Intricate details in bright colours on the Gopuram of the Madurai Meenakshi temple
Madurai, nestled on the banks of the Vaigai River, is the oldest city in south India, and the gateway to Tamil Nadu's majestic temple trail...
Words and Photography: Kalpana Sunder
As early as 550 AD, Madurai was an important commercial center which engaged in trade with Rome and Greece. This was the town where the great king Thirumalai Nayakkar ruled the city between 1623 and 1659 AD and built many splendid buildings and temples. Most people head here to visit the celebrated Meenakshi Amman Temple, a gargantuan maze-like structure and one of India's most famous temples. Madurai is known in Tamil as ‘thoonga nagaram', the city that never sleeps. Most food joints are open well past midnight serving local fare such as idli, dosa, appam, parotta, egg and gravy.
Our pick of 7 ways to explore the city:
Be a royal for a day
One of the best sights in Madurai is the sunshine yellow Thirumalai Nayak Palace, a unique architectural masterpiece which was designed by an Italian architect. The palace's richly decorated and scalloped arches and carved dome with stone ribs were inspired by Indo-Sarcenic Architecture and the stocky pillars embellished with stucco, are in Gothic style. Sadly, only a fourth of this structure survives today because Thirumalai Nayak's grandson demolished much of the fine structure, in order to build his own palace in Tiruchirapalli. Don't miss the beautiful sound and light show every evening held in the central courtyard of the palace. Follow it up with a visit to witness the 'Pathu Thoon' (10 pillars) close by, where only the huge towering pillars (used for tethering elephants) are the remains of Ranga Vilas - another palace built by Thirumalai Nayak, now hemmed in by shops on a busy market street.
Madurai's own Saville Row
The Puthu Mandapam at the eastern side of the Madurai temple with a huge statue of Nandi (Bull) in front, was originally built by King Thirumalai Nayak in the 1600s. It was used to witness cultural programmes during the Chithirai Festival. Admire the pillars decorated with vignettes from various ancient Hindu texts alongside images of the Nayak rulers and their consorts. This historic building is now a hub of commerce, equipped with tailor shops and many other shops selling religious paraphernalia, sparkly costumes and hair accessories for the gods and brass vessels.
One of the best sights in Madurai is the sunshine yellow Thirumalai Nayak Palace, a unique architectural masterpiece which was designed by an Italian architect.
Walking past shops selling spices, herbs, traditional medicines as well as stacks of Madurai malli (the popular local jasmine) and pyramids of coconuts, reach the show-stopper and heart of the city - the Madurai Meenakshi temple. This 6 hectare complex built by 4 dynasties over 6 centuries, is dedicated to the fish-eyed, 3 breasted, warrior goddess Meenakshi. It has 12 grand Gopuras covered with stucco figures in rainbow colours, of deities, mythical animals and monsters. This humongous structure houses a rectangle of moss green water, many sanctums, and the iconic Thousand Pillar Hall with rows of carved pillars - a marvel of ancient engineering.
Visiting the Father of the Nation
Most people miss the little known Gandhi Museum, housed in a 17th-century queen's palace, chronicling India's independence struggle. The museum has a display of Gandhi's favourite literature; his wooden clogs and even his trademark round spectacles. Found in the museum is the blood-stained dhoti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated in Delhi in 1948; It was in Madurai, in 1921, that he first took up wearing the dhoti and loin cloth as a sign of native pride and also visited the Meenakshi Temple when the lower caste Harijans were allowed there.
Sample the food
Madurai has been a city of trade and commerce and its cuisine has a myriad influences - it's most famous for its tangy Chettinad cuisine. Taste string hoppers, Kuli Paniyarams and soft, steaming idlis with sambar and chutney. Don't forget to taste the local drink called Jigarthanda (a refreshing drink to beat off the heat). The best place to taste this is at 'Famous Jigarthanda' on East Marret Street. This tasty concoction has thick milk, khus, herbal nannari syrup and almonds whisked together in a secret proportion.
It has 12 grand Gopuras or towers covered with stucco figures in rainbow colours, of deities, mythical animals and monsters.
Drape yourself in local colours/Retail therapy
The city is known for its bell-metal lamps, bronze images, wood and stone carvings. You also cannot escape the heady fragrance of the local jasmine flowers called Madurai malli. Do buy a string of these flowers and drape it around your hair. Before leaving the city, drop into a textile store to check out the local cotton Sungudi sarees with their distinctive dots. The Sungudi sarees are dyed through extracting natural colours from sources such as leaves..
Take a day trip to Chettinad
Just a 1 hour drive away is a cluster of more than 70 villages that make up Chettinad - once the haunt of a prosperous merchant community that traded in places like Burma and Cambodia and built show-stopper homes embellished with Burmese teak, Venetian glass and Delft tiles. Today many of these homes can be visited, some have been converted into heritage hotels. Visit the village of Kanadukathan and have lunch at Visalam, before exploring the heritage mansions of the village.