HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Madurai: A temple. And that's it.

44 rupees = 1 USD
Black taxi, red train
As I mentioned in a previous post, Kovalam was my last stop in Kerala, as well as my last stop with Kevin. He was heading back to the U.S., and I was heading to Tamil Nadu. I took a 90-minute taxi ride southeast to the train station in Nagercoil, and then boarded the Bangalore Express for the four-hour journey to Madurai.
One of the oldest cities in India, Madurai was mentioned in Tamil and Greek records as early as the 4th century BC. It was a center of the spice trade while the Roman Empire flourished. In The Silapadikaram, the first Tamil epic poem, Madurai was described as such: "Do you not feel the southern breeze blowing from the city...This breeze comes laden with the odours of saffron, chives, sandal paste, and musk...It brings us the smell of good food, for it went through the fumes of bazaars, where pancakes are fried in countless stalls...It is thick with smoke of sacrifices...The wealthy city is not far off, and you need have no fear. Even if you go there alone, you will meet no danger on your way." Sounds alluring, right?

Today, those smells have been replaced by the pungent aromas of cow manure and diesel fumes. Madurai is, to put it delicately, a shithole. The traffic is insane, the honking incessant, there are no sidewalks, the buildings are ugly, and there are almost no hints of the city's ancient past. I had enjoyed the peace and quiet of my train ride, and I was rudely awakened when I nearly got hit by a bus, an auto, and a moto within 200 feet of the train station.

Another Madurai annoyance are the tailors; apparently the city is the Hoi An of India. As I walked around the outer wall of the temple, men constantly accosted me, offering to make a copy of the shorts I was wearing in an hour. If I wanted two of the same thing...I would've bought two of them, idiots!

Then there are the scammers. The most popular one is this: A man will approach you and say, "You can come to the roof of my store. It has great views of the temple, for free!" What they don't mention is that, if you take up their offer, you will be pressed hard to buy something before you leave. I've traveled enough to know to avoid such propositions, but it was still frustrating. One guy didn't even try to hide the scam. He asked, "Would you like to come to my store to see the temple, and then buy something?"
To which I responded with, "Maybe tomorrow."
"Maybe, or no?"
"Well, then it's 100 rupees to go to the roof."
Well, then screw off.

Finally, there is the flat-out liar I spent two hours with. I was walking to lunch when a bleary-eyed, middle-aged man stopped me, asking where I was from. This happened dozens of times throughout the trip, so I didn't think anything of it at first. I told him I was on my way to a restaurant, and he said he would take me somewhere better. I was sceptical, but he promised he wouldn't ask for any money. I know now that, if someone tells you they will do something for free, immediately walk away.

I relented, and he took me to a communal mess hall on some small street that I never would've found on my own. It was extremely popular, and there were no seats to be had. At one point two people left and the man, who said his name was John, moved to take them, when a whale of a woman, and her equally blubbery friend, steamrolled their way through and sat down. Ten minutes later, we finally had seats.

The place was unlike anywhere I had eaten before: the waiters placed a huge banana leaf on the table, which you then washed with water. Then, a heap of rice was scooped onto the leaf, along with a number of sauces. It was all you can eat, and only cost 50 rps. Oh, and you had to eat with your hands; no silverware was in sight. We started shoveling away, John showing me how to properly eat with your right hand (it is inappropriate to use your left hand), while making sure I had a steady stream of food. Within minutes I was stuffed, and made it clear that I didn't need anymore. John, however, wouldn't listen.
"No, no! Have some more of this!"
I was trying to wave the waiters off, but John was insistent.
Me - "Really, I've had enough!"
Him, while gesturing towards two small children that had just sat down across from us - "Have some more! Look, even the children are still eating!"

Eventually, he got the message, and we left. The food was excellent (I didn't have my camera with me), but things went downhill from there. I said that I wanted to go back to my hotel, and we started walking that way, but then John turned down an empty alley. He told me sit down on the front steps of a house, so that he could "explain Hinduism" to me. I scoffed; the idea of someone explaining one of the world's great religions on a stoop sounded ridiculous. Nonetheless, I sat down, but after about 15 minutes I had had enough. I made up an excuse to go back to my hotel, and started to walk off.

Then, John said: "Wait, now you have to pay me."
"What?! For what? You promised you wouldn't ask for money!"
"Doing my job."
"I didn't ask you to do anything! You're the one that walked up to me!"
"I usually charge 500 rps, but I'll only charge you 200, since you're my friend."
"That's ridiculous! Here's 100."
"Give me another 50."

And with that, I stormed back to my room. Later that evening, on my way to dinner, I saw John in the same spot we had first met. He tried to shake my hand, but I ignored him and kept walking. Three blocks later I stopped at an ATM, and when I turned around he was standing right behind me.
"What do you want?", I seethed.
"Where are you going now? Are you happy?"
"No, I'm not!"
"Because you lied to me! You're just a liar!"
We were on a pretty busy street, and this was the first time I'd ever raised my voice at a local in public. People were watching.
"What do you mean?"
"You said you wouldn't ask for any money, and then you did!"
"But it was only 100 rupees."
He had a point, but I didn't care. "So what! You're still a liar!" I was hoping this would shame him and he would leave, but he seemed unfazed. Finally, he realized that I was really pissed, and shuffled off dejectedly: "I'll talk to you again when your mind is clearer."

Afterwards, I felt bad for losing my temper, but the noise of the city was getting on my nerves, and I couldn't believe that someone would ask for money just for hanging out. My dinner of chicken biryani was delicious, though, so I left the restaurant in a much better mood. At least the food in Madurai is still good.

There is one exception to all of that negativity: the incredible Sri Meenakshi Temple, a 60,000 square-meter religious complex that sits right in the center of the city. One of the most important temples of Southern India, the Sri Meenakshi is dedicated to Shiva. The history of the temple goes back 2,000 years, but the majority of the current structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has twelve gopurams, or entrance towers, each of which was intricately carved and brilliantly painted. There was a huge gopuram facing each cardinal direction; the tallest of which, the southern tower, lords over the city, standing at a massive 170 feet high. Sadly, I don't have pictures of the interior of the temple, so I'll do my best to describe it in words in my next post. I have pictures of the inside of the temple I visited on my next stop, though, so you will be able to see what I'm talking about soon.
The good view from the roof of my hotel. You can see six of the gopurams, ranging from massive to tiny.

Stunning detail.

Moo. And the western tower.
My stay in Madurai was, as you can surely tell, not the most pleasant travel experience of my life. It actually kicked off what was probably the worst four-day stretch of travel I've ever been through. You really only need to spend one day in the city - see the temple, and leave. You won't be missing out on much.