Quick Guide: Madurai

One of the world’s ancient hubs, Madurai has played host to visitors like Megasthenes and Marco Polo millennia ago and attracts one million devotees annually today. Bustling, modern Madurai is home to delicious dichotomies: tourists will find ancient temples co-exist with IT hubs and discover pillars with carved stone dragons, and menus with mutton-balls, crab, and rabbit.

Here, you’ll encounter the source of inspiration for every one of Madurai’s epithets – City of Junctions, the Temple City, City of Jasmine, and The Athens of the East.

Need To Know

Expect very warm summers (it can go up to a blistering 34ºC) from March to May.

Come June and all through August, the city transforms into a lush green carpet with the arrival of the monsoon. Winter, from October to February, is the best time to visit, with temperatures falling within a pleasant 20 – 29ºC.

Hop into an auto or onto a local bus to go exploring. If neither of these sounds appealing, you can hire a private taxi to navigate the city.

Madurai is a gastronomic haven that has something for everyone, though it’s renowned for its idlis. Don’t leave Madurai without trying the famous local Jigarthanda drink. Translating to ‘cool heart’, it is usually prepared by mixing milk, almond gum, sarsaparilla root syrup, sugar, and ice cream and is perfect to beat the heat.

Did You Know?

Madurai is home to Teppothsavam, a 12-day Float Festival, between mid-January and mid-February every year. The main idols from temples all across the city are taken on a decorated float in a procession temple’s tank.

The city also plays host to more than million visitors during the Meenakshi Thirukalyanam festival, a two-week long celebration in April (or May, depending on the Tamil calendar). Thousands of people from all across the country come down to commemorate the wedding of Meenakshi with Shiva.

Things to Do

For Religious Travellers

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is home to approximately 33,000 sculptures. Sitting on the southern bank of the Vaigai River, it is one of the oldest, largest, and most complex temples in the country. The first construction of the temple dates back to the 6th Century B.C. Since then, certain parts of the temple have been damaged and restored over the years.  Sitting within its walls is the Temple Art Museum that displays wonderful carvings of Krishna and Ganesha. The Hall of a Thousand Pillars (named so although there are 985 pillars) also sits inside the Meenakshi Amman Temple. The foot of the pillars depicts intricately carved endangered Dravidian sculptures. The temple is also home to Porthamarai Kulam – the famed golden lotus and also considered a holy spot.

A short distance from Madurai is the Thirupparankundram Murugan Temple. Carved out of a mountain rock, it was built in the 8th century and is considered to be one of the homes of Lord Murugan. The temple also has shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Vinayaka, Durga, and Shiva in small caves in the mountain. The Thirupparankundram Murugan Temple is believed by many as auspicious for weddings.  Historic scholars claim some of the inscriptions on the walls of the caves date back to medieval times.

For History Buffs

Established in 1959, the Gandhi Memorial Museum (Tel: 0452 253 1060) is one of five museums dedicated to the Father of the Nation in the country. Here, visitors can find illustrations of the independence struggle, paintings and sculptures of Mahatma Gandhi, and several artefacts he used. The museum also houses 124 personal photographs spanning Gandhi’s life – including the clothes he was wearing on the day of his assassination.

Thirumalai Nayak Palace. Image: Loes Kieboom / Shutterstock.com

The Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal (Tel: 090433 25105), built in 1636 AD by King Thirumalai Nayak, then-ruler of Madurai, is a beautiful example of the melding of Dravidian and Rajput architectural styles. The structure as it stands today is only one-fourth of what it was in its heyday. One of the main attractions of the Palace is the sound and light show held daily, allowing both locals and visitors alike to learn of the king’s life, his passions, and battlefield victories.

What to Eat & Where

While the name Murugan Idli Shop (Tel: 0452 234 1379) is telling, the dosas, vadas, and uttapams here are equally mouth-watering. Be sure to pack a few samples of the chutneys on your way out.

If you’re more carnivore than herbivore, make a beeline for Amma Mess (Tel: 091 98421 45900). They have an adventurous menu offering everything from crab omelette and bone marrow omelette to prawn dosa to mutton kola (fried mutton balls).

You cannot turn a corner in Madurai without spotting someone selling the local favourite jigarthanda drink, and Famous Jigarthanda (Tel: 098421 16684) promises to have the best and most authentic of what the city has to offer. Try the jigarthanda cone ice (ice cream cone) if you’re feeling experimental.

What to Buy

Originally built in the 1600s as a resting place for royalty, Puthu Mandapam is one of the oldest bazaars in Madurai. Today, the lanes are home to some wonderful shops selling sculptures of deities, books, bangles, cotton, and printed fabrics.

One of the quirkiest markets in Madurai is the Banana Market, where you can buy 16 varieties of the fruit. It’s a must-visit if only to have a look or take photographs for your holiday album.

The Poompuhar Sales Showroom (Tel: 0452 234 0517) that sits opposite the Railway Junction has a wonderful array of stone and wood carvings, leather and jute products, Thanjavur artwork, earthenware and leather goods. At the Cottage Arts Emporium (Tel: 0452 262 3614), you can buy intricately carved doors, jharokhas, chests, and other painted furniture by Rajasthani artisans. It also sells paintings and brass works, traditional clothes, and Indian jewellery.

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