The Meenakshi Temple, fragrant strands of jasmine, the three Tamil Sangams…these are what you generally associate with the city of Madurai. And of course, the beautiful and lyrical way in which people there speak the Tamil language we, here in Chennai, are so accustomed to massacring.
But, actually arriving in Madurai in August 2009 is a different matter altogether. The city is still relatively small, and retains much of the old world charm. But, one can’t help but notice that ugly hoardings, plastic waste and unmanageable traffic are an integral part of the city. And to me, it signifies a loss of innocence. A loss of all that was good with small-town Tamil Nadu. It’s been a good seven years since I last visited Madurai. A lot of water has flown under the bridge. Or should I say, a lot of silt has accumulated. For, there is no water in the Vaigai any more. Apparently they only open the dam in April for the Kallazhagar temple festival. Otherwise, it’s just a vast expanse of sand and silt. That’s sad, considering that one of the indications that you had arrived in Madurai was crossing that bridge over the Vaigai, with the river gushing furiously below you.
But, all said and done, it feels good. It feels good to enter a city you know is almost 2000 years old. A city that hosted not one, but three Tamil Sangams. The city that nurtured and developed Muthamizh (edit: the three Tamils, referring to Iyal, Isai, Natakam, as pointed out by Santhakumar in the comment). Because, unlike Chennai, Madurai has a history distinct from the white sahibs. Talking to people there, you realise that although things have changed, they haven’t changed so drastically that you don’t realise the difference. The people are still rather more helpful and less abusive than in Chennai.
The Thirumalai Nayakar Palace still holds the same charm it did all those years ago. It’s still as beautiful, and much cleaner. It is heartening to see that the ASI is finally taking an interest in restoring that beautiful structure. And of course, in keeping the place clean. You cannot see a single plastic bag, or bubble gum, or broken bottles any more. The management makes sure of that.
Life in the city still revolves around the famed corridors of the Meenakshi temple. Yes, the temple is rather commercial now, with the management charging 100 rupees for a special darshan. But, you can still enjoy the stroll in the hallowed corridors, appreciate the nuances of the Silver Hall (analogous to the Golden Hall in Chidambaram), and walk around the famed “Pond of the Golden Lotus”. The only problem is that there was no water in the pond. It had been pumped out a few days earlier for cleaning. The Golden Lotus (Potramarai) is clearly visible. It would have looked much more beautiful had the pond been filled.
I spent a long and exciting weekend in the area. What used to seem like a lifetime of drudgery when I was ten suddenly seems much more exciting now. I want to go back. Go back and see more temples, more palaces, more hills, and more of life. I know I will. The only question is…when?