Come winter, I set my eyes on weekend getaways from Chennai, for it’s the only season when the region is not like a sauna. A couple of months ago, my husband and I decided to explore the heritage treasures of Madurai.
History has always whispered in the alleys of this temple town, transporting one as far back as the third century BC. For an architecture buff like me, it was ideal. But there was more. My list included some retail therapy too, for the town is famous for its cotton saris.
We drove into town around lunchtime and met our guide, Arun, from Madurai Magic, which conducts heritage walks. We headed first towards the crumbling Thirumalai Nayak Palace, an architectural masterpiece. It was built by king Thirumalai Nayak (1623-59); his reign, in fact, saw many splendid buildings and temples.
Groups of schoolchildren roamed under the palace’s Indo-Saracenic arches and domes, taking selfies against its stocky pillar columns with stucco work. Pillaged by the king’s own grandson, only a fourth of this structure survives today. “Dark legends never evade ancient sites,” Arun said gravely. “It’s here that the queen made the mistake of remarking that the pillars and arches reminded her of an elephant stable. The king was livid at the jibe on his taste and imprisoned her for life.”
Leaving the palace, we walked through narrow streets lined with shops selling religious paraphernalia, till we reached the bustling 17th century Pudu Mandapa (New Hall) on the eastern side of the showstopper—the Meenakshi Amman temple. The hall was built originally as a summer abode of the goddess Meenakshi and lord Sundareswarar by Thirumalai Nayak. Rows of tailors, dressed in vests and dhotis, sat inside the Mandapa, churning out pavadais (skirts) and sari blouses on their rickety sewing machines. The scenes from ancient Hindu texts, carved on the pillars, provided quite a contrast.
We strolled in the cool evening breeze, past fortune-telling parrots in cages and pyramids of coconuts and jasmine. With its multi-hued gopurams embellished with stories and images from the epics, this humongous temple structure also houses an artificial tank, numerous sanctums and the Thousand Pillar Hall, which has rows of pillars carved with images of yalis (mythical creatures).
Later in the evening, we retired to our hotel, the Taj Gateway. Located on Pasumalai hill, with a panoramic sweep of the city, the hotel is a throwback to colonial times, with its British-era buildings, wooden floors and acres of gardens where wild peacocks roam.
The next day, we decided to visit the Gandhi Museum, housed in a 17th century palace. Its dusty rooms house a comprehensive account of India’s struggle for independence, with favourite books of Gandhi’s like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Edward Gibbon’s The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali and The Bible, yarn spun by him, his wooden clogs, even his trademark spectacles. The blood-stained dhoti he was wearing when he was assassinated in 1948 is a poignant inclusion. It was in Madurai, in 1921, that Mahatma Gandhi first took to wearing the dhoti and loin cloth as a sign of native pride.
A stroll through the markets saw us discovering more history in the midst of teeming life. Hemmed in by small shops on the sides, with haphazard electric wires crisscrossing overhead, we found 10 gargantuan pillars called Pathu Thoon (10 pillars), which were probably used to tether elephants. These are the only remains of another palace built by Thirumalai Nayak.
We had been told to try the Jigarthanda (that which cools the heart) at East Marret Street; this is Madurai’s own special drink and dessert that reminds one of falooda and thandai. At a textile store nearby, I spotted a red cotton Sungudi sari with distinctive dots, and bought it as a keepsake.
Before leaving, we grabbed reams of fragrant Madurai malli (local jasmine). The heady smell would be a reminder of the palaces, gopurams and stocky pillars. At least, till the ride home.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @KalpanaSunder.