Tamil Nadu revolves around two pivots: Chennai, which is its current capital with its chaotic streets, trendy neighborhoods and some of the best restaurants in southern India; and Madurai, one of the oldest urban centers in all of India and still the beating heart of Tamil culture.
Madurai means “city of nectar”, because of a legend saying Shiva had scattered drops of divine nectar from his hair on this very city. Affectionately nicknamed “Athens of the East”, the city already existed in the third century a.c. and was a very active commercial center, even connected with Rome.
All the major Indian dynasties ruled it, increasing its political and cultural dominance, until the arrival of the British in 1840, when the India Company razed the fort of Madurai, sweeping away the defensive ditches and thus changing the face of the old city.
Nowadays, Madurai is famous primarily for the Meenakshi Amman temple, one of the biggest temples in all of India, making it an important tourist destination. But it is also a typical Indian metropolis, with an economy increasingly based on computer science infrastructure and the production of advanced technologies.
This is the first thing that strikes me when I set foot in the city: it’s January 1st and the afternoon is very hot. The dirt roads that lead to the temple teem with life: between the stalls of the inevitable local street food and the cows walking along undisturbed, my gaze is captured by a gate of a store closed for who knows how long.
The lowered shutter creates a niche against the wall and a street vendor has piled hundreds of books on it, all neatly stacked. When I approach to see what it is, I realize that they are all computer manuals, written strictly in English.
With the world’s youngest workforce, India is also the second most populous country after China -but overtaking is only a matter of years. Moreover, India has for some years been home to the most important multinational information technology and services related to the development of advanced technologies.
I should not be surprised if computer books are sold in street stalls. The smiling young man who is leafing through some of them is the new face of India, a country full of hope, which is preparing to become one of the greatest economic powers on the planet. The hopeless desolation that Pasolini had described in the 1960s fortunately no longer exists.
The Meenakshi Amman Temple is considered the most perfect expression of the sacred architecture of Tamil Nadu and is held in the same consideration as the Taj Mahal in northern India.
More than just another temple from the seventeenth century, it is a complex of over 6 hectares of land surrounded by protective walls and with several sanctuaries inside. While most temples have only 4 Gopuram (access towers), the Meenakshi Amman Temple has 12, all finely decorated with over 30,000 painted statues of sacred gods. An incomparable vision, which definitely makes Madurai worth visiting!
Before entering the temple, the guide takes us to a local craft shop. “You don’t have to buy anything if you don’t want to. But you have to leave all your things here: shoes, backpacks, smartphone and camera“.
He reads on our faces concerned looks: he is asking us to put everything we own in the hands of a stranger.
“My camera equipment is worth thousands of euros,” I say quietly. “Can we trust him?”
“Yes. If you want to enter the temple, you must leave everything here. The shopkeeper will take care of it until we return”.
We leave our things behind the counter, in bulk, and walk barefoot to the temple. The street is as dirty as only Indian streets can be. We walk avoiding cow poop and puddles of putrid water. The temple is a few hundred meters, but we count each individual steps trying to get there as clean as possible.
I won’t have any pictures of the most beautiful temple in Tamil Nadu, that’s what bothers me the most.
At the entrance we are searched carefully. “There was a small fire a few months ago. A visitor used a flying socket to charge his smartphone and there was a short circuit, so now it is forbidden to introduce any electronic object”, explains the guide.
The first room we access is the Hall of 1000 columns (actually there are 986).
“The Meenakshi Temple was originally built of teak over 2,000 years ago, but it was rebuilt in its present form in the seventeenth century,” our guide says. “Originally the statues were white, but they have been painted in bright colors since the 1950s . The weather tends to fade the colors, so every 12 years they are repainted thanks to the offerings of the faithful. The next maintenance will be in 2021.”
“The temple is dedicated to Shiva, to whom the central sanctuary is reserved, and to his wife Parvati, who is venerated here in the guise of Meenakshi”.
It is not at all unusual in Hindu religion for a deity to take different forms and for people to worship them without being confused. In this specific case, Parvati had other features before marrying Shiva, those of Meenakshi, a warrior goddess with three breasts and fish eyes.
