Temples of Gloom

2nd February

Someone at the Rough Guide has been taking backhanders.

Sri Thiruthapany Residency has a Favourites star next to it in the guidebook’s list of Madurai accommodation and the rooms are described as “spotless”. Nowhere is it mentioned that the building is unfinished. The porter invites us to step into a lift surrounded by construction materials – wet cement, ladders, loud hammering on bare, crumbling walls. And this is the foyer.

The room itself is filthy in a deep, engrained sort of way. Not just dirty from the previous occupants but from years of negligence. Layers of stains have built up on every surface, mottling everything that should be white a combination of yellows and browns. The bathroom is tiny and dank, with a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and lit only by a paneless window onto the corridor. I realise how problematic this is when, as I practice standing under he shower head, a man instinctively nods hello to me from outside, inches from my face. Rebecca tries to explain to the porter that she’s not keen on showering while the great and good of Madurai wander past this oversized porthole but the message doesn’t seem to stick.

We tell the manager, who speaks a thimbleful of English, that we’re unhappy with the room and he asks us to wait ten minutes while another is prepared. Half an hour later, during which time we peruse Tripadvisor reviews slating, among much else, the construction work taking place at 3am by order of the management, we’re shown to a room two storeys above the first. It’s marginally cleaner but still adorned with the kind of stains you decide it’s best not to look at too closely. And the bathroom still has a large peephole onto the corridor.

The manager looks puzzled when we explain we’re cancelling our reservation.

It’s now nearly 3pm and we’ve not yet had lunch. The bus from Thekkady took five hours, through terrain conspicuously rawer than that of Kerala, drier and dustier. There are still periodic stands of palm trees, but as Lakshmi from Chennai lamented to Rebecca in Thattekad, Tamil Nadu has decimated its tree coverage. As a result the terrain looks bare, and the state suffers from water shortages without the benefit trees bring to the water table. For now, it’s a stark change from Kerala’s lush, ubiquitous green, though given the amount of teak furniture shops surrounding Munnar and Periyar it’s questionable how long before ‘God’s Own Country’ goes the same way.

The stalls lining the Tamil Nadu roads seemed more ramshackle, thrown together from wood and corrugated iron, than their sturdy if run-down Keralan counterparts. Busy town roads bustled with herds of crescent-horned cattle, trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables, bony-legged old men hauling cartloads of tea leaves. We passed long successions of wind farms that blended, noticeably but not distastefully, into the landscape. Deforestation might be an issue but Tamil Nadu has clearly embraced clean, renewable energy with a gusto that still inexplicably eludes Britain.

Now outside Sri Thiruthapany, the sun beats down on us, sweaty and buckling beneath heavy backpacks we’ve nowhere to stow. Without a WiFi connection we schlep to a nearby street that looks, from the discredited guidebook, as if it has a lot of hotels on it, and the first we pass is the massive, budget Neww College Hotel. They show us a room; it’s very basic, and had we not just experienced the horrors of the Sri Thirupathany I’d have probably called it dirty, but the bathroom is private and there’s nothing constituting a red flag in its own right, so we gratefully put our bags down and flop.

According to the Rough Guide Neww College has a good, cheap vegetarian restaurant as part of its complex, but Rebecca accidentally walks past the rear door and spots a bucket she describes as looking “like waste, but also like it’s food”, so we end up eating at the otherwise empty rooftop restaurant of nearby Chentoor Hotel.

From here, we can see the Supreme Hotel’s rooftop restaurant and it looks wonderful, fringed with pot plants and bubbling with groups of happy-looking holidaymakers. We head there in the evening for a well-deserved beer. If I had my time again and a slightly higher budget (it’s mid-range as opposed to cheap) I’d probably stay at the Supreme. Most of the time I’m anywhere else in Madurai I wish I’m here. Don’t, however, be fooled by the Rough Guide’s promise of a sci fi-themed bar. We poke our heads round the door and through the dingy stale beer haze, in a room that looks like the designer lost a competition to create Ming the Merciless’s lair, can just make out three surly-looking men hunched around what appears to be a quart of moonshine. They turn towards us with gruff, unfriendly curiosity; we squeal like R2-DT and scuttle back to the daylight of Mos Eisley.

3rd February

I find Madurai hard work, and that in itself puts me in a gloomy mood.

