The night train to Bangalore is only a half hour late. YAY! The tickets are not clear about whether we have sleeper seats. We do. YAY! Not luxurious, the beds are narrow and hard, but with the help of half a Gravol, half a Zopiclone and a double dose of Melatonin I sleep through the trip. YAY!
We share the four-berth space with a young couple; she’s Yemeni and lives in Saudi Arabia, he’s Indian and lives in Bangalore. No wedding rings. She wears a head scarf. It’s a bit confusing. The lower berths are almost touching when they are made into beds and so there is some awkwardness and uncertainty about who is going to sleep where. They have tickets for the uppers, which are farther apart, but she is nervous about being up top, which is good for us because we want the top, only because Craig is tired and wants to retire. In the end we take the top and they take the bottom and because they are extremely gracious about it, we can’t tell if they are being accommodating or really wanted it that way.
From Bangalore we fly south to Madurai, a city of 1.5 million in the state of Tamil Nadu. We find the further south we go the less English is spoken and here is no different, where the main language is Tamil. Add to the absence of English the ambiguous Indian head waggle and it makes for a lot of discombobulated communication. But everyone is so friendly and helpful that it is mostly a lot of fun.
Thomas, our driver, knows little English and does not really know his way around Madurai, but he can make a u-turn and a three-point turn in the middle of the crazy traffic. We are agog. Like a river, the stream of cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, and scooters just move around us. Thomas is Christian and we think the little Mary statue on his dashboard maybe helps.
Our hotel, the Fortune Pandiyan http://www.fortunepandiyanhotel.com/index.php#, is on the north end of the city and a few blocks from Trip Advisor’s #1 shopping spot in Madurai, the Vishaal de Mal. It’s a four story mall with a food court on top. We have lunch for $3 and buy some lovely cotton clothing for bargain basement prices.
The hotel is a solid 3 stars, a bit neglected and shabby around the edges, but our room is clean and spacious. The best feature is the dining room buffet. Breakfast is included and could be best described as lunch. The array of food is a bit overwhelming for first thing in the morning, but we do our best to fuel up. Lunch and dinner are also massive spreads of delicious south Indian cuisine. Craig is in heaven!
The dining room staff could not be more friendly and helpful. One young waiter, Sathishkumar, likes to practice his English and, when he hears we are from Canada, wants to tell us how much he likes our PM. Watches him on u-tube videos apparently and recently saw Justin attend an Indian festival in Toronto. That really impressed him.
One morning I forget my purse at the breakfast table. As in completely forget. I don’t even notice that it is missing when I am back in the room. A half hour later there’s a knock on the door and I open it to one of the dining room staff, returning my bag. I am dumbfounded that it’s being returned with nothing missing. Another Indian contradiction. There are signs everywhere warning about thieves, but when an opportunity presents, no one steals my bag. Go figure.
Craig is just in from an early morning walk and announces “no more walking”. Apparently it’s a death-defying act. The volume of traffic and disregard for pedestrians, he says, is the worst ever. Even the locals race across the street. I guess we’ll be taking a lot of tuk-tuk rides.
The tuk-tuks are an inexpensive way to get around the city. For as little as 50 rupees, the equivalent of $1, we can go several kilometres. One driver, who asks for 30 rupees to go a fair distance (with another passenger in the tuk-tuk), balks when we try to give him 100 rupees, $2. He insists we take 50 rupees change!
The main attraction in Madurai is the Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to the god Shiva and his consort Parvati. Construction began in the 10th century and continued until the18th. It is a massive complex of four main elaborately decorated towers and eight, also elaborate, lower towers. The stucco figures on the towers depict the various Hindu gods.
Inside and outside the temple there are very few European tourists and small crowds of Indian locals and tourists. It seems like there are more women, but maybe that’s just because they stand out. I wonder what they would think if they came to North America and saw all of us dressed in our black Lululemon attire. How drab we are in comparison!
Raj, our guide, points out a few women in special wedding saris. They are definitely a cut above. The gold jewelry, he tells us, is an indication of the family’s wealth. We see one such young lady who must have a very rich father.
We bump into – literally, it is so crowded – a family who Raj knows well and we’re made to fawn over their newborn who has been brought to the temple for his first blessing, which happens ritually at one month of age. After that we notice many families with wee ones bundled up, fresh tumeric yellow dots on their foreheads and ash smeared on their cheeks.
I’m puzzled but also inspired by the devotion I witness around me. Growing up in a non-religious home in a secular society, I have little experience of this kind of faith and am fascinated by the mythologies. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Hinduism is often called the oldest religion. In addition to the three main gods – Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer (of evil, that is); Vishnu, the protector – there are dozens more minor gods and many manifestations of all of these. I would need Hinduism for Dummies to even begin to understand it.
A visit to the Gandhi Memorial Museum grounds us back in reality. His non-violent, non-cooperative stance against the British led the nation to independence in 1947. The museum is full of the bloody and oppressive history of British rule in India as well as the history of the Hindu – Muslim conflict that resulted in the formation of Pakistan. And, the history of the Hindu caste conflict is presented in awful detail. Plenty of conflict and suffering.
The conflict may be over, but the suffering persists. We see it here on the streets of Madurai. Women with babies begging for food. Old ones on the pavement in rags begging for a few coins. Disfigurements that I don’t want to even think about much less describe. It seems Gandhi’s vision for an equal and prosperous India has yet to be realized.
On a lighter note, we are amazed at how much Gandhi resembles Ben Kingsley!
We also visit the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, built for king of the Nayakas in the 17th century. A group of school girls are on an educational outing and want me to pose with them for a photo.
Time spent at the central vegetable market and the flower market is another opportunity for us to interact with the incredibly friendly people of Madurai. They all want to greet us, shake our hands, have their photos taken. It’s kind of surreal.
Later, in the hotel bar, deserted except for Craig & me, we chat with the bartender, another overly friendly fellow who tells us all about his arranged marriage, musical tastes (Justin Beiber!), his family, his politics, etc, etc. When we comment about how welcoming everyone in the city is, he says, simply “they are all innocent people”. I think he means genuine. I think he’s right.