The early-morning bus shuddered to a halt in the little town with a big name: Thiruparakundaram. Deep in the south-east corner of India, we arrived near the gateway of the temple I’d come to visit, where a cluster of sodden pilgrims were preparing to perform a puja (worship) after their ritual bathe.
The air was still cool and the bazaar quiet, save for the roar of a kerosene stove at a tea stall and what sounded like chanting coming from a side road. At first I thought it was a recording; then I realised the voices were real, and that there were lots of them, producing a swirl of notes that rose and fell in archaic intervals, underscored by strange, syncopated rhythms.
The sound was coming through the open windows of an old school, where a class of a dozen boys were sitting cross-legged on the floor of a pillared hall facing their teacher. They were bare-chested, dressed in identical dhotis of unstitched, canary-yellow cloth, with stripes of white ash paste smeared on their arms and foreheads, and sacred threads strung diagonally across their torsos, denoting their status as members of the priestly Brahmin caste.
A man with large spectacles and a row of pens in his shirt pocket then appeared at my side. “Gentleman,” he said. “These fellows are singing verses of Vedas. Sanskrit language. Veeeeeeery old!" He then raised a knobbly forefinger to emphasise his point, before promptly presenting me with the school’s donation book.
A collection of liturgical texts first set down between three and five millennia ago, the Vedas are indeed incredibly old – so old, in fact, that their survival is almost miraculous. The boys were, according to a leaflet the man had handed me, learning its verses as part of their training to become ‘dynamic temple priests for temples and society’. It occurred to me that listening to them was a bit like hearing choristers performing hymns from a time when Stonehenge was still in use.
This kind of experience, I later pondered as I sipped a glass of sweet, milky chai outside the temple, was precisely why I kept coming back to India’s south. This was perhaps my 30th trip – I’ve genuinely lost count – to the Tamil heartland, a part of the country that, for me, has always cast the most powerful spell, pulling me there time and again.
The neighbouring southern state of Kerala – with its backwaters and beaches – may attract a lot more visitors, but non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the temples there, which means some of the most interesting aspects of local culture are hidden behind high walls. In Tamil Nadu, traditional life is easily accessible. Most of the temples are open to all, and here the world’s last surviving Classical culture still thrives in the great Tamil shrines of the deep south, the same rituals performed in the same way for more than 2,000 years. Even today, pilgrims trundle onto buses singing along to modern versions of devotional songs first composed 15 centuries ago.
It was to search for such vestiges of bygone eras that I’d travelled to the Vaigai Plain, around 70km inland from the Gulf of Mannar. And the logical place to start – indeed, to begin any search for the cultural roots of this corner of India – is the ancient, and intensely atmospheric, city that stands at its heart: Madurai.
Out on the town
No one can say for sure when Madurai was founded, but it has been in constant use since at least the time of ancient Egypt. The city even features in the account of India by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, who came here in 302 BC, and was also mentioned by the Roman geographer Strabo a few hundred years later, who complained that the coffers of Rome were being emptied to pay for Indian pepper and ginger – a claim lent credence by the discovery of several hoards of Roman coins around the city.
Ancient they may be, but Madurai’s streets rarely let up. A river of cacophonous auto-rickshaws, beaten-up Tata buses, motorcycles, hatchbacks, pick-up trucks and stray cows filled the road leading towards the great temple that stands at the city’s heart – the mighty Meenakshi Amman, shrine of the ‘Fish-Eyed Mother Goddess’.
Soaring like watchful giants above the surrounding rooftops, a phalanx of gigantic gateway towers act as beacons for the legions of worshippers who pour through the temple precincts to pray each day. By the time they finally came into view, the flanks of the towers had slipped into blue-grey shadow. Only the cobra-hooded, demonic gables and gilded finials at their apex were still picked out in crimson sunlight.
Sweeping nearly 60m off the ground, the temple’s gopura gateways are unique in India for their scale and complexity. Thousands of stucco figures swarm over their sides – multi-limbed gods, many-headed goddesses, celestial nymphs and fanged mythological monsters – depicted in a wild and seemingly endless array of dance poses and painted in a polychrome palette so outrageous that even the late Walt Disney may have found it a touch excessive.
As I craned my camera upwards to photograph them, a line of Tamil ladies jostled past on their way to the temple’s east entrance. I followed them, enjoying the scent of jasmine flowers and coconut oil that trailed in their wake, and the vibrant peacock-blue, banana-leaf-green and scarlet hues of their sarees in the fading light.
“Sweeping nearly 60m off the ground, the temple’s gopura gateways are unique in India for their scale and complexity”
Opposite the entrance was a grand pillared hall, the Puthu Mandapa. It was originally built to accommodate pilgrims, but is today leased to a community of notoriously proactive tailors.