Legend has it that the young warrior would lose a breast when she met true love, which happened at her meeting Shiva and becoming his bride.
“Why did she have fish eyes?” I ask.
“The eyes of a fish are perfect: they have no eyelids and are always open. Meenakshi sees everything”.
We stop in front of the Nandi Bull Sanctuary. It is the sacred bull Shiva uses as a vehicle, symbolizing strength and purity. “If you have any requests or secrets, tell them to the bull. He will tell them to Shiva,” says the guide.
We walk along a large porch, which surrounds the central pool (present in all Hindu temples). The one in Meenakshi Temple is called Golden Lotus Tank and its dimensions are remarkable: 50 meters x 37 meters. Here the faithful come to dive to purify themselves: an estimated 15,000 visitors per day!
Countless statues, sculptures and friezes make the visitor feel tipsy; finally, the porch leads to Shiva’s and Parvati’s shrines. Both are only accessible to Hindus.
“Every day at 9 pm”, the guide explains,” there is a procession to carry Shiva’v lingam to Meenakshi’s shrine. This way, bride and groom can sleep together. On his way, Shiva stops at the shrine of Ganesh and says good night to his son. In the morning, Shiva returns to his sanctuary, again ready to welcome the faithful”.
The guide has dreamy eyes. You can see that he is a devotee and, in fact, he is about to preach. “Pray to Shiva and Parvati to solve problems in your family. They will grant your wishes! Look at me: I prayed a lot and they blessed me! I speak three foreign languages well”, he says at the height of vanity, “and above all I have 3 sons. Fortunately, I had no daughters”.
It’s disconcerting how openly the guide makes this statement. He surely belongs to the fortunate class of Brahmins. In India, and particularly in Tamil Nadu, being born a woman some time equals a death sentence. It is estimated that, over three generations, 50 million females were aborted or killed in the cradle by parents who did not want them.
Not to mention the second daughters, who are called “destined for the pit”. If a family has accepted the burden of raising a daughter, the arrival of a second female can become an unbearable burden.
Everything revolves around the tradition of dowry, which although illegal, is still widespread and practiced. At the time of marrying a daughter, in fact, the family must deliver a large dowry to the husband who accepts her into his family. In addition, the bride accepts that this dowry is reserved exclusively for male heirs, giving up obtaining a share of it for herself if she is repudiated.
So, begging Shiva not to have daughters is to ask for an easier life, with no effort to accumulate a dowry.
The visit to Meenakshi Temple ends after about an hour of explanations: the afternoon light enhances the finished architecture and the volume of the thousands of statues and friezes that make this temple my absolute favorite. I couldn’t take pictures, except on the outside. I hope that memory can hold vivid images of this great wonder of the world.
After a dinner in a rooftop restaurant with a lovely view, I get lost in the streets of Madurai. They are teeming with life. Here I can play with my camera as much as I want and dedicate myself to street photography. Among smiling passers-by, stalls and cows pampered by residents, Madurai gives me an immersion in the city’s vibrant nightlife.
India is the land of toys for every photographer: my presence is not only tolerated, but I am almost celebrated by every person I meet. A welcome that stays alive in my heart and drives me to want to return to India ten, a hundred, a thousand times more.
The next morning I visit the royal palace built by King Tirumala Nayaka in 1636. It is a building of great architectural importance because it expresses the apogee of the hybrid Dravidian-Islamic style. You enter by paying an entrance fee of 50 rupees and you can walk along the imposing colonnades, stop in the courtyard and in the throne room, with its 25-meter high dome, and enjoy some of the most beautiful stucco in the region. Unfortunately only some of the rooms have survived the passage of time, but are still worth a quick visit.
Nearby are the Gandhi Memorial Museum, which I found closed, and the Madurai Government Museum. I found the latter really uninteresting: a jumble of artifacts accumulated without a logical order that are not worth the price of the ticket (5 rupees for Indians and 100 for foreign tourists!).
It is time to abandon Tamil Nadu, its rock-cut sanctuaries, its colonial past, the Gopurams that stand out on the city’s skyline. A new adventure awaits me: the relaxing backwaters of Kerala!
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.