It was never my intention for Madurai to feature on my Indian itinerary when I traveled through the massive and mind-blowing nation in September of 2018. As the dusty hot city bookended my trip to Sri Lanka, Madurai was at a minimum going to rate a mention and I thought at best a few memories. But once my planning started in earnest some of Madurai’s magic was revealed and I soon had several agenda items I knew I had to experience on my way through the South of India and Tamil Nadu.
Traveling by Sleeper Bus
I traveled to Madurai from Pondicherry near Chennai by sleeper bus. It was about a six-hour journey. I am a big fan of sleeper buses and have used them in India and Vietnam. If you are traveling by bus and there is an option to take a sleeper do yourself a favor and pay the extra couple of dollars. For that, you will literally get your own cabin, or more like a capsule. While it isn’t going to be great for really tall people, at 5 foot 10 inches or 173 cm I am above average height and I can stretch out nicely. When booking the bus you are probably going to get the option of a sleeper on top or below, I always choose on top because I avoid having groin and butt height traffic wondering past. If mobility isn’t a problem take the top bed but if you aren’t confident hauling up to a top bunk, select a lower bed. And that is what you will get, literally a bed. You will be able to stretch out, often a blanket or pillow is provided and curtains or even a partition for privacy. In the last sleeper, I took in India my bed even had a power point to charge my phone and laptop.
Arriving at and visiting Meenakshi
The drawback with the sleeper is it was a private bus and as such did not drop me off at the main city station so I caught a tuk-tuk to my hotel near Meenakshi Temple. Meenakshi Temple is just one of the temples which lends the name “Temple City” to Madurai. It certainly can’t claim to be the only temple, but most would agree it is the most impressive. Drawing the faithful and pilgrims to this dry landlocked metropolis rises the five towers of Meenakshi in all of their colorful splendor and glory. Four of the towers are situated on opposing sides of the square that forms the perimeter of the Meenakshi Temple in the North, South, East and West direction, and a further fifth temple rises up in the middle of the complex accessed only from deep within. The entire 2500-year-old temple complex is dedicated to Meenakshi, an avatar of Goddess Parvati, and her consort Sundareswarar, Lord Shiva. As I explore through each of the areas of Meenkashi I was in awe at the detail of the carvings, the scale, and size of the towers, independently or as a group and the generous use of colour and gold covering every surface.
Meenakshi is built on a land mass of 14 acres and around the perimeter of this are hotels, restaurants, juice stands, kiosks, and shops. Here you will find tailors that will measure you up and have pants and shirts made to order by the time you do your tour and return to their store. Many of the tailors have a roof you can access for birds-eye views of the temple for rare glimpses up above the tree line. When visiting Meenkashi long sleeves and pants should be worn. Be prepared to remove your shoes, there are fully staffed kiosks at each of the entrances to deal with this. Also you will be expected to sign in any camera equipment also.
Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace Light and Sound Show
While in the city visit the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace and experience some royal history through immersion through the daily light and sound show. Definitely worth seeing, the light and sound show is daily at 6:45 at the Palace at Panthadi 1st St, Mahal Area. Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace is almost 400 years old and was built for a king of era, the purpose for which it was built to fits the design. Large columns border the huge open-air courtyard and guests are seated in this space to experience the light and sound show and enjoy the theatrics of the colours and sound under a clear starry sky. The storytelling over PA in English took me back in time to the royal residences of King Thirumalai Nayak.
Madurai city streets
The light show lasts for about an hour, after which a walk from the Palace to my hotel took me through the activity-filled streets of Madurai at night. This was when I really started to feel an affection for this city. During the day hot dry and dusty, in the evening the streets are overflowing with clothing vendors and fruit carts. The night seems to tamper down the dust and the heat eases. The noise of cars blends in with the music and the faded signs and cracked footpaths become romantic in the reflection of light coming from the huge glittering sari showrooms. Intersections are holding pens for cows and music is performed in the open creating a carnival atmosphere as people go about their business. I go back to my hotel and from my window spot Periyar Bus Station, where I will be catching a bus the following morning to Sivananda Ashram and it is looking positively cosmopolitan. The glow of the incandescent lights in the night deceptively flattering, turning the gritty streetscape below into a hive of activity as the last busses come and go for the day.
