Trichy to Madurai; Madurai is busy but cheerful; Yet another in the unending series of famous landmarks which are covered with scaffolding; The seamstress-pimps of Madurai

I had a call from Vodacom (the mobile phone company) in the morning that I’d been half-expecting. I’ve read reports from other travellers that their new mobile numbers would stop working two or three days after activation, so I reckoned they’d call and want to establish an address for me. Unfortunately I’d never had the address of the hotel in Pondicherry - I only knew the name and what street it was on. I had to go and look it up on the internet and call Vodacom back with it so that my phone wouldn’t be disconnected.

That chewed up a lot of the morning, but we knew it was only three hours by bus to Madurai, our next destination, so we weren’t in a particular hurry. Madurai’s so-called “central” bus station is nothing of the kind - it’s a good ten kilometres from there to the railway station where all the hotels are. It took us ages to shake one annoyingly persistent autorickshaw driver - he came down to 80 rupees, but the bus is 10 or so - no contest. We went out the other side of the station and caught the bus. Sheryl took a seat and I stood. The conductor and the passengers kept trying to get me to sit, but the pack is getting lighter again, now that I’ve been carrying it for a few weeks. The bus wasn’t crowded, but it was busy enough that it would have been a pain to get to a seat with the pack on. Everyone was very concerned about me standing, making isn’t-that-thing-bloody-heavy motions, but I mimed a strong-arm gesture to say I was sturdy enough for it, and that joke ran round the bus. Everyone was very friendly.

Madurai doesn’t look much different from any other city I’ve seen here, but it’s a lot more laid back, both in terms of traffic and people. It’s not a small town, there’s around a million people here. The bus was about twenty minutes to the railway station and we found the hotel easily (walking past it only once). The room was surprisingly nice. For Rs465 (something like CAD$11.50) we got a little balcony with a sink and mirror, and a spotless bathroom with a strange hybrid squat-sit toilet. We discovered the hard way that the service bell was actually connected, which makes this hotel unique in my experience of any country. The bellhop actually opened the door when we didn’t answer quickly enough, which was an unpleasant shock. More so for Sheryl, since he got an eyeful of her legs. I told her she was going to get us thrown out of the country for lewd behaviour. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Madurai is very cheerful. There’s an entirely different atmosphere from similarly-sized Trichy, and I much prefer it. Town Hall Road is a bustling bazaar of little shops leading all the way to the gigantic Sri Meenakshi Temple. There are more than a few beggars here, shoving their hands in your face or moaning and making the hand-to-mouth gesture, but besides that it’s a nice place. We knew we wouldn’t be able to eat and get to Madurai’s Mahatma Gandhi museum back near the bus station before the museum closed. Food was a priority since we hadn’t eaten all day and it was now late afternoon, so we decided to see the Temple instead.

The Temple was a ten-minute walk through crowds of people, each one shouting “Madam! Madam!” We somehow picked up a man who said he was a tailor and wanted to make us pants. We politely declined and he invited us to come and see the temple from “the museum, in tower”. We didn’t feel like being suckered but he said “no money, no money” so we followed him to see what it was about. He stopped in front of a shop opposite the temple called the Museum Company, haha. We knew there’d be a sales pitch but the opportunity to see the temple roofs from high up definitely appealed, so we went in and up three floors to the roof.

The view was actually great, even though all the temple roof pyramids are faced with dry palm-leaf covers over scaffolding, and have been for the last two years while the carvings are repainted. It’s a massive undertaking - there are eight or nine huge gopurams all fantastically carved. There are gaps here and there in the covers and you can see some of the freshly-painted carvings. We’re a couple of months from the grand unveiling in April, more’s the pity - it’s going to be magnificent. Even with the covers on the pyramids make interesting geometric grey-brown monoliths. It’s only fitting, really. Everywhere we went in Europe all the famous castles and cathedrals were invariably, one and all, covered in scaffolding. Not so much in Africa, but then, there’s nothing much there to put scaffolding around. Now that there are landmarks again I shouldn’t be surprised when the scaffolds appear.

It was a little too busy on the street to be comfortable leaving our shoes before going into the temple, and there was no shoe-wallah to look after them, so we hid them in our bags. There was a security check with a metal detector, pat-down and bag inspection at the entrance. They weren’t too serious about anything with me, just a pro-forma frisking. The guard asked to see in my bag but waved me on when I began fumbling theatrically with the closures (which was the idea). Sheryl had to go into the curtained ladies’ security cubicle for her pat-down, and her guard was more zealous than mine and inspected her bag. She found the shoes - apparently shoes aren’t allowed in temples at all, even if you aren’t wearing them, which is good to know. They didn’t care enough to send us back to drop them outside, though, just waved us through into the temple. Again, just like had happened in Trichy, we were unclear on where to buy tickets and so somehow slipped through without paying for admission or for the cameras. We had to spend the next hour dodging a sour-faced woman in a red sari who stalked through the temple crowds snapping “Camera ticket! Camera ticket!”

