Madurai has some of the most lovingly decorated Rickshaws I have seen in India.
When I arrive in Madurai
and stagger down the bus steps at 3.15 in the morning I am not in the best of moods. We left Ooty nine hours ago in which time the same lengthy old black and white Bollywood movie has played twice loudly, this having been followed by ceaseless mega-decibel DVD cycling of brain-searing Hindi-pop love songs. That same old high-pitched histrionic singing drilling into your cerebellum. I bite my tongue polite until midnight and then blow 'Will you turn this f**king cr*p off!!! Some of us wouldn't mind some sleep!'
When I again implore the ticket man to 'Turn the goddamn music off!'
it's nothin' doing. 'The driver is asleep'
'Namaste' : my favourite of the cottage industry in vinyl stickers that India has.
I assume he isn't actually asleep as miraculously we still appear to be on the road (always a bonus where Indian bus drivers are concerned) but it is inferred he soon would be if the music were to be cut or turned down. I'm not going to argue with my potential safety so slump lower into my seat and cringe as the DVD skitters and pauses and skips again schizophrenically from one scrap of god awful track to another, again and again and again to the beat of every pothole, onward through the night.
Having miraculously snatched 0.5 seconds of deep fleeting sleep towards the end of the journey I am in a fuggy daze as I stagger back under the weight of my backpack. Yet another arrival at an impractical and disorientating hour. These are the witching hours for travellers. Too late to be just Late and not early enough yet to be Early.
Detail of the Nayak Palace. Looks grand but the sum of its remaining parts is actually rather bland.
That little void in the middle at a too far remove from daylight and practicality either way you turn. It's a difficult time. You feel tired, disorientated and unnerved by unfamiliar surroundings. What surroundings? Everywhere looks the same by night. But this is not a comforting uniformity. You feel a little vulnerable. Sometimes a little fear.'Master. Master. Where you want to go master?'
The words usher out of the darkness besides me. I blink a couple more times. Eyes not focussed yet. Mind not focussed yet. Nothing but Hindi songs still skittling around the circuit board of my brain. 'Rickshaw master?'
Oh, of course! The nocturnal jackal-like packs of rickshaw drivers have smelt blood, and circle their weary though wary prey in the dark.
Rupees and starlight glinting in their eyes. Sizing up their kill. Sizing up the commission potential at this hour that speaks so potently of necessity and desperation for lost souls.'Rickshaw master? Which hotel master?'
Who the? What the? 'Master you want good cheap hotel master?'
What's all this 'master'
cr*p about? Uttered behind the grinning teeth of insincere smiles as it is. Rickshaw drivers cum hotel touts putting on some kind of Igor act. 'Master. Master. Let me save you from this black night within which no traveller should find himself abroad'
I imagine them whispering next.
'Vomiting rainbows' : detail of one of the incredibly vibrant and complexly sculpted gopuram towers of the Sri Meenakshi Temple
But I am abroad. But in India, not Transylvania and they come across more like Gollum than friendly little Igor, their faux servility being so obviously laced with ulterior motives. And tired and grumpy as I am I don't like it one bit. Too fatigued to conjure any emotion more subtle than anger I belt out 'NO. LEAVE ME ALONE. I AM NOT YOUR F**KING MASTER OKAY! I AM NOBODY'S MASTER, PLEASE STOP CALLING ME THAT!! LEAVE ME ALONE.'
I need space to think. Another rickshaw driver pads in from the outer pack 'Master, where you go master?' 'Look pal, I am tired and confused and I am not A master, or YOUR master, okay!'
I huff off with my backpack, dump it down by a 24/7 bus station chai and biscuit stall (playing as it happens mega-decibel Hindi-pop love songs) and sit atop of it awaiting the dawn and local bus services.
