The beautifully ancient – Complete Madurai travel blog

Studying the Madurai temple complex was part of my architecture academics. Down the lane, I forgot about it until I saw a documentary on Jigar Thanda, a drink made in Madurai. Slowly, we connected the dots of our interests- Ar Geoffrey BawaSungudi Saree- a Temple town and Jigar Thanda. Over a night bus journey, we landed in “Athens of East.”

Here is your complete guide to Travelling in Madhurai -as sweet as nectar-Hometown of goddess Meenakshi.

Index

How to reach Madurai

Lady worshipping a tall goddress idol at Pudukotai in Madurai

By air – Madurai’s international airport makes it convenient for foreign and domestic travellers to reach. Direct flights from Dubai, Singapore, Colombo fly here. If you don’t have a direct flight to Madurai, your layover/change of flight will likely be at Chennai. I recommend you stay back in Chennai for two-three days to roam around and come to Madurai by train instead.

Madurai By Train

Madurai is one of the main railway junctions of TN state. Daily trains run between Chennai / Tanjore and Madurai & also Delhi. Bangalore to Madurai train is also famous among budget travellers.

By Bus – An overnight journey from Bangalore, Kochi, Mahabalipuram, Kanyakumari is the cheapest and quickest way to get to Madurai. There are multiple stops to get down in Madurai. As the main bus stand- Mattuthavaniis located away from the city centre, you must know where to get down exactly.

Travelling in Madurai

Autorickshaw in Madurai

Ola and Uber work in Madurai for taxis and auto-rickshaws. We relied on auto-rickshaws as they have mastered the art of galloping on jam-packed roads. Whenever we took a “non-Ola” Autorickshaw, the price was 100Rs irrespective of the destination. Two-wheeler renting options were few, and we don’t recommend it. Because Madurai’s traffic is monstrous. Hiring a car with a driver is ideal if you are ok to spend more to reach places outside town. They aren’t too expensive. So you won’t regret booking a private AC Cab to go outside of town.

Accommodation in Madurai

The highlight of Madurai is the Meenakshi Amman temple. So staying in this locality is ideal for saving on Autos and taxis. Many domestic pilgrims prefer to stay in this locality.

If you have already read my post on Heritance Kandalama, you know my love for Ar Geoffrey Bawa.
Unique hotel room with pond and a tree inside the room

He designed Heritance Madurai as a club in 1975. Later the management changed, and they converted it into a hotel. The hotel is famous among domestic visitors for family get together and weekend getaways. With similar expectations to Heritance Kandalama, we booked the pool suite for a night. The room’s ambience was perfect, but the hotel’s food and surroundings outside the room didn’t meet my expectation. As a luxurious alternative, you can book Taj Gateway on the hillocks.

We booked a super cheap and decent Hotel Temple city closer to Matthuvani bus stand for the next day.

How many days to spend in Madurai

Marraiage ceremony dolls at Villachery in Tamil Nadu

Do you know what Dasara Golu is?

We stayed for two days, and we were content about it. If you add an extra day, you can go around nearby hills. Head to Tanjore or Karaikkudi from here and continue to the beach town of Mahabalipuram. 

The best time to visit Madurai is winter-November to February.

Keep an eye on the gorgeous festivals like Chitirai that happen in April. The brilliant festival is worth bearing the summer heat.

Why visit Madurai

South Indian temple Gopuram view.

Like Mumbai, this 3rd century BC, south Indian city hardly sleeps. The mornings were laid back. By night the city comes to a life fully. Walking around the temple shows you the strong & logical town planning principle adapted during Vedic times. In contrast, the modern town makes you wonder what happened to the town planning strategies.

Old market street with half built temple structures

Fake Adidas to Cast Iron Tawa, you can buy anything in Elukadal street, lined with Raya Gopuram leading to Nandi Statue.

