To reach Madurai, we needed to catch a bus from Munnar to Theni (3 and a half hours) then another bus to Madurai (2hours). Excellent. A chance to expel waste and refuel en route.
In preparation for Indian facilities and etiquette, we’d read cover to cover a book, given to Lee as a leaving present, titled – ‘How to Shit Around the World’ So we really shouldn’t have been at all shocked to discover a cubicle at Theni bus station, which was less toilet and more shower. Over the last week we had been spoilt rotten by boutique homestays and Lonely Planet recommended eateries. Now we were faced with a blue tiled space housing a grated hole (barely visible beneath a layer of thick excrement which wouldn’t fit down it), a broken bolt and a hose. Oh.. and also a smell or rather a collection of smells. Is there a collective noun for smells? We propose ‘assault’. Feel free to comment on any better ideas. Lee managed to ‘perform’ but Jess, ever the optimist, had faith that the grass would probably be greener and cleaner on the other side, where a toilet was advertised for 5 rupees per turn. This turned out to be about 5 rupees too much based on how quickly jess entered and promptly exited, deciding to hold on to Madurai.
Once in Madurai, we immediatley checked into our ‘Residency’ which boasted a gym, pool and multi-cuisine restaurant (including Scots porridge and beans on toast options for breakfast). We slept very well and woke late to a city basking in 37C heat where rain is as mythological as the Hindu deities adorning almost every street. Gone were the peaceful green hills of our first week and in their place were colours, shops, stalls, cows, smells, tuk tuks, schools, rubbish, fabrics, metalware and temples.
The historic Meenakshmi Amman hindu temple was the sole reason we wanted to visit Madurai. Braving the midday sun, and following an unsuccessful attempt to persuade locals to do our laundry, we arrived there precisely as it closed for ‘lunch’. Unfazed we planned to return in the morning and occupied ourselves first by perusing the antique shops (almost purchasing a stunning cupboard until Lee realised he had removed one zero too many when converting rupees to pounds. £850 NOT £85) then by visiting the Ghandi Memorial Museum.
Fighting through a jungle of school children on a trip to the museum, we traced the history of India from the beginning of British rule to her independence. We learnt a great deal and saw genuine belongings of Ghandi’s including the blood-stained cloth he was wearing when assassinated.
While informative, the museum was merely an appetiser for Madurai’s Meenakshmi Temple. Having arrived at the correct time, we handed over our shoes, as if we were going bowling, and entered through the East tower (one of four enormous and intricately carved pillars which look out over the city). The 500 year old temple and grounds are staggering and breathtaking. Many tourist attractions fail to live up to expectations but not this one. Pillars, paintings, carvings, sculptures and practicing worshippers were all present in abundance and in a strange garish beauty that I’ve never witnessed anywhere before. Credit has to be given for the sheer scale and intensity of it all. I realise that more of the word count in this post has been dedicated to a shitty toilet experience than the incredible temple but words simply aren’t an appropriate medium for what we experienced. Hopefully the photographs will go some way to addressing the imbalance.
There’s mixed feelings in room 210 tonight because tomorrow sees us head one hour out of the city to an Ashram (Jess defines as a spiritual hermitage, Lee as cult) where we will spend 4 nights living by a strict code of conduct and schedule including no Internet, no talking during meals, alarm bell at 5:30 am and 3 hours of meditation per day. And no meat, eggs or fish either. Gulp!