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.
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!