We dragged ourselves out of bed as early as we could manage and were out on the street just as the sun was beginning to warm through the haze. We had been unable to read the signs that had been erected around the temple square in the centre of town that appeared to be advertising a week-long festival that Madurai was hosting. It appeared that we were right in the middle of it. But, while the sign explained the presence of so many people, it didn’t tell us much more, and nor did anyone we asked; English, it seemed, was less common here. We had established that the signs listed days of the week and the individual events during those days, but the real question was as to when the party started in the morning. When we asked, the responses we received from the locals ranged from English answers, to fingers held up, to just a shake of the head. All the answers were different; no-one seemed to know. We’d opted to play it safe and get up at the earliest number we had given to us. Six fingers held up by one man.
After breakfast and a juice down in the square, we took ourselves around the temple and took stock of the city in the daylight. The temple compound at the centre of the large square was similar to that of Kanniyakumari, but several times larger. The gompurams stood fifty meters above each entrance and loomed over the main roads that spanned out in all directions, emerging from the haze as we approached from our hotel. They were coated in wooden-pole scaffolding from top to bottom, with only the crested peaks still showing at the top, displaying bulging-eyed, octopus-like creatures waving their tentacles that pour out from their fanged mouths. The ten-meter high walls offer a formidable visual barrier to the entire square, re-enforcing the anticipation and focus on the contents within. The carpet shops and restaurants that were lucky enough to open out onto the square offered viewing roof-terraces that look over these walls and down into the complex. However, this either meant paying double the going-rate for your meal, or taking a very long and careful look through your new friend’s carpet shop for a gift for every member of your family afterwards.
Passing through the same sea of shoes we saw at Kanniyakumari, we were forced to scuttle across the scalding, sun-baked floors of the outer courtyards and through to the inner structure. Non-Hindus, unfortunately, are forbidden from the first worship hall we passed and, sorely disappointed, we were ushered away from the clanging and chanting tumbling out of the carved doorway. Along the shaded walkways that skirted around deep green, steep-sided Lotus ponds, we explored the thousand-pillar hall, the meditation area, the temple art museum and the public recreation hall at the other end. Perhaps the quietest area of the temple, the thousand pillar hall consisted of exactly that- a broad, shady room full of carved pillars depicting dragons and lions, tigers and other less identifiable creatures, brandishing claws and baring tongues in the strange, dark, secluded corners of the room.
But beyond the quiet calm of the hall and into the ceremony room, the mood changed and plunged us straight back into the noisy, busy, incense-filled temple environment that we experienced in Kanniyakumari. The statues and carved pillars were, again, coated in the grimey, greasy black residue from the burning lamps that hung on chains from the ceiling. The same red, orange and white tikka powder sat in small pots beneath each statue and was daubed on foreheads of the smaller figures. Bundles of incense burned from flat pots underneath some icons, while others were adorned with necklaces of flowers.
The whole chamber was much larger and had a high ceiling, so that the line of windows up on one side let thick, smokey shafts of sunlight beam down into the noisy gloom and illuminate the sweat on people’s faces. Families and groups moved from statue to statue, red-robed Sadhus weaved around the room chanting to themselves and pensive-looking old men slowly paced the room with their hands clasped together against their chests. Off to the edges of the room, where the ceiling dropped to a closer level, dark alcoves housed miniature shrines that all differed to the others in some way, each holding their own special significance. Miniature cows, monkeys and dragon-like demons sat on small stone plinths behind dirty, wrought iron bars, consigned away from their grander, more ornate superiors.
On our way out of the temple complex, we passed through the chaos of the public recreation area, filled with trinket sellers offering small candles, the same bundles of incense we saw burning inside, and small effigies of Shiva with built in twinkling lights that played Game-Boy style 8-bit renditions of Hindu hymns. Beyond the rows of identical shops and heaving human traffic, entire parties slept amongst the shady pillars in a great sea of bodies, wrapped in blankets against noise and the midday flies.
