If there is one word that best describes Madurai, it is ‘contrast’. It is an ancient temple town on its way to become a modern smart city; its rich Tamil legacy coexists with a booming IT and automobile industry. This dichotomy, after all, is what makes the town the heart and soul of Tamil Nadu. On your next visit to the historic destination, this is what your Madurai itinerary should look like.
Just like the Parthenon dominates the skyline of the Greek city of Athens, the 14 gopurams (gateway towers) of Meenakshi Amman Temple can be viewed from any part of Madurai, earning the city the befitting title: Athens of the East. Located on the southern bank of Vaigai River, the 45-acre Hindu temple is a must visit. It is dedicated to goddess Parvati, known as Meenakshi, and her consort Shiva, also called Sundareswarar. The complex attracts thousands of devotees in a day, reaching its peak during the 10-day long festival of Meenakshi Thirukalyanam, celebrated in April every year. Luckily, the temple celebrates a major festival every month of the Tamil calendar, so make sure to align your visit with one to watch it come alive in full glory.
Another prominent religious site is the Koodal Azhagar Temple, situated in the vicinity of the railway junction. Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, its golden sthupi guides the pilgrims to its door. The Hindu temple is dedicated to god Vishnu, worshipped as Koodal Azhagar, and his consort Lakshmi, known as Maragathavalli. Other famous temples in the region include the vaishnava Kallazhagar Temple in Alagar Koyil and Thirupparamkunram Murugan Temple, which is known to be one of the six abodes of god Murugan.
History enthusiasts must bookmark the Gandhi Memorial Museum, among the five Gandhi Museums in the country, built in 1959. The museum acts as a repository of Gandhi’s personal life, with articles ranging from a blood-stained cloth worn by him on the day of his assassination to a long series of illustrations depicting the freedom struggle. The 17th century Thirumalai Nayak Palace is another space that transports you back in time. Its grand courtyards, sunlit corridors and giant pillars offer a glimpse into Madurai’s Nayak dynasty, renowned for their unique architecture that blends native Dravidian with influences from Islamic styles.
Options are plenty, that too only a few hours away, if you wish to escape the city of Madurai. A three-hour drive away lies the holy town of Rameswaram; its Ramanathaswamy Temple considered to be among the holiest places for Hindus and part of the Chaar Dhaam pilgrimage. It is believed that Rameswaram is the place where god Rama built a bridge across the sea to reach Lanka, in order to rescue his wife Sita from her abductor Ravana.
The ‘Princess of Hill Stations’, Kodaikanal, also lies just over 100km from Madurai. It’s hard not to miss its lush green valleys and pleasant weather once you’re back from your trip. A four-hour drive south of Madurai leads you to the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, Kanyakumari. Its beaches attract tourists from across the country, who also make sure to catch the famed ferry ride to the Vivekanada Rock Memorial, built in honour of the Indian guru.
On your trip to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, make sure to halt at Prithu Mandapam, an old pillared hall near the eastern entrance. It is known to be the best place for your cotton fabric loot in Maduri. For hand-woven silk and batik textiles, head to East Masi street, South Avani Moola Street and Town Hall Road. And since you’re in Madurai, don’t forget to pick a gorgeous silk saree from any of these shopping hubs. From bell-metal lamps to bronze idols, bookmark the government-run Poompuhar handicraft store, and the Cottage Arts Emporium if you’re looking for traditional handicrafts
Madurai has a lot to offer beyond temples, too. The city’s scenic outskirts are home to beautiful hills, so a drive to the vantage points is never a bad idea. Head out to Yanai Malai, a protected monument and tourist attraction that’s often called ‘The Elephant Hill’, or make your way to Samanar Malai, home to 2000-year-old Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and sculptures.
The village of Vilacheri, an hour-long drive away from Madurai, is a unique world in itself. The entire village is dedicated to the craft of making papier mache dolls, used in traditional Hindu households during the festive season of Navratri. Several guided tours in and around the city offer day trips to the village, where you can peek into the lives of generations of potters and in the process, step in their shoes and get your hands soiled, too.
|Airport Road, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625022||IXM|