To witness how an ancient Sangam era city that had connections with Greek & Romans has adapted to today’s time, you must wander in Madurai. Beside an ACP cladded Pothy’s showroom, you find a shrine inside a small ancient temple. When you expect traditional Tamilians wearing sarees and jasmine flowers, you spot women in Ghagra -Choli and Odhni!

Madurai and Saurahtra Connection

The Saurashtrians from western India migrated here long ago, adding vividity to the community. Including native rulers like Pandyans to invaders like Malik Kafur, Madurai has been through a lot and stays strong, holding on to its roots.

A day started with tasty, fluffy idlis fueled with dessert drinks to beat the heat while roaming in one of the world’s oldest towns can end with a tasty dinner at food joints called “Mess.” 

Madurai History

Pandyans in 400BC, Cholas in 1100AD, British in 1800 – The city took its shape in terms of culture and economics in each era. The Madurai’s heart remains “Meenakshi Amman Temple.”, It is famous for its slightly curved pyramidical Gopurams. The tallest one is southern Gopuram (52m). 

So who is Meenakshi Amma?

If you are a history buff or an architect who has studied the town planning principles, you won’t need the guide to walk around. Otherwise, taking up a walking tour is the best way to understand why Madurai is hyped.

Highly carved  slighly curved 52m tall Madurai gopuram
Meenakshi is the goddess who protects the city that never sleeps named Madurai, meaning “Sweet Nectar.”

A Pandyan royal couple didn’t have an heir. So the queen worshipped goddess Parvathi and requested her to be born as her child. The pleased goddess came out of the flames of a Yagjna as a 3-year-old girl. Her eyes were beautiful, shaped like a fish. So she was named Meenakshi. The girl became a queen and ruled the kingdom after her father. She defeats many as a great warrior and reaches mount Kailash. There she meets her equal in the battle, Lord Shiva- Sundareshwar ( the beautiful god).

The destined love

Meenakshi’s third breast falls – a sign that she had met her destined husband. Hence, the war doesn’t end with bloodshed but with a love marriage in her hometown Madurai later. Her brother Alagar (lord Vishnu) arrives on a gold horse a day after the marriage ceremony. Madurai people welcomed him, and he gifted his sister at the Mantapa- This marriage ceremony is celebrated as the Chitirai festival every April since then.

Painted ceiling of Madurai temple

So the town evolved with the Meenakshi temple at the centre based on ancient Vedic town planning principles of concentric squares. When you walk around the temple on Chitirai street, you can feel the concentric squares. The modern town grew on the Northern side of the Vaighai river, while the south is where the main temples are located.

Best things to do in Madurai

Here is a list of things to do in Madurai in two to three days

Unwind yourself on the terraces of Koodal Azhagar Temple.

The most  beautiful terrace in the world - reaching temple gopuram

No doubt Meenakshi temple is beautiful. But for us, Koodal Azghar (pronounced Z as L) is the epitome of serenity & architectural beauty. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, it is smaller than the Meenakshi temple, but temple columns/statues are equally beautiful. This sounds like a typical South Indian temple. What makes it unique is the terrace where you can reach the Gopuram. Only a few temples in India can take laypeople to the Gopuram.

The magical rooftop

After paying that 10Rs for the entry ticket, you are on your stairway to heaven of tranquillity. The buzzing sound of Madurai traffic is faint, and you hear the whistling wind with birds chirping. You get the closest view of detailed statues and can even visit a shrine of sleeping Vishnu in the Gopuram. The temple holds a significant religious value and attracts the usual crowd less. So it is either the everyday devotees who come for religious purposes strictly or a few who know about the terrace. If rejoicing in the temple beauty quietly in a busy city is your thing – An hour sitting here can pass in a few minutes.

Witness the 6th century BC Civilisation at Keeladi

6th century BC Skeletons on the ground at ancient civilization excavation site at Keeladi

In 2015, a little hamlet “Keeladi” revealed a buried town that dates back to the 6th century BC. The excavation process is under progress with little help from ASI & more help from local residents & authorities. They have even found multiple skeletons in another site nearby that dates back to a similar era. Seeing those 2500yr old skeletons, clay pots and jars in the middle of a coconut grove is spine chilling and can make anyone wonder about the connection of this Sangam era town to the Indus valley in north India and other foreign civilisations. The coins and other findings have proved that this civilisation had trade connections with Greeks/Romans.