I feel as if two weeks in Kerala, “India Lite” according to one of the blogs Rebecca follows, has spoiled us. We’ve been spending over our budget during that time. As soon as we’ve ventured into a major city and accommodation in line with our means, we’ve been repulsed. Overly fussy about hotels, unduly bothered by the incessant beeping from the road outside our room and the continual bombardment from hawkers. Knowing that this isn’t a small deviation but the general reality of our four month trip, the rule rather than the exception.

The way to the Sri Meenakshi temple complex is thronged with beggars, many disfigured by disease or missing limbs, all destitute. I give baksheesh to the first few we pass, then feel increasingly disgruntled by the continued approaches after my pockets are empty of change – though, of course, how are they to know? A T-shirt I hung out to dry on the hotel roof last night is missing, presumed nicked, and a five hundred rupee note goes AWOL from my back pocket at the temple. It’s not the monetary value – I’ve paid double to get suits dry-cleaned, then found the same again scrunched forgotten in the pockets on collection – but the inescapable sense that everyone in Madurai, perhaps India, is clamouring for your money.

The temple, though, goes a decent way towards making it all worthwhile. Dating mostly from the 14th Century CE, its fourteen gaudily-decorated gopuras (large temple tower-gateways) dominate the Madurai skyline and demarcate a huge complex that forms the focal point of activity in the southern half of the city. Shoes and cameras must be left at the entrance, and there is something very pleasant about walking barefoot on mostly shaded granite floor. Without a guide we’re not sure exactly what we’re looking at, but the scale and grandeur of the decoration is breathtaking.

No European cathedral comes close; the Vatican is a much better comparison. Starting to understand why Madurai was once known as the “Athens of the East” we walk wide-eyed through a maze of sumptuously-carved stone hallways decorated in vibrant hues of pink and blue. Especially picturesque is the Golden Lotus tank, a large clear pool in the heart of the complex featuring a large bronze pillar and lotus flower sculpture, surrounded by shaded seats to which we and most other European tourists flock for rest and respite from the midday sun.

In the afternoon we head north of the Vaigai river that cuts through the city and head to the Ghandi Memorial museum. Besides the fact that the northern half of the city is quieter and leafier than the bedlam surrounding the temple complex, the museum itself does a fantastic job of lifting my mood. The first half of the display is all about India’s struggle for independence, leaving me racked with guilt for my earlier disgruntlement at feeling harassed for money. India’s poverty is in no small part Britain’s fault, and while the extraction that carved such a big divergence in each country’s fortunes happened long before I was born I have still reaped its benefits. Who am I to get self-righteous about being asked for a few rupees?

The Ghandi Memorial Museum

The rest of the museum is similarly humbling, the second section focusing more on Ghandi’s life and character. His stoicism and sense of sacrifice are viscerally transcribed. Particularly moving are the collection of books the Mahatma had read (including Faust, The Descent of Man, the Bible and the Fall of the Roman Empire) and, of course, the blood-stained dhoti he wore on the day he was assassinated.

Before arriving I was already mentally comparing it to the Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah, and the comparisons survive on the inside. Like the YA the Ghandi Memorial shows the story of an independence movement through the lens of one of the movement’s most iconic individuals. The physical presence of the dhoti reminds visitors of the reality of the struggle and ultimate personal sacrifice it demanded of the Mahatma in the same way as the preserved quarters that housed Arafat’s final years in Ramallah. Both museums tell the same story to two audiences, their nation and the outside world, and as such occasionally trap themselves in the freedom fighter / terrorist dichotomy. In the Ghandi museum’s case this is very literal; a display entitled “The Cult of the Bomb” includes several instances of the words “freedom fighter” taped over the word “terrorist” in describing some of the independence movement’s less pacifistic members, and in one or two places the correction is peeling away to reveal the original.

Like Palestine, India hadn’t existed as a self-governed nation since classical times. Unlike Palestine, India’s struggle for self-determination is now concluded, ongoing disputes over regions like Kashmir notwithstanding. To this end the display on independence finishes with a heartwarming plaque stressing Ghandian forgiveness and describing the British and newly-independent India parting ways as friends.

Awed by the ongoing influence of Ghandi and feeling pleasantly small, I leave the museum in good spirits.

