Wanderlust: Madurai, India, Where Time Stands Still

21 March 2014 – T Magazine Blog

Though it’s home to more than a million people, Madurai, the second-largest city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, remains a paradigmatic temple town. Around its ragged edges, Madurai looks much like any other medium-sized Indian city, with its clusters of concrete buildings and traffic-choked streets. But at its center – an elegant arrangement of concentric ring roads surrounding the labyrinthine, 17-acre compound of the Meenakshi Temple, among the holiest in South India – the city feels timeless. You come here not to experience the much-touted New India but the India that has endured for centuries.

For 2,500 years, Madurai has served as the wellspring of culture in Tamil Nadu, arguably the most traditional state in India. A 15-minute walk around the Meenakshi Temple compound in the late afternoon, as the gates swing open for the evening prayers, can serve as a cultural fly-by. Devotees line up beneath the soaring centuries-old ceremonial gates, or goppurams; shopkeepers step onto the pavements, hawking brass vessels, coconuts and marigold garlands; tailors sell the local cottons that brought the city prosperity under the Raj. Inside is a riot of sensory information, from the thousands of brightly painted statues crowding onto each goppuram to the hall-of-mirrors arcades to the monolithic statues of deities that occupy every open niche. The sounds of voices and bells, the singular cacophony of an active Hindu temple, are everywhere.

The Heritage Madurai, a genteel retreat at the edge of town, is an ideal base from which to explore the temple and the rest of the city. In 1972, the legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa designed the main structures — a series of deeply shaded pavilions and verandas in wood, rough-hewn stone and terra cotta — as the Madurai Club. It reopened in 2009 as the city’s only boutique hotel. Here, a few must-visit destinations nearby.

Meenakshi Temple 
With 14 ceremonial towers covered in a proliferation of candy-colored statuary, the Meenakshi Temple is one of the most important Hindu devotional centers in India, and Madurai’s pièce de résistance. Hire one of the official guides patrolling the grounds and give yourself at least an hour to see the whole compound.
Open for morning and evening prayers, 5 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., 4-10 p.m.

Textile Shops
Madurai’s modern fortunes were made in its mills. There are a great many textile and tailoring outlets around the temple, but the two most reputable are Co-optex (20 South Chitrai Street, 011-91-452-234-4047), a government-run weavers’ cooperative, andHajeemoosa (18 East Chitrai Street, 011-91-452-262-2118), whose knowledgeable owner Ismail Omar can explain some of the dyeing and weaving techniques.

Flower Market
The largest in South India, it’s best seen early in the morning, when the vendors first arrive from the countryside to sell bushels of roses, cockscombs, marigolds, lotuses and Madurai’s famous jasmine. The Heritage can organize trips to the jasmine fields outside town when the flowers are in season. The vegetable market down the road is also worth a visit.

Hotel Gowri Krishna
This huge, no-frills canteen is a popular place to experience an unlimited South Indianthali, a style of eating that involves a wide array of vegetarian dishes served, traditionally, on a plantain leaf. Speak up when you’ve had enough, or they’ll just keep serving.
78/3-A.1 Gowri Plaza, Bypass Road, 011-91-452-435-2828.

Local Crafts
As a center for traditional Tamil culture, Madurai is known for woodcarving, stonework and bronzes. The Heritage can help set up appointments to watch craftsmen at work with any of these media, or, with advance notice, arrange for a visit from Muthulakshmana Rao, whose family has crafted leather shadow-puppets for five generations.

Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal
The restoration of this 18th-century palace, erected under the Hindu Nayak Dynasty, is patchy (too little here, too much there), but the scale of the structure is undeniably impressive and much of the detail work stunningly intricate. 9 a.m – 1 p.m., 2-5 p.m.

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