Ten-thousand pilgrims visit the temples each day.
The Taj Garden Retreat.
Colourful Indian markets.
Visit India's city of temples, Madurai. Take your choice from hundreds of magnificent temples, tap on the musical pillars, visit the colourful morning markets, and accommodate yourself in a Raj-style oasis.
The capital of Tamil Nadu is Channai, formerly called Madras, but the holy city of Madurai is considered to be the cultural capital. It is called the City of Temples, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them to give credence to its name.
Madurai was planned and laid out in the pattern of a lotus flower, with the famous Meenakshi Temple in the centre. Legend says the city was founded by the Pandya King Kulasekera, and that in the 10th century it was captured by the Chola emperors. The Pandyans regained their independence in the 12th century. The local people still live by the same set of 2000-year-old Hindu rules.
The River Vaigai flows through Madurai, with the old and more touristy section on the southern bank. The more modern part is on the northern side, where you will find hotels, clubs and university campuses.
The city is shielded by three prominent hills called Elephant, Snake and Cow, as they resemble those animals. With just over a million residents and no high-rise, Madurai is considered a small city by Indian standards, but there are throngs of bicycles, rickshaws, cars, buses and carts.
There are an estimated 10,000 pilgrims in the city on any given day, and the most visited place is the Meenakshi Temple, with its towers dominating the skyline. Its Dravidian architecture is typically covered with coloured images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. The Mahatma Gandhi Museum pays homage to the late leader, who visited Tahmil Nadu 14 times. Most shrines and inner sanctums of the temples are not accessible to non-Hindus, but tourists are permitted through the main entrance and in the brakaram, the area around the inner sanctum.
The Thirumalai Nayak Mahal is considered to be one of the most wonderful secular buildings of south Mumbai. Thirumalai Nayak lived for only 32 years, but was considered the greatest of the Nayak rulers.
Madurai is known for its hand-loom weaving of silks and cottons, making it a popular place to buy woven handicrafts and saris.
The Thousand Pillar Mandapam (which actually has 985 pillars) was built in 1569, with all the pillars in perfectly straight lines. There are two small temples where the remaining 15 pillars should be.
The Musical Pillars are located outside the entrance to the Thousand Pillar Mandapam. When tapped gently (as they are quite old and fragile), they will resonate with a musical sound. The pillars feature sculptures and decorations glorifying different gods.
The Golden Lotus Tank is Madurai’s version of the Ganges. The tank is surrounded by a pillared corridor with steps leading to the water's edge, and worshippers and devotees go there to bathe. The ancient academy of poets used to meet there, and to test the worthiness of their writing, they threw their manuscripts into the tank. If a manuscript sank, it was considered to be inferior, with only those that floated considered worthy of attention.
Mysticism, astrology and palmistry are dominant in southern India. Most Indians consult an astrologer when a child is born and before making most major decisions. Parrot astrology is still practised: a bird selects your card, the astrologer tosses some shells on it and is then able to read your future. If you are keen to find out what the future holds, it is recommended that you ask your guide or a local to suggest a reader.
One experience well worth rising early for is a visit to the morning markets. They are a bustling array of noise and colour, with stalls loaded with fruit, vegetables and spices. Nearby are the flower markets, full of colour and perfume.
The Taj Garden Retreat is one of Madurai’s best hotels. It is a low-rise oasis situated on a hill 15 minutes from the centre of town, set in 25 hectares of landscaped gardens. Rather Raj in style, it has only 50 rooms, many with views over the city, the Meenakshi Temple and the Kodai Hills. It has a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, conference rooms, outdoor pool, plus car hire and babysitting services.