Remains of Keeladi wall

Reaching Keezadi is possible only by private vehicle. With the least help from the central government, don’t expect guides and historians to take you around the site. Without my architect buddy Haresh’s help, it would have been difficult to reach Keezadi.

Get refreshed with Jigar Thanda.

Bowl of milk based refreshing drink Jigarthanda in Madurai

It is strange how one drink can intrigue travellers like us to travel to an ancient city. Buttermilk goli soda is typically South Indian cool refreshment. Jigar Thanda was invented in Madurai by Saurashtrians living in the town to escape the extreme summer heat. Jigar means heart, Thanda means cool – So this keeps your heart cool and minds satisfied while taste buds beg for more.

What is Jigarthanda

This milk-based drink uses condensed milk, ice cream made of condensed milk, nannari syrup. This drink is partly edible because of the main ingredient, Almond gum. We have tried Jigar Thanda at five different places. Everyone holds the board that says “World famous Jigar Thanda.” But the real and best taste, according to us and my buddy Haresh living in Madurai, is Famous Jigarthanda in East Marret street. Don’t bother to try canned Jigar Thanda anywhere else in Tamil Nadu – It isn’t good.

Devour on delicious Madurai food

Man eating Dosa on banana leaf

People stick to pure veg food when you think of a temple town. Madurai surprises tourists with its non-veg content too. Ashrith says he had the best Parotha with Mutton curry of his life in Kumar mess. Murugan Idli’s Podi Dosa and Podi Idly smeared with lots of ghee, and their secret ingredient powder is one of the tastiest breakfasts of our life. To explore more, ask locals for recommendations, especially food joints with the label “Mess.” Don’t forget to take the easiest, tastiest souvenir – Halwa and Murukus from Sree Prema Vilas.

Vilacheri doll village.

Room full of clay dolls and artists making it at Villachery, Tamil Nadu

Keeping dolls for nine days during Navratri is an age-old tradition that symbolises how gods above and beyond earth frozen for a few minutes in shock, looking at furious goddess Durga killing demon Mahisha. The dolls made for these are traditional clay but replaced with POP and plastic ones. Only a few villages in India have mastered the art of Dasara Gollu, and Vilacheri is one of them. A 10km Ola drive from Madurai town takes you to this village that lacks infrastructure but is full of artists. It is entrancing to see them moving their fingers fragile on the clay for minute details.

Banana leaf lunch serving doll set at Madurai

Who makes the dolls

Almost every house in the village is into this art and make dolls of various themes. They usually start making dolls after Pongal in January by mixing clay as the dolls have to be ready by October. Religious themes include the marriage ceremony of Seeta-Raama, 10 Avatars of Lord Vishnu, Mysore Dasara Procession set, Shiva’s Kailasa set with his families and disciples. There are non-religious ones like Cricket set, school set, farmers set and even Politicians! 

Various clay dolls for Dasara

Theppakulam – Floating temple.

Our buddy Haresh asked us to meet him at “Theppakulam”. Though the word is understandable for any South Indians, I didn’t bother to wonder where I was going when I sat in that overpaid auto rickshaw. The driver stopped by a vast pond with an old temple in its centre.

Beautiful typical south Indian temple on the lake and a lady wearing saree posing in front of it.

A beautiful temple is surrounded by water connected to the Vaighai river via underground canals in the heart of chaotic Madurai traffic! On one side, buses and cars are vrooming honkings. On the other side, a temple was believed to be built for Lord Ganesh after his idol was found while digging for mud to bricks for the Meenakshi temple. The wide sidewalk with seating is decent enough for tourists like us to pause for 30 minutes to wonder at the temple on the tank. Haresh said Theppotsavam (floating festival) in January/February are a feast to eyes.

