Few things color a tourist destination more than being described as “the Paris of this” or “the Oxford of that.” The letdown is almost inevitable. Back in the Seventies, my parents had returned from a tour of the Soviet Union and I still recall my father’s comment regarding Leningrad, “the Venice of the North.”
“Some bloody Venice,” my father said.
Madurai is a different case. This ancient burg, the spiritual center of Tamil Nadu state, has origins dating back to the Third Century B.C. Under the enlightened auspices of the early sultans, it burst into flower as a major cultural and commercial hub, attracting scholars, poets, merchants and traders. At its height Madurai was known as “the Athens of the East.”
I despise Athens.
The appellation of course, applies to Athenian glory of centuries past, not to the dirty, oppressive Greek capital of today. My hope then, in arriving here was that Madurai did not live down to its reputation.
Beyond the welcoming City Arch, a string of hotels align the strip by the bus station, and the flat, dusty openness, the brown hills on the horizon, suggest a kind of ‘Wild East’ affair, atypical compared to the usual Indian urban clog and cacophony. However, I found more than the usual hospitality and my search for lodging didn’t last long. After a brief reconnaissance and a good night’s sleep, the restaurant staff recommended the Ghee Roast for breakfast – one of India’s delicious flat breads, rolled into a gigantic cone and served with various bowls of sauce and spices.
Of course, what drew me here were not dusty roads, flat bread or spices but Madurai’s inescapable landmark and one of southern India’s most famous temples, the Minakshi Sundareshvara. Under the Pandyan Dynasty the fabulous complex was built and named for the Goddess Meenakshi (“fish-eyed” – a desirable trait of femininity). A fiery deity and warrior, born with three breasts, she battled and defeated the armies of Shiva in his mountain stronghold, then according to prophecy, married Shiva after the battle and subsequently shed the third breast.