Madurai: Under the Watchful Eyes of 1,000 Gods

Asia, India, South

A Typical Street in Madurai

Our driver navigates the crowded, labyrinthine streets of Madurai to find our lodgings at the heart of this city of 1.5 million souls. Multi-story small hotels, shops, and restaurants are crammed into rows, a stark contrast to what we saw a few hours earlier in the neighboring state of Kerala. The day before, we had met our driver in the Keralan hill station of Munnar, and he offered to take us to Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu. After agreeing on the price, he picked us up from our cozy hut in Anachal the next morning, driving us through a tableau of scenic tea plantations and lush forests, both thinly shrouded by mist, before arriving at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, manned by a few customs officers. Past the check point (common in state borders across India), we followed the meandering road along the mighty Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of India, home to a profusion of flora and fauna.

In front of us, the flat plains of Tamil Nadu beckoned with the city of Theni bathed in sunlight on the horizon. We left the verdant mountains and entered the land of the Tamils, a proud people of southern India whose millennia-old culture spread to Southeast Asia and beyond, leaving their colorful traces as far as Europe and North America. We drove past Theni and headed straight to Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s second largest city after Chennai, and where James and I would spend two nights before continuing our journey to Thanjavur. With time constraints in mind, we decided to book a hotel close to what we wanted to see the most in the city: the magnificent Meenakshi Temple.

Seen from our hotel, the temple’s towering gopurams (entrance towers) stand tall above other buildings. With thick clouds hanging over the city, we go straight to the western approach of the temple to get a closer look at the biggest and tallest Tamil temple I have ever seen. However, as the clouds persistently block the sun, we decide to look for a place to have lunch after lingering in front of the western gopuram for a while, hoping for better weather the following day. A modest local restaurant with no other foreigners in sight becomes our choice due to its proximity to our hotel. It is packed, boisterous and unpretentious. We pick the easiest dish to order, a thali set, and soon enough two big metal plates filled with a variety of dishes come to our table. Having lunch where the locals go usually means good food at a cheap price, and this time it’s no exception.

Walking to the West Gate of the Meenakshi Temple

Under the Watchful Eyes of the Deities

A Stone Structure at the Base of Each Gopuram

Built to Impress

A Slain Demon

Fierce and Friendly Faces

Kaleidoscopic and Vibrant Colors, Quintessentially Tamil

The following day the sun apparently is still hiding behind the clouds, but we decide to walk to the temple nonetheless. We approach the western gopuram and circumambulate the outer walls of the temple where we come across one intricately-embellished tower gate after another. It amazes me to think of the weight each gopuram’s pillars have to bear, thanks to the plethora of statues of Hindu deities as well as characters from Hindu epics – each of them looking down on us, literally – perched atop the terraced tower. The smaller versions of Meenakshi Temple’s gopurams can be found in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and other places with sizable Tamil Hindu communities. However, regardless of their size, all of those temples are distinguishable by the liberal use of bright colors to paint the statuettes.

Although much of the temple’s current structures date back to the 17th century, the eastern gopuram has been overlooking the entire temple compound since the 13th century, while the tallest of all – the southern gopuram – was erected three centuries later. Meenakshi Temple’s grandeur and opulence is an impressive embodiment of the architectural prowess of the Tamils – the same skill which had created the imposing early 11th-century Brihadeeswarar temple. Today the ancient craftsmanship is still very much alive, ensuring the preservation of colossal Tamil temples in Tamil Nadu as well as those abroad.

After completing our walk around the temple’s perimeter, we find a welcome respite in the same restaurant we went to a day earlier. Our satisfying lunch at the time – and for me particularly the silky smooth dessert that accompanied our meal – draws us back to this bustling place. Soon, we are seated amid the locals as well as pilgrims who come to Madurai to visit the temple.

“Where are you from?” a mid-aged man who’s sitting next to James asks us suddenly.

“I’m from Hong Kong,” James replies, “and I’m from Indonesia,” I add.

“Ahh… terima kasih!” he responds in Indonesian, which means thank you.

That man and I are both pleasantly surprised and amused by each other – him knowing that I’m Indonesian, and me knowing that he can speak a little Indonesian. Despite Madurai’s rough edges, friendly people do come when we least expect. Terima kasih indeed, Madurai!

The East Tower

Petrified Horsemen

Another Visit to the West Gate

The Gopurams of the Meenaksi Temple Overlooking the City of Madurai

Vegetarian Thali Set, Madurai

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

42 thoughts on “Madurai: Under the Watchful Eyes of 1,000 Gods”

  1. I liked this post very much. The photos are as always superbly done. One piece of wisdom: Eat where the locals eat. It is cheaper and better. The encounter with the man who spoke Indonesian was delightful. Thanks for sharing, Bama!


    • Thanks Peter! The weather was not ideal for taking outdoor photos though, but at least it was not raining as I happened to be in Tamil Nadu at the peak of the monsoon season. It’s true that eating where the locals go, while often not the most comfortable places to eat, is always more satisfying than trying the local dishes at restaurants geared for international tourists. However, when I travel I usually try both for the sake of experience. You’re welcome, Peter! and thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Betul, karena kuil-kuil Tamil yang ada di KL, Singapura, Bangkok, dll memang merupakan versi mini dari kuil-kuil Tamil yang ada di Tamil Nadu, India.