Banana market.

Banana market lane at Madurai

For us living in a Tropical climate, bananas and coconuts are part of the daily staple. But seeing a local market full of only Bananas is exciting. A seller explained from the big red ones to smaller yellow ones, you get around 30 varieties here. Mornings are the best time for farmers to load the heaps on cycle carts and lorries. The unripe bananas are stored inside a partially underground shop. Walkobserving the sides. Otheriwse you won’t notice that the storerooms where farmers sit to negotiate, has an underground cabin.

The shy and nice people smile at you and tell you everything about Banana if you can converse in Tamil. Witnessing a local market with the thatched roof above and tiny cabins by the side with bananas dumped is a magical thing.

A load of fresh green banana on a cycyle cart at Banana market in Madurai

Wander and shop in Pudhu Mandapam.

Woman in saree shopping at Pudukotai - the ancient pillared market market place

I have been to bazars and flea markets. But Pudhu Mandapam is the first place where I wandered and shopped inside a 1630 AD’s temple-style building. One of the Nayaks built it as a halting-place for royal women visiting the temple. The hall’s centre was a dance platform (which was inaccessible in 2020 due to maintenance). The flat roof is supported with carved rectangular columns with rhythmic projections.

The shops are lining these columns, creating a unique shopping experience. Hundreds of traders have been sitting here for ages, and this place is the only place of business for many. Two popular things in this unique shopping hall are – Tailors who would stitch your dress in two hours from a fabric you choose in their shops. Then the traditional Thumbai – A ceiling-hung cylindrical fabric decorative item is authentic to Madurai. I wish the spread of shops happened in a controlled way to enjoy the architectural space and details more than flashy-tacky jewellery shops.

Climb the local shop terrace for Gopuram views

Ciew of mutlple gopurams from the terrace at Madurai

There are 14 gopurams in the Meenakshi temple, and getting a view of all 14 is impossible without a drone. But if your Madurai friend helps you get on to the terrace of local shops/residents, you can see at least three at one shot! The view from the 5th-floor terrace is mindblowing. It was then we noticed why Madurai’s Gopuram is the most beautiful in South India – The trapezoidal surface carrying thousands of statues are slightly curved!

Visit Nayak’s palace to witness the Madurai Grandeur.

Line of columns and archways at Nayaka's palace in Madurai

Pandyans, Cholas, Khilji’s Malik Kafur and Vijayanagar empire – There have been many rulers to Madurai in history. Vijayanagara (the Hampi kings) captured Madurai in the 1300s. Kings of this empire had a habit of leaving the captured land to governors called Nayaks for efficient administration. So Thirumalai Nayak built the palace & is decently maintained because many movie songs and scenes are filmed here, Like Tere Bina from Guru.

Ceiling with patterns and detailed carvings

The 17th Century palace’s architect is Italian, and you find lots of European influence in the columns and roof. The fascinating ceilings reminded me of Iran with stalactites at places. A Part of the place reminded Ashrith of Udaipur fort also. So it is a hybrid palace of Italian+Islamic+Rajputana and course Dravidian style. The palace’s terrace is the most beautiful. Unfortunately, it was restricted to visitors in 2020- Many visitors have misused the wide terrace for alcohol, and workers found dozens of used condoms in the terrace!

old photo of Nayak palace showing the roof

Meenakshi Amman temple.

South tower of Meenakshi Amman temple

You may be wondering why the highlight of Madurai is at the bottom list. There is no doubt about the architectural beauty of the temple. Halls after halls with Vyala (lion-faced mythical creatures) carved on a bracket supporting a cornice facing the passages are eye-catchy. The main pond with golden lotus floating is where one can rest their foot after standing in a long line for goddess darshan for an hour. The thousand pillared halls are proof of ancient Indian sculptor’s perfection. You neither hear a tacky ringtone nor a creepy item song with no cell phones allowed inside the temple. No tiktokers, no Instagrammers – Pure devotion. But the temple is always so crowded that it is difficult to stay inside for hours together to relish every corner.  