“Sir, yes. This shirt is no good.” A man with a measuring tape around his neck and disapproving expression on his face fingered my T-shirt.
“What do you mean? It’s my favourite!” I gasped.
“Quality is bad. I make new one. Come. Yes! I am tailor. Many recommendations. You are from which place? Germania? England? France? Vive la France!”
I left the tailor to waylay a group of newly arrived French tourists and slipped down the steps into the main temple, plunging into a world of gaudily lit stalls selling ritual paraphernalia and garish prints of Hindu deities. Dividing them were granite pillars carved into the forms of lavishly attired courtesans, many with oil lamps and dustings of red and yellow turmeric powder at their feet.
The sensuous, feminine vibe was no coincidence. Uniquely among the great shrines of Tamil Nadu, Madurai’s presiding deity is female. Although the consort of Shiva (in the form of Lord Sundeshwara), Meenakshi Amman is here worshipped first, and with greatest fervour, as the bringer of fertility and sustainer of life. Newlyweds come to Madurai for Meenakshi to bless their marriage, along with couples praying for children.
I was struck by the joyful, raucous atmosphere prevailing in this labyrinth of richly carved stone, as family groups hastened with their offerings towards the inner sanctum. Gangs of musicians and priests would occasionally barge past, accompanied by clashing cymbals, beating drums and the wail of the nageshwaram (the Tamil oboe).
I spent a couple of days soaking up the atmosphere of the temple at different times of day and night. Early morning, when the flagstones were sluiced with water and traders traced intricate patterns of rice flour in front of their stalls, was my favourite. I loved browsing the religious souvenir shops and music boutiques outside the temple, where you can buy pirated CDs of songs by the wandering Tamil poet saints of the 7th and 8th centuries, played on synths and electric guitars.
The Chettiyars' mansions
Having explored the ancient side of the region, my next stop revealed its recent past. A couple of hours’ drive north-east of Madurai, the area of Chettinad is the homeland of a caste of entrepreneurs known as the Nattukuttai Chettiyars, who in the mid-19th century grew rich as bankers in the then colonies of Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Straits Settlements (Malaysia/Singapore). To show off their wealth, the Chettiyars built lavish mansions, mixing the ostentatious architectural trends of the day with traditional Tamil features. Since India’s Independence (1947), most of these have become deserted and now languish like discarded sets from long-forgotten costume dramas, their stucco facades choked with weeds.
I’d read that some particularly fine examples survived in the village of Kanadukathan, where I stayed in a beautiful Art Deco mansion that had been converted into a boutique hotel. Leaving its pool for the scorching heat of the surrounding lanes was a wrench, but my guide, Ramu Chettiyar, assured me I’d be amazed by what I was about to see.
Literally dozens of mansions line the surrounding streets, most of them belonging to branches of the same extended family. We passed through an arched gateway into a courtyard, and paused to admire the grand façade revealed in front of us.
“These people were originally traders in local rice and pearls,” explained Ramu, “but they later graduated to money lending in Rangoon, which is why you find so much Burmese teak in their houses.” A pillared veranda, or thinnai, formed the main entrance, where the men of the family would have lazed in the hot afternoons on bolster cushions, discussing business with visitors.
Inside, a succession of sumptuously carved doorways led to high-vaulted halls and long, rectangular courtyards lined with pillars of polished wood and granite. Portraits of silk-turbaned ancestors hung on walls beneath chandeliers of Belgian crystal and windows of Venetian stained glass – a crazy mishmash of European and South Indian luxury.
Marvelling at all the ornate woodwork, I wondered if any of the craft skills that had created such splendour still survived.
“Oh yes, sure,” replied Ramu. “Your hotel was renovated entirely by local craftsmen. You see these?” he said, pointing to the cool, colourful, ceramic-mosaic tiles beneath our feet. “These are still produced by hand not far from here.”
Counting the figures
Later, we paid a visit to the aforementioned tile workshop in the nearby town of Athangudi. It was a far cry from the Dickensian vision of smoking chimney stacks I was expecting. Seated on a traditional mud floor, a smiling man dressed in a black-cotton dhoti dabbed blobs of oxide paint the consistency of custard on to a glass square framed by a mould, which he then covered in sand and passed to his wife, who added a backing layer of cement.
“The tile will cure for 24 hours and dry in the sun. No firing is required, only an occasional wipe of coconut oil to keep the shine,” explained Ramu. The results, on display in an adjacent showroom, were exquisite and I immediately started fantasising about how lovely an Athangudi floor would look in my kitchen at home.
We came across another quirky – and more ancient – Chettinadi art form at another pottery nearby, where rows of enormous clay horses were waiting to be fired in large kilns. These stocky-legged steeds were vehicles of the folk god Ayyanar, symbols of a religious cult prevalent throughout Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Sri Lanka.
