Sunday 21 January 2007


The day did not start auspiciously. I was sitting down to a modest, cautious, continental breakfast, when I suddenly felt sick. I called hastily for my bill and rushed back to my room. Just in time. Sat feeling miserable for half and hour, and then decided that yesterday's supper was well and truly away (I blame that rash decision to have ice cream) and set off for my 9am meeting with Claire.

As usual I take a rickshaw, even though our hotels are only about a kilometre apart, partly to save my energies (in the case more than usually depleted) but partly because walking that distance in an Indian city can take a looong time. You are constantly weaving a dangerous route between broken drains on one side and loony traffic on the other, hassled by rickshaw men, people wanting to sell you something, and children asking for pens (I always refuse) and then to have their photos taken (which I often do). Madurai seems to be particularly hectic, even - especially - round the temple area.

Madurai has been a holy city for over 2000 years, and there are records of trading by the Greeks, Romans and CHinese since the fourth century BC. For over a thousand years, until the tenth century AD, it was the capital of the Pandyan empire and developed as a centre of Tamil culture. There followed a period when the Pandyans and Cholans fought for supremacy, with the Cholans eventually winning out.

Today the city is dominated by the awe-inspiring Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, built mainly between the sixteenth century but with parts dating back to the 12th century. Outside there are more touts, beggars and people inviting you to see special dancing or views of the temple complex from their shop rooftop. We walk firmly past, find the official place (one beside each of the temple's five entrances) where we leave our shoes (in theory free, but Europeans are invariably asked to pay something), take a deep breath and with guidebooks in hand, enter this giant complex.

We realise within minutes that this is one occasion when it would be a good idea to have a guide and go back to an official guide who had already approached us. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Apart from the fact that he spoke good English, Raj turned out to be articulate, knowledgeable and informative. He was also a thoroughly entertaining character. A lot of what follows comes from his tour, and I'm writing it to remind myself of this visit, so apologies if it bores.

You simply cannot avoid having to understand something about Hindu religion in order to appreciate Hindu architecture. I'm beginning to get the hang of the principle characters in the vast cast of Hindu gods and godesses, though it doesnt help matters that they have several names and personae. A reminder that the three principle gods are Brahma, Siva (wife Parvati, sons Ganesh and Murugan) and Vishnu (wife Lakshmi).

Well, just when I thought I had got that straight, I have been confused by Raj's explanation that the temple is named after the godess Meenakshi (fish-eyed - which is regarded as a beautiful shape for eyes), noted for her beauty except she had a third breast which, according to prophesy, would disappear when she met her future husband. She defeated Siva in battle and on meeting him, the third breast disappeared and they were married in Madurai. So, I think Meenakshi is also Parvati. And this temple is therefore dedicated to Siva and Parvati, each having their own important temple within the huge, maze-like complex.

The first sight of the temple complex is over the top ice-cream 'accretions'. The focus for these is on the giant gopuras - the tall towers containing the entrances into the temple complex and to subsequent courtyards. At Madurai there are 12 gopuras in all and they are huge. The largest, on the east side, is 46 metres high. The base is made of solid granite, while the towers on top have hollow brick interiors covered in a higgledy piggledy, almost random crowd of figures - gods, their guards, and various significant animals, in a huge range of well-known (to Hindus) fables.

Raj explained that the temple is now owned by the state government, which is responsible for its upkeep and administration (rather like the partnership between church and state in France) and they decided in the 1980s to restore and paint the gopuras, and they are now on a ten-year repainting programme (the last time this cost 23m rupees). Indians like their gods to be coloured, said Raj, but the government also knows that most foreigners like them plain, so - to please all, many of the statues within this (and other government owned temples) remain unpainted.

At this point we passed the temple elephant. Elephants are a symbol of royalty and importance, and hence it is appropriate that the gods are treated as royalty. At first I had thought that people were feeding the elephants, but Raj explained that people were offering money, which the elephant took in his trunk, and tapped the donor on the head in gratitude. We saw camels too and Raj said that this was to signify that Siva was a protector of animals.

We passed through a dark but hectic shopping arcade, selling mostly temple artefacts. Bizarre to see these stalls perched in front of ancient Cholan columns, many covered in garlands and blackened with frequent doses of camphor oil. Raj explained that a temple is as much a social centre as a place for praying and the Hindus see nothing incongruous in shopping and indeed eating within a temple complex.

We saw a group of women sitting round a chanting priest. This was the Hindu equivalent of a funeral, Raj said; the priest was praying for the dead person. The length of his prayer depended on whether you have paid the 35 or 20 rupee tariff!

This was when we began to have an inkling of Raj's politics. The prayers are said in Sanskrit, he said, which nobody but the priests understand, and the priests work on a shift system 'like a factory'. You notice, he added, that many of them are fat - only the rich are fat in India. This temple complex collects4m rupees amonth in its collection boxes and this goes towards paying all the people working in the temple as well as associated tasks like running schools. The government is trying to get the temples to have non-Brahmin priests, but is not having any success, at least not in Madurai.