Sungudi sarees.

Woman buying sungudi sarrees at Madurai, Tamil Nadu

My love(rather an obsession) over handloom sarees is one reason for travelling to particular places. Sungudi sarees made in Madurai are one of the softest fabrics I have ever used. The roots of this saree are so ancient that this is the saree worn by our great grandmoms. When Saurashtrians of Gujarath migrated to South India, they brought the art of Bandini – Tie & dye technique.

There are many theories why Saurashtrians moved to the south from west India. After Mohammad Ghazni attacked them multiple times, they fled to Maharashtra. Vijayanagara kings noticed a new group of people struggling who were excellent at weaving. Their subordinates, Nayakas of Madurai, were asked to shelter the Saurashtrians, and they became principal weavers for the royal family.

Saurashtra ladies wearing Gagra Choli with Odhni

So the legacy of Saurashtrians continues even today. They speak Tamil & Saurashtra languages and add a south Indian twist to their Bandhini sarees. For a long time, cotton threads were dyed using natural colours. But there they are replaced with synthetic colours too. South Masi streets have many shops that sell these sarees. Rani textiles are the most famous ones. If you want to see dyeing and weaving, you must visit villages outside Madurai.

Walk in Ancient streets of Madurai

old haveli with cast iron railing and scooters parked infront of it at Madurai

What is better than walking old streets around the palace & temple areas of the world’s one of the oldest living cities? Though ACP Cladded ugly buildings have taken over the ancient streets, there are some traces of old structures. You can see an influence of Colonial architecture too here. Plus, these areas give you a glimpse of local life. Ashrith found out the secret of Madurai tasty mutton curry is their round red chilli in one of the shops in these alleys. 

Pile Red Round chillies in a big bag

My after “Travelling in Madurai” Thoughts

Modern brick house right next to ancient temple with 3 feet gap between them

Urbanisation meets history.

Was the Madurai temple painted when it was built

I don’t have an answer. Pandyans built it between the 1190s and 1200s AD; it may have been painted with natural colours. But when the temple’s restoration began (and continues), the local authorities didn’t emphasise sticking to originality. When UNESCO wanted to recognise it, they didn’t follow the standards, and they used bright synthetic colours without thinking about how the chemicals affect the statues. There are multiple reasons for doing so – If the temple becomes a UNESCO Heritage, any commercial establishment in a 300m radius around the temple had to be demolished/relocated. The shop owners and residents who didn’t want this may have contributed to the “Disorderly restoration”. 

Lord Ganesha statue on gopuram
Second thought

We understand our heritage better than anyone with such a strong history and culture. So why do we need an outsider to preserve our heritage? – Because we are very proud of their history and ignorant about it at the same time. Plus, in a developing country like ours, many suffer without basic needs. So is heritage more important than hungry humans? How do we create a balance between both?

View of Madurai city from a temple terrace
Third thought 

While I whined about not keeping it unpainted and using fluorescent colours on the peeling statues, Ashirth had a different opinion. Because there are bright colours on the statues, each one gets distinguished and gains individual attention also as a whole.

The perimeter of the temple is now cleaned and restored- Good. But the kind of paving is most uncomfortable for a barefoot walk! The stones have an undulating finish which makes everyone’s walks painful!- Those stones are suited for a place where it snows and people walk in boots.

Ancient column in the busy streets of Madurai

Image courtesy – Samar Halarnkar

The ten pillar lane is living proof of how “A Necessary Evil-Urbanisation” consumed the ancient town leaving only traces of it behind.

Vaighai river: The story says that Lord Vishnu came to this river to take a dip to attend Meenakshi and Sundareshwar marriage. The story remains, and the river is vanishing. So during the Chitirai festival for the customary dip, the government makes a makeshift tank. Though it isn’t a perennial river, its condition is so poor that it is hard to believe it draws 10 lakh people, during the Chitirai festival!

What are your thoughts on Madurai? Let us know in the comment section below.

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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