Inside on of the stone-carved colonades of Madurai's temple district markets
I've not experienced this phrase; this entitlement in India before. A characteristic unique to Madurai. And one that I get no more comfortable with in the three days I spend here. I hear it a lot. It rankles me lots. Some strange allergic reaction to some vestigial 'colonial guilt', an occasionally inflamed appendix of my particular cast of English mind. A psychological aversion to any reminder of the Master-Servant/ Slave relationship upon which my nation grew strong. Pointless I know. But I is who I is, and I am as I am. And I guess by 31 there’s about as much chance of that changing as History.
In fact it’s true of most of my time down south that I find it hard to get away from unwanted honorific titles and over-politeness. ‘Sir sir sir.’ Okay, very common, not so bad and usually meant with warmth and sincerity.
A term of politeness I deploy often enough myself in momentary amicable interactions. But there are times when I just can’t get my Indian friends and hosts to drop the stifling formality of it all. Four days in Fort Kochi staying with a wonderful Keralan family in their own home, getting to know them, but can I get Ansel or, particularly his wife Gigi to call me anything else but ’Sir’
? No! ’Gigi my friend, you don’t have to keep calling me ’Sir’. My name’s Stephen remember, or rather Steve, not Sir.’
And this in fact has become the catchphrase of the southern phase of my Indian adventure : ’The name’s Steve, not Sir.’
T-shirts are going into production as we speak.
One of the four main compass point gopuram towers of the famous Sri Meenakshi Temple
But Gigi just laughs as if at some preposterous suggestion having been made and says ‘No, ha ha, you are Sir.‘
Indeed even at the time of writing this in Alleppey
( 01/03/2010) I have had several conversations with a nice old boy called Francis who has a crucifix tattooed upon the underside of his right forearm and who will be my backwater boatman for eight hours tomorrow. I have already been jokily tutoring him in the art of calling me ’Steve, not sir’
to which so far he just smiles and says ’oookay sir, okay.
Multi-tasking gods on the Sri Meenakshi Temple
I’ve even tried getting around the fact that I am not a member of my country's landed gentry, nor having yet been honoured by the Queen by giving new names to us : ’Ah, Francis. A good Christian name. Francis of Assisi. My name is Stephen so you are Saint.Francis and I am Saint.Stephen. Ha ha.’
Admittedly yes this is upgrading myself from a ’Sir’ to a ‘Saint’ in one fell swoop (queue jumping poor old Mother T who still awaits final beatification) but what else is a humble sinner like myself to do in the circumstances? My plan though has thus far failed to work. I remain a lowly ‘Sir‘. But you can (please!) call me Steve. ( Nanny Wes, yes you may call me ‘You Little B*gger’
for having stayed away from home so long.
'A Miami Cushion would be a comfort'
But back to Madurai. I've been in enough Indian towns and cities now that with a few note-worthy exceptions it does start to get a little tricky for the travel-addled mind to make the effort to differentiate between them.*
Sometimes this is just not possible as, blindingly diverse though this nation be in its details, like any rapidly developing country its urban centres do tend towards a rather depressing concrete and advertising hoarding homogeneity. There's neither the money or the civic will to achieve anything else. That's fine. No complaint. This is necessity manifest. Progress, with all its lack of inspiration and aspiration, 21st Century style. Live with it. Or get off the boat. ( I'm hoping to get off the boat as soon as I can afford myself a small island to hop onto and call my own! - perhaps the Queen will give me one to go with my new title of Master Sir Saint Stevie MBE? ;)
Madurai though is one of India's oldest cities and at its historic heart contains one of its most revered and impressive temples.