“Ayyanar is most popular in the Chettinad region,” elaborated Ramu. “Local people believe the god protects their villages from spirits. They place images of him and his horses outside temples.”
I became fascinated by these figures, and over the next few days sought out several sacred groves holding the largest collections of them. Naïve, yet strangely powerful, the statues seemed to hark back to a more primordial era than the art adorning the smoke-filled halls of the Meenakshi Amman temple. A coffee table book on the subject back at my hotel suggested the cult may even predate the Vedas, which would root this form of worship in the Neolithic period – ancient indeed, even by the standards of Tamil Nadu.
On my final day, heading to the airport at Madurai, we passed a roadside stall selling Ayyanar figures in a variety of different forms and sizes – resplendently moustachioed kings, sword-wielding sages and caparisoned elephants, all staring mutely at the traffic careering past on the highway. The horses occupied their own row, stacked in order of stature, from larger-than-life to pint-sized. Worried about excess baggage, I bought the smallest – to help hold at bay any nasty ghouls that might drift in from the woods around my home in Somerset.
My parting view of Madurai was from 3,000m, as the plane banked steeply on its way north to Chennai (Madras). A few minutes later, we flew over the Kaveri Delta – rice-bowl heartland of the Chola kings, who ruled the region between the 9th and 13th centuries. Shadows of the temple gopuras that the Rajas erected at the height of their power stretched over the surrounding carpet of green paddy fields and palm groves, like long, slender fingers pointing towards the distant coast.
It struck me again how remarkable it was that, despite India’s cultural riches and exotic landscapes, this region remained so little visited compared with states such as Rajasthan and Kerala. Yet, like me, most travellers leave smitten by the atmosphere of the deep south.
By the time the aircraft had begun its descent on Tamil Nadu’s capital, I began to think of when I might return. I’d heard there was a family of bronze casters who still made dancing Shiva deities in the same way as their ancient forebears. And after the magic of the singing Brahmin boys at the temple at Thiruparakundaram, I never did make it inside the shrine, nor up the great granite outcrop behind, which they say has the best view in all South India. But that’s the joy of a culture over 2,000 years in the making, it’ll still be there waiting for me when I do – and I’m pretty sure I’ll still have it all to myself.
Top tips for Tamil Nadu
1: Photography is banned inside the Meenakshi temple
The rule is strictly enforced by temple attendants, but you are allowed to use your phone (though not tablets) to capture stills and video footage.
2: Dress appropriately
When visiting Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu, men and women are not permitted to enter wearing short sleeves or short trousers. Socks are prohibited and have to be left with footwear at special shoe deposits outside the entrance.
3: Bring your own booze
Tamil Nadu is a dry state. Spirits and beer may be procured at licensed hotels, but are expensive and of dubious quality. Old hands bring their own duty free.
4: Photographers should head to...
...Madurai’s wonderful flower market. On the north-east outskirts of the city, at Mattuthavani, the wholesale flower market is the largest of its kind in India and a fabulous photo opportunity. Heaps of Madurai’s famous jasmines are piled next to giant marigolds and garlands of roses – popular offerings to the Goddess. Get there early, when the flowers are fresh and the crowds thin, for the best shots.
5: Rent a cycle
Motorised traffic has been banned in the streets around the Meenakshi temple, which makes them great for cycling. Look for rows of identical bikes around the market – you will pay by the hour.
6: Explore the boulder hills
The plains around Madurai are riddled with outcrops of granite, such as the one at Thiruparakundram. Filled with ancient sculptures, caves and inscriptions, they make ideal day trips. Start with Yanaimalai (Elephant Hill – 10km north-east), which has fine 2,000-year-old Jain carvings. Beyond the north-west edge of the city, Nagamalai (‘Snake Hill’) also has some interesting grottoes and flights of carved stone steps.
The author travelled courtesy of Asia specialist tour operator TransIndus (020 8566 3739), who offer a fortnight’s tour of Tamil Nadu. The trip begins in Chennai (Madras) and includes stays in Mamallpuram (two nights), Puducherry (two nights), Kumbakonam (two nights), Visalam hotel in Chettinad (two nights) and Madurai (three nights), in addition to all flights, transfers, guides and B&Bs. Shorter/longer trips are possible.
In Madurai, the Royal Court is ten minutes’ walk from the temple and a reliable upper-mid range option. They also offer spacious doubles with air conditioning.
In the hills outside the city, Gateway Hotel Pasumalai Madurai is a decent upscale choice.
In Chettinad, the lovely Visalam Hotel is a beautiful boutique option with period furnishings and a pleasant outdoor pool. It’s well situated for sightseeing.