  2. Not sure if there is a better feeling than a friendly conversation with a local ~ a sharing of happiness. Wonderful post, Bama, and I’ve seen quite a few versions of Meenakshi Temple’s gopurams all around SE Asia, and they always bring a sense of peace. Sri Lanka was the first place I learned more about the Tamil Hindu communities. I think, as throughout your travels you mention, getting to know the locals allows greater insight into the culture ~ and also you learn that having lunch where the locals go does mean great food at a great price 🙂


    • There are a lot insights and information we can get by having genuine conversations with local people, indeed. We can get a better understanding of how an entire community works and the things most important to them. It’s necessary to balance the often depressing news we get from the media.

      Speaking of Tamil temple, the one in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was my first. I still remember clearly the amazement I felt upon seeing the intricately-decorated gopuram. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Randall!


  3. I remember Madhu telling us in Chennai that we really should have gone inside Meenakshi Temple – looking at the floorplan now, it does resemble the labyrinth she described. One of my favorite parts of the vegetarian thali was the paneer in a tandoori-like sauce. I think the dessert part of it was called payasam (it might have been the friendly visitor we met who explained that).


    • I remember being a bit intimidated by the signboard at each gopuram listing all sorts of things visitors were not allowed to do, therefore discouraging us from coming in. I regret it though as Meenakshi Temple’s Hall of Thousand Pillars was among the things I wanted to see the most in Tamil Nadu. Oh well, there’s always next time. Thanks for pointing out the name of that dessert, James! I might want to look for it should I happen to dine at an Indian restaurant again — payasam and kulfi would be nice for dessert.


  4. Those temples are indeed extraordinary! So intricate! I guess it must take months or years to complete a layer. And I can count at least 8 layers on the taller tower. If I remember correctly, there is a mini version of the Tamil temple in central Saigon as well 🙂 But it has only two or three layers and there are not many statues on it.


    • And there must be dozens of hands and as many pairs of eyes to make sure each statue is finely done, painted with the right colors, and mounted on the right place. Wow, I didn’t know there’s a Tamil temple in Saigon as well. But as an Indian friend of mine once said, the Chinese and Indians are everywhere. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Holy cow (literally? – haha) – that temple! I’ve seen intricately carved temples and I’ve seen colorful temples, but the combination here, along with the height, is astounding. I googled the name of the temple when I started reading and, interestingly, what popped up first was a temple right near us here in Texas with a similar name! Since I’m unlikely to be in Tamil Nadu anytime soon, maybe I’ll drive to Pearland and take a gander at this version.

    The lunch sounds satisfying in many ways. The food looks great, and it’s always fun to connect in some small way with the local population. I remember eating at a really humble little place in St Petersburg one day where not a single person was non-Russian except us. We had to point at the food we wanted and let the cashier pick the correct amount of coins out of our hands. I think it cost about $2 total for both of us! (Our food was not quite as appetizing as yours, though!)


    • I googled that Tamil temple in Pearland and I’m surprised that they decided to paint the temple white instead of using those vibrant colors like their counterparts in Asia. But maybe they were inspired by the early 11th-century Brihadeeswarar temple, also in Tamil Nadu, where neon colors are conspicuously absent.

      I had a similar experience about letting someone pick the right amount of coins out of my hand, only it didn’t involve food. It was early in the morning in Bangkok and I was in a taxi on my way to a bus station. The driver said something in Thai, and one or two English words, but I figured out that he asked me some money for the toll road. I put all the coins I had on my hand, and he picked the right amount. We both laughed afterward.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Despite the weather you still took lovely photos of the Meenakshi temple gopurams. I like the lighter, softer palette it takes on in your captures.


    • Exactly! My experience with ancient temples in Java is that no matter how many times I have visited a temple, especially a big one, I always find something new on my next visit, be it statues, relief panels, or detailed carvings.


  7. Fabulous narration. Makes the reader visualize your travel in their mind. Being in the temple city yet seeing it through some others perception, feels good…..


    • I would love to go to Bangladesh one day! As a enthusiast of anything old/ancient, I have Ahsan Manzil, Somapura Mahavihara, Kantajew Temple of Dinajpur, and Tajhat Palace of Rangpur on top of the list of places I want to see the most in the country.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have a lot of catching up to do on your blog since I was offline most of the summer. And each time I read something on here, I add a new place to my list of places to go. What a temple! And now I’m hungry for Indian food.


    • No worries, Jeff. I have half a dozen of posts to come, but they have to wait until I return from Australia. Adding new places to visit is an inevitable consequence of blogwalking, isn’t it? 🙂


  9. Beautiful photos Bama. The colours are way more pleasing than the neon blues and greens we all encountered here at the Mylapore temple if you remember. The local responding to your in Indonesian must have been such a pleasant surprise. Madurai is actually known for its non vegetarian food, offal and (lamb) brain fry is a particular speciality in tiny joints termed ‘mess’! Blasts the myth about India being predominantly vegetarian. We most certainly aren’t 🙂


    • Thanks Madhu. You know how we both prefer the colors of sandstone, volcanic rock, red brick, etc to those neon colors. So I guess the cloudy days were a blessing in disguise! The last time I had brain was probably 20 years ago. Although I remember it having a very smooth, silky, and rich taste, the fact that it is extremely high in cholesterol has kept me away from it for so many years. However, I might be tempted to have a small bite one day just for the sake of reliving good memories. 🙂


  10. Wow! What words could one find to describe these temple towers? I wonder how long it took to build these and if they have to continually repaint. The stark contrast between the modern buildings and the towers speaks volumes…thanks for a great post!


    • Those towers were built in different periods, and as you said each must have taken a lot of time (and manpower) to finish. Repainting those sculptural details requires a great amount of time as well. Those gopurams really dwarf everything around them. Thanks for reading, Marilyn!


  11. How beautiful! I want to visit too! Can’t believe I’m living in the neighbouring state and haven’t yet seen any of these. Only been to Ooty 😀


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