(insert "life is a journey" cliché here)
In the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai, southern India, I was out on my own – my travelling companion and I having parted ways for the moment. On my first day, I was struck by fatigue, inertia, the heat, and a little nervousness. I lay spread-eagled on the bed, under the ceiling fan in my undies, watching ‘Cocktail’ on the budget hotel TV while dust bunnies whirled and swirled in the corner. Eventually a political rally outside the window stirred me into guilty action; I plucked up my usual DIY travelling courage and set off to find the city’s famed temple, which attracts pilgrims of the Hindu faith India-wide.
The colours of the Meenakshi Temple are amazing, though my temple guide Mr Ajax informed me that more money is poured into the repainting of the temple every few years, than into improved infrastructure for the community. ‘But to improve the temple is seen as the right thing to do, since it is the spiritual heart of all the people, who are very religious.’ Mr Ajax didn’t necessarily agree though, I learnt. He also felt that more education should be imparted on family planning; that large families and the focus on religion kept everyone on or below the poverty line. ‘I have done it the right way,’ said Mr Ajax. ‘I have waited until my early forties to marry, and my wife and I have only one child, a daughter. We are able to save money, and we want to give her as good an education as we can.’ He proceeded to critique other aspects of Indian society quite candidly. It was money well spent getting Mr Ajax as my guide. I learnt a few things about the temple as well.
I took a break late afternoon, and was invited into a nearby four storey-shop of jewellery and goods, for a free viewing of the temple from the roof. All to lure me inside to buy? ‘Oh no,’ explained the shopkeeper, another savvy Ajax type. ‘I don’t believe in harassing western tourists to buy. They prefer to browse without interruption. That is where my fellow Indians are doing it wrong.’ I was so impressed by his refreshing attitude that I rewarded him by buying a moonstone ring. Probably his ploy all along.
In contrast, a cheerful chap stood in the doorway of his ladies’ clothing shop. The window was dressed with lady-mannequins all in red sparkling saris. The shopkeeper grinned at me and delivered his one English marketing line with a flourish of his arm in their direction. “Red. New you …. Red! New you!”
I returned into the temple some hours later to witness the regular evening tour of the presiding deity, who I believe is know as Sundareswarar, amongst many other names. Only Hindu worshippers were allowed into the inner sanctum to take their blessing from the statue in which the god resides, while I waited outside with all the other camera-toting foreigners.
Soon a procession emerged, transporting the deity statue inside a silver curtained palanquin. He would be carried on a circuit of the outer temple, then be put ‘to bed’. (I’m uncertain on further details, but more about the resident deities and temple can be found here )
My other enduring memory of Madurai is a little amusement I experienced the following morning. Before heading out to the Gandhi Museum, I chose to have lunch at the roof terrace restaurant of a nearby hotel. At the bottom of the menu, which also advertised facilities at the hotel, were the words: ‘We have an excitement in our basement from 11am to 11pm.’
To this day, I kick myself for not enquiring as to the nature of this ‘excitement’. I amuse myself by imagining a ‘gimp’ living in a large chest a la ‘Pulp Fiction’, who is let out for 12 hours daily.