There are Ganesh shrines all over the place - he is a much loved god. We stopped in front of the largest and most impressive (although I still cannot get over the practice of modestly covering Ganesh in a skirt) and watched people praying. The camphor candles are lit, because light is sacred (sounds familiar?). But instead of crossing themselves, worshippers pray, they may prostrate themselves on the ground, walk several times clockwise round the statue, and then bang their knuckles on their head, a humbling gesture, to signify there ignorance in the presence of a wiser god.
Praying is predominantly an individual act, hence people praying all over the place, though on occasions worshippers are responding to the prayers chanted by a priest.
Then we came to a huge tank. Outside the temples these have a second value, as water stores. Within the temple they are an essential part of the ritual: worshippers purify themselves by washing in the water before going to pray - except that here the water is so stagnant that they only do a token wash. I'm afraid the tank has seen better days, though the gold-leafed lotus in the middle is impressive, and from one point you can also see the two gold-leafed towers of Visa's and Parvati's temples. On the walls of the passageway round the tank are stone panels engraved with ancient tamil scripts - the equivalent of the psalms.

We constantly see worshippers dipping their finger into bowls of white and red powder and marking their foreheads. The white ash is in fact made of cow shit, said Raj, and is a reminder of mortality, while the red is a symbol of the body, of life. Life-death, the very Indian love of complementing opposites. This is also why we see so many places in temples painted with red and white stripes.

There are apparently over 30,000 sculptures in this complex, and one does tend to feel somewhat punch drunk looking at them, particularly as so many are difficult to see, given the dark columned interior of temples and the tendency to cover revered statues in oil. But Claire and I are particularly fond of the strange horse-like statues we have seen here and at other places like Trichy. Raj explained that they are mythical creatures - "yalis" which are made up of six animals, including the head of a lion, the body of a horse, the trunk of an elephant and the tail of a cow.

Outside the two main shrines, entry forbidden to non Hindus, were some more extraordinarily good statues, in particular one of Siva and Parvati getting married, with Vishnu blessing them. Raj pointed out Parvati is looking down, in pleasure but modestly, while Siva is looking ahead with pride. (Lets hope my photo works.)

This was a very busy place as a large group of people were sitting on the ground engaged in a communal chant in front of another shrine. There was no priest present this time, the chant seemed to be led by a succession of the participants, including women, reading from what was presumably a book of Tamil rather than Sanskrit verses.

Raj said that every morning rice was handed out in front of the Ganesh statue, ostensibly to the poor, but others took advantage of this. He's good on figures: India has 1.2 billion people and 70% live in villages. He comes from a village, his parents were primary school teachers, he was the ablest of the children and so sent to a Jesuit college, which is where he learnt such good English and a critical view of all religions, and then university. He did indeed know the Marxist quote "Religion is the opium of the masses". But at the same time, he said, where would all these poor people be without the comfort of religion?

We then passed on to India's problems and his view that the main one is overpopulation. There must be birth control and the solution must come through education.

He was considered a rebel in his family, a socialist, who refused to carry on the family tradition as a teacher and marry until he was 40 (he is now 44) and then insisted on looking for a wife himself. His wife is five years younger than him and they both agreed before marrying that they didn't want children. But this is unheard of in Indian families -Hindu or Christian - so they have not told anyone of their decision and the families continue to be concerned at his wife's barren state.

An excellent guide and I said I would publicise his cellphone number on my website - only I've lost his card. Will add this when I get it from Claire.

Talking of cellphones or mobiles: these are VERY popular in India, leading to some incongruous sights of men wearing traditional clothes, their ear pressed to a mobile. In this internet cafe I'm beginning to tire of the tunes of the mobiles on either side of me. As Amartya Sen said at the start of 'The argumentative Indian': "Indians like to talk".

Our visit concluded with Claire and me losing each other, compounded by my inability to grasp the layout of the whole complex, so I walked round three sides of the outer wall before finding the exit where we had left my shoes. So we each spent half an hour going round in circles and were ready to collapse. So time to go back to my hotel for a delicious lunch - or rather lunch for Claire (I risked a cup of tea). The waiters clearly like her enthusiasm for the Indian half of the menu. Claire went on for a late afternoon's sightseeing, while I concentrated on recovering. I did this rather well, as I too tucked into another good meal in the evening. We shared a table with an elderly Parisian couple travelling round Tamil Nadu with their own driver, a guide in each town and staying in more upmarket hotels than ours. A different experience :-)

In the evening Claire and I returned to the temple to witness the evening ceremony of the images of the Siva and Parvati being removed from their shrines and taken to their bedchamber. It was supposed to happen at 9pm and indeed we did see some sort of movement of images, but we don't reckon this was the real thing, as there was no accompanying ringing of bells and drums. We were getting eaten by mosquitoes and increasingly anxious that the shoe place would close down (I have come to India with just the one pair of sandals!) so decided to call it a day. Ours were indeed the last shoes left.

So, the last rickshaw drive together. In the morning Claire sets off to walk in the hills, while I continue further south. Meeting her has made travelling round Tamil Nadu a very pleasurable experience. She is half my age but we were on the same wavelength all the time (she was tolerant of my more limited physical capacities), with similar reactions to what we were seeing. She is going to be jobhunting when she gets to the UK in late spring and I will be passing her CV to friends and relatives - she is the sort of person I would have loved to have had in my team at the University.

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