15th – 18th January – MAD-urai

It was sad to wave goodbye to Thekkady and Kerala, sad to wave goodbye to the calmness and the smiley people. I had a feeling that adjusting to the big city again was going to be difficult. And to be honest it has been.

Before heading to Bangalore we decided on stopping in Madurai, a city that we visited on our last trip to India four years ago. Why return, you ask? Well, because of the Meenakshi Amman Temple ; a staggering sight and deeply spiritual place. Because of this we thought coming back would be nice. WRONG. Things are never as good the second-time round.

I feel bad in some way saying that I disliked our time in Madurai, because I would recommend visiting to a first-timer, but it’s a hard city to get to grips with. I remember last time we came we were approached by a man asking if we were interested in adopting a child, and this was within ten minutes of being in the place! I suppose at any pilgrimage site, like Meenakshi, you get all walks of life coming to pray and pay respects to the Gods – from millionaires to people that have nothing. After arriving on Sunday afternoon, we took a walk from our hotel to the Temple. As it was Pongal, a Tamil Nadu festival, the roads were empty and shops closed, so it was rather quiet. In the ten minute walk alone I was struck by the difference in roads, buildings and sanitation compared to the places we had just visited in Kerala. We saw an old man crawling along the road missing one foot and the other broken; children shuffling through rubbish; old gals begging us to buy cheap jewellery… it’s enough to break you even after being in the country for two months. Also, the cash situation has been tough again, with long queues and walks through the polluted streets just to get some money out. Thankfully they have just upped the limit from 2000 rupees a day to 10000. Fine if the ATMs have any cash in them!

Since Modi and the BJP party came to power in 2014, they have been keen to fight off Western influences and steer the nation back to a more conservative, ‘traditional’ way of life, so Temple entry rules are a little stricter than four years ago. We both had three-quarter length trousers on, yet Steve was told he had to buy and wear a Dhoti, aka a man-skirt 🙂 I think some of the guards were being difficult just for the sake of it: one woman behind me was called out for looking ‘too glamourous’… when asked to cover her ankles, she (quite rightly) pointed me out and said that I wasn’t full covered either. SO before you even walk into the Temple your stress levels are up a bit!

Even in the temple there were elements that had changed from the last time. Lots of maintenance work being undertaken (well, piles of rubble and crap everywhere but no ‘work’ actually being done!), the number of Westerners visiting the place had increased too. Four years ago we only spotted a handful, this time round there were quite a few more, our hotel was pretty much full of them too.

There was something that just didn’t feel right about being in the Temple this time round, I think when we visited in 2013 I was more intrigued by the Hindu religion, it’s beliefs and practices. But recently I’ve read more about it, it’s failure to let go of the (now illegal) caste system (which just shouldn’t exist in the 21st century), and also the extent of abuse and disregard to women is rarely ever mentioned.

The saving grace for our three-night stint was a Storytrail Guide through the streets of Madurai. Our guide, Swarma, took us round and told us lots of different mythical stories regarding the Goddesses and Gods decorated and worshipped in the Meenakshi Temple. Fascinating stuff, and made even better by an enthusiastic and coherent guide.

Apologies if this post is a bit ‘meh’, I haven’t had a great few days, down to little things that can’t be helped… perhaps January Blues exists in Asia too – or (more likely) Kerala really did spoil us!

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