing in the sea - and we passed a lot doing that - and move on to bath in and drink water from each of the 22 theerthams. Again the whole thing takes on a surreal quality. You walk down corridors with beggars, flower sellers food stalls, surrounded by wet people going to or from bathing. You turn a corner and there is the temple elephant giving blessings! It is a bit like being on the wrong medication!! Only Hindus can enter the inner sanctum - which we found out when we were chased out by an irate holy man! Sorry but no signs in English!
After all that temple activity we took a drive out to Dhanushkodi about 18 km away. Dhanushkodi was a thriving village until a cyclone hit in December 1964 and virtually destroyed the whole thing. We met an India gentleman who had last been there in 1962 and told us that the desert we were standing in had been the town centre! Now just a few shells of buildings remain and a small fishing village.
You can drive out the 8 km to Adam's Bridge - the closest point to Sri Lanka. Most people either go by private driver or (the less rich!) in large trucks but we were able to go ourselves once we registered with the Indian Navy who have an office there. It was a great bit of 4 wheel driving across the sand flats a really arid landscape. We saw a flock of pink flamingos which was lovely - I couldn't really capture them on my little camera but took Andrew taking them - hopefully his pictures will be good! We also passed lots of little ponies- probably used by the fishermen to drag their carts - enjoying a day off.
Finally at the end of the drive we arrived at Adam's Bridge. This is the chain of reefs sandbanks and islets that almost link Sri Lanka with India. Supposedly these are the stepping stones used by the god Rama in the epic Ramayana. Sri Lanka is very close - there used to be a passenger ferry linking the 2 countries but now due to the troubles over there it has been discontinued. There is a concern about people smuggling arms to the Tamil tigers and we passed several road blocks and the back of the car was searched on the way south. We'd love to visit Sri Lanka but as we can't take the car sadly we'll have to leave that one for another trip.
One nice thing that happened at TN is that we met Tim O'Reilly - from NZ and then Australia Tim lives in Orissa on the East Coast from where he runs a seafood business having a plant canning crab meat for export. Tim comes here a lot on business and when we met him in the salubrious TN Permit Bar he kindly showed us the best place to eat which was very welcome - this area isn't a gourmet paradise by any means! As a strict Hindu town it is mainly vegetarian here if not vegan - but this place which was bursting at the gills had meat so it was the lure of the illicit! Thanks to Tim we enjoyed a couple of good meals.
Talking of illicit pleasure the Indian attitude to alcohol is a bit strange. We first got an inkling of this when we were offered a beer at a restaurant - and then told to hide it in case the police came as there was no license! Apparently some states (Kerala) which are very strict serve beer out of a tea pot as a cunning ruse though we've not yet seen this!! Apart from tourist areas and big hotels alcohol is seen very negatively here as a religious and cultural taboo. Stamped on each beer bottle is the phrase "Alcohol ruins family country and life." However unlike say Malaysia where it means it just doesn't get served - here seedy "Wine shops" exist in every town and clandestinely large amounts are consumed -leading to all the usual alcohol related problems just as in the west. Hotels have "Permit rooms" which can serve alcohol and as I say "Wine shops" exist everywhere but neither of them are too inviting! We have been known to duck in and out of the Wine shops to buy a case of Kingfisher, but we have only ventured in a permit room once mainly for the ac! This was when we met Tim so we were glad that we did!
So, on Monday 20 April we continued to drive South down the coast - heading towards the "Land's end" of India Cape Comorin or Kanyakumari - yet another area of pilgrimage!