The Main Man Mohandas : this is a 30-40 odd foot metal-shutter illustration to one of the many kadhi textiles stores that populate Madurai
The large, many towered, many chambered complex of the Sri Meenakshi Temple. From what I could gather from broken conversation the temple has recently come through a phase of ceremonial re-painting. True or not its psychedelically composed and coloured goporum towers look absolutely pristine. Every bonkers multi-limbed god and goddess, every rainbow-vomiting many-fanged garish gargoyle thingamy, its menagerie of animals that are gods and gods that are animals and techni-coloured pillars and arches; all are picked out in an unblemished Looney Toons palette of bright pastel paints. The overall effect is as strangely enchanting as it is impressive. A somewhat lurid vision just about tempered enough by the sombre grey granite of its lower flanks. I do wonder sometimes what came first though, Bollywood or Hinduism? Their contemporary aesthetics I feel owe a lot to each other.
Them legs have power.
Inside the complex there is a museum of sorts within the '1,000 Chambered Hall' sporting lots of long-neglected, excellently realised but poorly lit bronze statues of the Hindu pantheon. This wing of the temple complex though, as throughout, has some fine animistic deity carvings leaping forth from its many columns. The large outer-inner sanctum circumference (if that makes sense? - non-Hindus you see are not allowed to enter the very hearts of the temple shrines where the deity images are housed and venerated) of the temple consists of a ante-chamber area filled with statues of apsaras, gods and Nandi the bull. All besmeared with the wonderful mix of colours and pastes and petals and oils that denote Hindu worship. Bas relief carvings glisten in the semi-darkness from the grime of centuries of palm touches and anointing oils.
You have to love the out-of-time art style of some of the cheaper Indian movie cinema efforts
Large trays of clarified butter or oil lamps burn away picturesquely, black wisps of smoke ribboning up from their wicks. The three remaining sides of the inner square complex are vast long halls of carved stone pillars with brightly coloured ceilings. A rather beleaguered, water-bereft tank (the Golden Lotus Tank) forms another key part of the complex but is in a bit of a sorry state right now. Nice to sit around it’s red and white candy-cane stripe decorated ghat steps and people watch though.
Just outside the precincts of the temple, a huge granite structure of the same provenance as the temple has been turned over to become an undercover market, the Puthu Mandapam. Its high ceilings shelter, and its many carved beasties look down upon a claustrophobic sardine-squeeze of tourist stalls and long rows of male tailors who sit one besides the other at their treadle-pedal Singer sewing machines waiting for orders to sew.
Puja lamps inside the Sri Meenakshi Temple
Each soft 'shikka-shikka-shikka'
of one machine coalescing with that of another and another to make quite a busy composite clatter of garment construction. Bangles, jewellery, saris, shawls, paintings, deities, metal and wood crafts and all the other usual Rupee-sniffing suspects are on sale here.
I visited the Tirumali Nayak Palace (those wings that remain of it) but to be honest it offers a momentarily grand but ultimately unrewarding visit I felt. Any sense of architectural or historical awe somewhat undermined by its too, too neatly restored surfaces, structures and smatterings of statuary. Another site of greater interest (to me anyhow) was the Gandhi Memorial Museum. It's free and presents an excellent and detailed account of the entire history of the birth of India as an independent nation state i.
One of the gigantic halls inside the Sri Meenakshi Temple that wrap around the Hindu-only inner sanctum
e. tracing the struggles origins from several centuries before Mr Gandhi was on the scene.
However the museum is most renowned in its capacity as a memorial, housing at its conclusion the soiled and blood stained dhoti or loincloth that Gandhi was wearing when shot and killed in January 1948. It resides here rather than in New Delhi
or elsewhere as it was in Madurai that Gandhi made his famous declaration and gesture to renounce all other forms of dress other than traditional Indian hand-spun white khadi. This formed one pillar of his (some say misguided, or unrealistic) attempts to instil an idea of independence through micro-labour and economic self-sufficiency. It is though the symbol of the khadi spinning wheel that came to sit (in blue) at the heart of India’s national flag, conveniently mirroring the Chakra wheel of the ancient Ashoka Indian empire and symbolising the welfare of the Indian people.
Prayer in Light Bars
It was in 1921 here that Gandhiji stated 'In the context of the conditions of my people, I cannot afford a greater luxury than a loincloth.'