This is another temple of Shiva and it was the day after the big Mahashivaratri festival, so the place was very crowded. Everyone was happy and a sort of holiday atmosphere filled the air - probably because virtually everyone there were tourists, Indian or otherwise. The temple had a big interior courtyard mostly filled with a huge central building, leaving a walkway around from the main entrance to the opposite side, where the entrances to the shrines were. In the courtyard was another Shiva Tree, this one hung with little yellow wooden cages. All the naga statuettes had been wrapped with fabric and looked like they were wearing little faded saris. Beside the tree was a shrine to Ganesh, so well-used that he was completely red and yellow from head to foot with sandalwood and turmeric paste. A little farther on was a pillared, roofed hall, the tops of its columns carved and painted with what we called Tooth Monsters (but found out later were really lions).
The interior of the temple was gloomy and cavernous. Brightly-coloured ceilings glimmered in the half-light, painted in abstracts of flowers. Carved and painted lions reared up along the walls. Dust and grit crunched under my feet and the smell of sandalwood incense was thick in the air. It was crowded, and there were foreigners scattered here and there. One European man was crouched right in front of a shrine, with the long lens of his camera inches from the hands of people lighting incense and praying. It was shockingly intrusive and disrespectful, and was a perfect example of boorish tourism (and an unnecessary reminder of exactly how I don’t wish to go about travel). In the interest of diplomacy I’ll forbear to mention his country, but I will say that it rhymes with prance.

The huge central building of the temple opens out to the west in a series of open-air pillared walkways with painted ceilings around a huge tank. The tank had tiers of steps leading down to bright green water with drifting weed and lily pads and a huge golden lotus-flower sculpture in the centre. After the gloom of the inside, the light here was almost shockingly bright, even though the daylight was beginning to fade.

As we left, the priests were walking an old temple elephant around the inner courtyard. Not as well-treated as the elephants we’d seen so far, she had no paint or jewellery - only a steel chain wrapped around one hind leg. She plodded slow and dull-eyed around the circuit, steered by a priest tugging on a wooden pole hooked over one ear. It was sad to see, given how happy the elephants in other temples had seemed.

Back along Town Hall Road we went. We’d promised our tailor friend that we’d stop into his shop, since Sheryl actually did want a skirt made. We were accosted by yet another so-called tailor on the way, but we stuck to our promise and went into the first man’s shop - or what he’d pointed out as his shop, anyway. Imagine our surprise when the second man followed us up the stairs and into the shop, saying “Bad tailor, not here” - and then took up a position behind the counter and started showing Sheryl fabrics and giving instructions to a woman with a sewing machine! It all fell into place for me in that moment - obviously none of these men are really tailors at all, but only some kind of pimp for seamstresses. I started to feel ugly at this point - how much money does this woman actually get? Are there hundreds of one-woman sweatshops in town? Sheryl wanted her skirt, though. She settled on a nice long purple silk with an elephant border and a hidden pocket for her passport, for 600 rupees. She could undoubtedly have gotten it for much less, but we didn’t dare haggle too much, since we knew that any reductions in price would undoubtedly come out of the seamstress’ share and not the pimp’s. The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, but Sheryl loves her skirt.

On the way back to the hotel we were stopped by an older Indian man asking directions to the temple. A very odd man, but very friendly and enthusiastic. He found out that we were from Toronto and nearly exploded with joy since his brother lives there. He made me repeat his brother’s name (which I’ve already forgotten) and efforts to tell him that I didn’t know his brother among Toronto’s millions met with only partial success - nothing would do except that I write down my address and phone number so that his brother could get in touch. I don’t have a Toronto address any more, of course - I don’t have any address at all - but I really didn’t feel like trying to explain all that so I just wrote down my old address. So apologies to Mike my old landlord - if an old Indian guy shows up looking for me tell him I won’t be back for a long time, okay? What a funny old duck. He left us with gushing smiles and the prayer-like namaste gesture so rarely seen these days. His wife smiled patiently at us, never having spoken a word - in any language.

Shaking our heads, we went on to dinner at a rooftop restaurant at one of the nearby hotels. The area around Madurai’s train station is clustered with seven- and eight-storey hotels, each with its own rooftop garden restaurant. It was a lovely sight, all these softly-glowing white rooftops rising up into the warm, misty night above the yellow traffic noise. The unlit temple roofs with their scaffolding hulked shadowy in the distance, looking like arcologies from Blade Runner. With the neon signs scattered around on building roofs, all we needed was some flying cars to make the impression complete.

Flourish

See the Photos for this Dispatch:

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2 Comments on this Dispatch:

March 3rd, 2009

just a idea, create a new flickr collection/stream for every fornight you spend in india,
its just that moving through 400 photos to get to the latest ones does tire the mouse finger, a wee bit

¬ Rupinder
March 4th, 2009

Yeah, that’s been bothering me a bit too. Are you using Flickr or cl.com to browse the photos? I’ll make a Flickr set for each Indian state and make sure they’re sorted in descending date-taken order. You can also browse Flickr images by date, eg:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/cliberty/archives/date-taken/2009/02/14/

I’ve been meaning to switch the gallery page on cl.com back to one day per page instead of one location per page, that should help as well. As an interim measure, on the gallery page you should be able to scroll down at the bottom where the thumbnails are to find where you left off.

Thanks for the usability feedback!

¬ Chris
March 4th, 2009

Hi
for the photo feed i am using flickr, the by date idea is good ,
but making set’s will allow you to create tag clouds ( I am kidding , Masterfile old timer Joke)

R

¬ Rupinder
March 6th, 2009

Arg, yer killing me…

¬ Chris
Flourish
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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