That night we had our first encounter with the billed festivities on our wanderings through the city. We had planned to check out the light show at a palace across town that we had seen in the Lonely Planet guidebook. However, their information was wrong -there had been no light show for the last eighteen months due to the palace’s closure for some reason. A shame for the palace and a shame for us.
Nevertheless, these wandering took us straight across the bright-lit centre of this bustling city of a million people. Clearly, this was not just a temple town. The impression that we got from the whole area was of a city full of people that all live and work and commute and recreate in Madurai, as supposed to people that just visit to experience the temple festivities and then depart. As would so often turn out to be a common feature of Indian cities, the retail and services sectors all manage to segregate themselves nicely into districts or streets, so that where one area seemed full of shoe shops or saree merchants, another street would be full of car workshops, flashing welding irons and the rattle of disc-saws.
A walk through Madurai’s streets was no different. Such sounds and stimulus that accompanied the transitions contributed to the entire mood, so that a walk through Bollywood-film-vendor district was as headache-inducing as a walk through restaurant-town was mouth-watering. Each Bollywood vendor parked a large, usually tatty looking stand-alone speaker in the street outside and churned out the loudest, most distorted movie soundtracks as could be managed, naturally competing with their neighbours on either side for volume and liveliness. Likewise, the clusters of restaurants each had taken the canny move of placing the Tandoori ovens and oversized curry pans out on the street, so that the sight and smell of what was on the menu could not be missed by any passer-by.
And through the ambient buzz of the city re-awakened after the heat of the day, we followed the current of the crowds gravitating towards the back-lit gompurams of temple square. From our distant position off to one side of the entrances, we could see the faces of the assembled crush all arched towards the open door of the temple that we had passed only hours earlier, above which spanned a Bamboo-erected canopy, decorated with floral hangings and what looked suspiciously like Christmas tinsel. Off to one side, elevated above the stiflingly hot sea of brown faces, a lone cameraman had clambered up the side of a building and stood perched on an impossibly narrow ledge with his cumbersome camera as we waited for whatever it was we were all waiting for to happen.
Before long, a wave of excitement rippled out from the front of the crowd and reached a crescendo as heads craned all around us. Then, pulled on a rope by a team of orange-shirted men in red headbands, there rolled out a large-wheeled and multicoloured chariot-type affair from inside the temple. The swaying vehicle looked more like a psychedelic pillar of some sort; it peaked into a gompuram just like the one that now towered above us, under which, in an open cabin sat a fibreglass deity that was, again, similar to that which sat inside the temple at that moment. Around it was draped the flower adornments and sashes of red and green, and beside it rode a priest, wearing the traditional sarong-like South Indian dress, an orange drape and not much else.
The chariot paused for awhile as the crowd revelled in its presence, arms outstretched, hands clasped together, throwing flowers that fell ineffectively onto the worshippers in front and generally going wild for this religious icon. We were told by the guy in our hotel later that this was Shiva’s wife. The whole festival was commemorating the marriage of Shiva to this woman, and that the wedding supposedly took place in Madurai, down by the river. This particular ceremony had been in recognition of the departure by the wife from her ancestral home to go to her future husband and become a god, hence the large, wobbly chariot leaving the complex and venturing out onto the mean streets of Madurai. At least, that appeared to be the general gist of what he was saying.
And so, with a ‘forward-march’ gesture from the priest and a roar from the crowd, the chariot rolled on and down the busy street, just as the wife-to-be would have. As the crush of people moved forward to follow her, the same teams of orange-shirted men that did their best to hustle the crowds out of her thundering way. The ensuing sea of people could almost carry us away if we let it, and occasionally simply relaxing and going weak at the knees would enable us to be floated along like corks in the surf, pressed tight against the surrounding mass. Alec and I were quickly separated in the chaos, and, rather than attempting to hold on to each other or stay together somehow, we simply managed to part with the snatched agreement to meet back at the hotel later.