We took a 4-day diversion to Madurai, the city that Lonely Planet calls the soul of Tamil Nadu. Why? Temples. Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India, and has some of the most important temples. The Shri Meenakshi is considered just as important to the south, in terms of architectural style, as the Taj Mahal is to the north. Our hotel was near the Shri Meenakshi, and we explored its depths one evening. Because it was completed over the span of six centuries (11th to 17th), we found many styles of architecture inside. Every painting, sculpture, and dimension of the temple has meaning to Hindu pilgrims. Between ceiling art and the thousand pillar statues, and praying Hindus, there was so much complexity inside, our eyes didn't know where to look. Until, that is, Courtney spotted an elephant and made one of her Madurai dreams come true. We were all blessed by this creature, with a pat on the head from its trunk.
Another night, we took a rickshaw south and checked out the Tirupperangundam temple. While not as impressive in scale as the Shri Meenakshi, the setting was memorable as it was built into the side of a mountain, and some of the statues were carved directly into cave rock. We were there during prayer time, and saw a group of Hindus making fervent offerings to each deity in the temple. On the rickshaw ride back from temple, we were stuck in a line of traffic when we saw a large crowd of men running on the street, towing a shrine behind them. Suddenly, a mass of white fireworks began erupting on the street, as people scattered from within. We watched silently as this continued for about 20 second and seemed to slowly advance down the uncoming lanes, then fizzled out. As we drove through the smoke, the occasional straggling firework blew off. Weeks into our stay, India continues to surprise us.
We visited a Gandhi museum one afternoon. Inside, we read about the dehumanizing suppression of India by Britain, two centuries worth of violent uprising, and how, in the end, Gandhi led the country in a successful non-violent campaign for independence. We also laid eyes on the bloodied dohti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated.
Madurai is a nice, in-between sized city, which feels like raw India gut with a fair bit of tourist infrastructure. We all grew more comfortable navigating the streets and discovering neighbourhoods. We all found deals in the markets. We developed favourite restaurants. Randy received a bizarre head massage. The rubbing, pulling and vigorous chopping felt suspiciously like martial arts.
We went to Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal (palace), the home of the Nayak dynasty of the 14th Century. Two of us were innocent victims of pidgeons in this palace. Did that happen to the kings and queens of old, or did their servants shield the tops of their heads? We can not know.
We left our hotel with our suitcases balanced on the roof of a rickshaw. We left the city on the wrong sleeper car of an overnight train. The latter mistake we correct at 3 AM by hurrying down the platform of the first station stop, laden with too many bags, and evicting the people who we found asleep in our beds). All told, Madurai was an unforgettable experience.