Consequently this white cotton dress material, so strongly associated with Gandhianism and ideas of humility and service to 'The People', is nowadays quite an expensive, exclusive item and generally only to be seen being worn by politicians whose standards of personal conduct often fall far, far short of those of their 'Bapu' (Gandhi's affectionate nickname). Consequently too, nowadays it tends to be more associated with images of self-interest, wealth and corruption, all three being as they are inter-linked. Off the top of my head I forget the statistics but the number of currently serving MLAs in the Lok Sabha (democratically elected Indian Ministers in India's Parliament) with proven and charged criminal records is obscene
You should also get stuck into whatever food market areas of Madurai you can locate.
Some of those to be found just off to the north west of the Sri Meenakshi Temple on or around West Avani Street are some of the most wonderfully earthy, centuries old feeling vegetable and fruit organised-shambles markets I have stepped my way through these last six months. Unable to spot exactly where the piles of viable produce stop and the primordial mulch of discarded vegetal matter that carpets the market in waves starts it really is commerce 'of the soil'. A scene populated by crusty, rusty, salt of the earth types whose dark sun-wrinkled skins have grown so slackened on the bone from over boiling and toiling that the folds of flesh and fabric work as one composite garment. Poverty, or just general hardship, as with age, has a tendency to somewhat desexualise the human form I find and its kind of refreshing to see the unblinking acceptance of such being so here.
Sri Meenakshi Temple (detail)
The matter of fact Mother Earth bodies, the frail or voluptuous flapping forms of the female peasantry here often cascading out of their loose saris as freely as the green chillies, tomatoes and garlic bulbs from their woven baskets. I avert my eyes out of politeness. The men all smile broadly, ask for photos and show off prize-winning vegetables of names unknown to me.
The only other point of note to my memories of Madurai is another gripe I'm afraid, ending in tone as I began, though this gripe not specific to the place itself. Madurai just happens to be the particular city where my long building irritation at India's psychopathic love affair with the car horn reaches critical mass AND I JUST CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!
Following from my introduction to this theme in previous entries ( 'Vipassana : Suffering in Silence' ), by this time many towns and cities further down the line my mind is reeling from the ceaseless sonic storm of car, bike, rickshaw, lorry and bus horns that so violently offend India's airwaves and therein one's sanity after a time.
The 'Stop/ Go' Cow :)
Every single ear drum perforating blast of a Hero Honda (bike) or Ambassador (taxi) now runs through my brain like a heated skewer. I feel like a bull being taunted, poked and provoked with a hundred spears, trapped in a Toreador's ring. And I'm beginning to... no, I have
lost my cool on this particular point.
Many is the time now (and since) that cars and bikes honking long, loud and proud when there is absoluuuutely
zero need to do so (a particular passion of the moronic Indian male driver species) prompt me to scream expletives just as vigorously back into the air : 'SHUT THE F**K UP YOU F**KING MORONS!!!'
I have often belted into open car windows as the perpetrators, insensible both to their offence and my impotent rage, glide past me.
Madurai market life
Genuinely a tourist with Tourettes! ( Tour
-ettes?) I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking so. Random cussing and swearing into thin air, and what with my now monstrous red beard and mop to match on top I must cut quite a curious sight, a fright, to locals and other tourists alike. HONK HONK HONK WAAAAAAAGGH!!!
It's the first time I begin to think that after five months it might just soon be time for a break from this incredible, though occasionally incredibly infuriating country. 'SHUT THE F**K UP YOU NOISY B*ST*RDS!!!'
Obey. Your master has spoken. *
In making lazy statements like this, whatever measure of truth they may possess should not completely distract from the fact that what I am also doing is confessing to possessing an inadequate wealth of knowledge and architectural vocabulary to make any literary differentiation for you.
It's her preferred style.
Apologies to yourselves and Madurai.