4th February

We’re up at sparrows for the 7am train – our first of the trip – to Trichy. Having booked the day before we have seats reserved on different rows, but a very kind man happily gives up his window seat so we can sit next to each other. After the slow rumble out of Madurai station I mostly read Kim and City of Djinns as the train glides through sun-baked fields, arcing round the hills near Didingul.

After our hotel nightmares in Madurai we pray the place we’ve booked into, the Surag Residency, is habitable, and it turns out to be a real find. A budget business hotel on the outskirts of the town centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we’ve stayed but also one of the cleanest and comfiest, and has lightning-fast WiFi everywhere. The clutch of young lads who seem to manage the day-to-day running of the hotel are fantastically friendly and helpful, letting us order Uber Eats and Dominos (you heard) off their phones when the hotel’s kitchen is out of action.

5th February

We get going early, in the hope I can fit in both the Sri Rangam temple complex and the historic Rock Fort before the midday heat forces us to run for shade or, ideally, a large fridge Rebecca and I can both sit in.

The complex is intriguing; similar in scale, date and style to Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi but a very different feel since the three outermost of its seven walled layers are highly active commercial streets, buzzing with stalls selling food, kitchenware, and souvenirs; hawkers; beggars; and plenty of near-naked, painted devotees.

The shady mandappas and sunny pathways beyond the inner gates, where bustling mercantilsm gives way to ascetic quiet, are pleasant to explore. The intricactly carved pillars are captivating, as are the large gopuras that link each of the onion-like complex’s layers. Most of these are pastel pink-and-blue like those at Madurai, but one huge, marble-white exception stands out in the skyline. Feeling mischievous (lots of the carvings depict Hanuman so maybe I’m channelling) I convince Rebecca it’s made of ivory.

It’s now 10.30am and the temperature is already rising uncomfortably so we skip the nearby butterfly sanctuary and jump onto a bus towards the Rock Fort, which I discover with horror involves climbing lots of steps. Lots and lots of steps. I brace myself for cries of “I missed the butterflies for THIS!?” but the ascent is mercifully shady and, as a bonus, dozens of kites float around on the thermals at the summit, scanning the sprawling city below for rodents while we and the other ascendees take selfies. There is a shrine to Ganesh open only to Hindus, but the corridor around it is open to all and provides panoramic viewpoints.

We reward ourselves with an early lunch and it all gets a little bit weird. Vasanta Bhavan, right by the central bus stand and mentioned in the guide books, must see plenty of Western footfall but you’d never guess it. First, the usual stares – this is pretty normal behaviour in India and we’re already used to it – as we enter and choose a secluded booth in a corner, where a man in restaurant uniform approaches us. Without understanding his Tamil it’s clear from his gestures towards a sign marked <- A/C Restaurant that he feels we’re sitting in the wrong place. He and two more staff escort us for a peek at the empty, unlit and totally charmless A/C section and seem surprised when we ask if we can return to the main canteen. They sit us down, at a different table from the one we first chose but at least in the company of other human beings.

We order two “meals” – not that there’s a menu – and a succession of blue-shirted staff start ladelling thali out onto banana leaves in front of us. It smells delicious, and we can’t wait to tuck in, but just before we can get going another waiter appears and mimes taking a picture. Rebecca agrees, then realises that he’s offering to take one of us on our camera and backtracks.

No two minutes pass without one of a string of well-wishers approaching to ask how the food is, where we’re from (this two or three times), if we want more curry, are we married, do we need more rice, coffee… each quickly returning to report the answers back to a clutch of onlookers (including all the restaurant’s staff and a fair whack of the other customers) gawping at us trying to eat with our hands.

The second it’s established we don’t need more food and would prefer to concentrate on enjoying what’s on our leaves already, the bill appears. Despite myself I snap at Rebecca when she asks if I have change while the manager hovers impatiently by watching me spoon rice pudding into my face. At this point he gets the message and disappears for thirty seconds while I finish eating. Rebecca stopped long ago, the stage fright brought on by our chattering audience spoiling her appetite. Bill paid, the cleaning ladies swoop in, tutting in disapproval at the leftovers she’s not finished in our allotted time frame.

Despite the bizarre service, the food itself is excellent. Sightseeing done and stomachs pleasantly full, we tuck-tuck happily back to the hotel for a nap.

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