Dominating Madurai is the 17-century temple complex of Meenakshi Amman. With a kaliedoscopic, pyramidal gopuram (tower) of painted sculptures at each axis, and large columnated corridors around a central shrine to Shiva, this is a place to spend a day in. As an active place of worship, it is heaving with devotees, laying floral tributes, smearing colour into statues of Hanuman or Ganesh, or prostrating themselves. Both the richly painted decor and visitors are fascinating subjects. Some parts of the temple date back to the 8th century. The towers are built upon granite with stucco used for the figure work with it repainted every 12 years. The South Tower is the largest, adorned with an astonishing 1,500 statues. Columns around a large square pond are gradually being replaced by new pillars being chiselled near the exit. It is hard to identify what is new and and what is old. A long queue leads to the shrine of Shiva, where non-Hindus are not allowed. For 100 rupees you can take the ‘fast track’ and jump to the front.
The 1,000 Column Hall turns out to have 985 but is no less impressive for its scale and craft work.
Concerned about terrorist threats to the temple, no cameras are allowed inside. Ours are left at a carpet shop which leaves us prey to their salesmanship when we want them back. Several additions of shop visits on this tour have been the low point.
While most of the tour group opt to upgrade to private vehicle for the next stretch of the journey, a small number of us ‘outlaws’ stick to the trip dossier and chose public buses. It turns out we are only the second group in four years to do this.
Open windows invite in the dust from the pitted roads. Worn suspension on the dilapidated government transport means the ride is bumpy, yet it’s incredibly cheap and an amiable a way to travel even when crowded.
Today I woke with my body aching and a weariness from the heat. I’m drinking a mix of electrolytes to give me a boost to survive the five-hour transit. We have to run to catch the first bus, as it leaves the station with no warning. Buses and stops have no signs, and there are scant timetables; you have to ask around to find out which bus to catch. In all, we need four different buses of various levels of discomfort to reach our destination. At the lovingly named Cumbum (millet) we have an hour’s wait for a connection, so Charles finds a local bar in which to while away the time. It’s Spartan and buzzing with mosquitoes. I try a Bovanto cola and refuse regular offers of chicken. A portrait of a Sunday roast hangs on a post.
Finally we reach Kumily near the entrance to the popular Periyar Nature Reserve, tired and filthy. The Hotel Ambadi is charaxterful, with wooden roofs and balconies and church stylings, chilly at night 700 metres up. I eat little then sweat and shiver with fever through the night.