My real interest in a visit to Madurai was initially as a transit point for a stay at Sivananda Ashram where I was to spend a four-nights. Sivananda is only about 20 kilometers from Madurai and if you are going there a really cheap option is by bus. From Periyar Bus Station where all of the buses start and finish you need to find 62A, 23P, 23T, 23U or 23Z bus. Just ask around, maybe have these written down on paper beforehand. I find school kids are the most helpful with a combination of willingness and a few years of English tuition under their belt they are all too often drunk with the novelty of talking to a foreigner and giddy with enthusiasm to converse. I was in luck and a group of kids sent me on my merry way. With military-like precision, I was barreled onto the bus and handed over to the women up front who were either heading to or coming from the market. The wiry and deceptively strong women proceeded to unburdened me from my backpack, shoved it behind the driver and wedged me between two new Mums/Sisters/Aunts to ensure my comfort levels were satisfactory.
The ticket seller will approach you so have some small change on hand, ask for Pavana Vinakul Junction. You will be notified when you get there. An ability to have faith is required when using the bus network in India, someone will let you know when you are at your stop. In my case, it was one of the young men studying at the Technical College which shared the same bus route. For you it might actually be the ticket seller, almost never will it be the driver. But it will be someone friendly and helpful and very well-intentioned who is very genuinely interested in seeing you make it to your destination. A bit of passenger camaraderie is a great equaliser and can form bonds among people of all cultures.
Pavana Vinakul Junction bus stop, like many in India, is nondescript, possibly chosen simply because there is some space for the bus to pull over before approaching a bend. From here its a short walk in the direction the bus is going, around the bend then down a dirt road on the left. There is adequate signage to direct you to the Ashram with a large green sign at the fence that you will see upon approaching the Ashram to alert you that you have found the property.
I arrived at the Ashram late morning. It was very quiet and there appeared to be no one around at all. There was a staff member who directed me to sign in and then ushered me over to the direction of the eating hall. Another staff member greeted me and offered me some food and tea. This was my first stay in an Ashram so anxious not to do the wrong thing, offend or just appear as completely out of place I obliged and complied as best I could. It was obvious silence should be observed, removing shoes before entering buildings and eating with hands was now the norm. A level of calm exists where there is little noise and this settled over me like a sheet. I fell into line and followed the suggested order gratefully moving through to the office where I was signed in and ushered a little more to the dormitory and left to wait, sleep or join the program when I saw fit.
The Sivananda Ashram in Madurai is one of a number of Sivananda Ashrams throughout India. It is set in the rural countryside where the yoga, meditation and dining halls all offer uninterrupted views over the fields and pastures of the Ashram and neighboring farms. The Ashram program offers a daily structure of meditation in the morning with a start around 6:00 am, yoga twice daily and a number of yoga theory lectures to participate in. Everyone is also expected to contribute to Karma Yoga mid-morning which is a distribution of cleaning and maintenance jobs. Meals are twice daily and strictly vegetarian in accordance with Yogic belief and this is supplemented by tea and snacks also twice daily. The day finishes with an evening meditation and some music, chanting or Aarti fire offering ceremony. Bedtime is around 9:30 pm with lights out at 10:00 pm when I put a tired, stretch, relaxed and calm head to bed every day. Ashram life on paper can be misinterpreted as a relaxing retreat to unwind and get some downtime. It is, in fact, possible to have a very full schedule and at Sivananda Ashram Madurai students are expected to participate in the entire program.
I chose to stay in the dormitory but there are single and double rooms also available. Bedding is supplied but you do need to bring your own toiletries and bath towel. I found the Yoga instruction and the Yoga Philosophy classes excellent, the instructors were great and met the needs of the students in the physical asana practice as well as the philosophic tuition. The meditation practice morning and evening was supported by techniques offered by the Gurus on hand and Pranayama (breathing) instruction complimented both the Asana and Meditation classes.
Many of the students at Sivananda Ashram were on a return visit or forming a sort of long-term residency. One student I met in the Ashram from France has since committed to returning to complete a 28-day program in a few months. This I think is telling of the quality of the program, instructors and the personal outcomes students are seeking and finding when coming to Sivananda. It is structured and possibly considered strict but from the meals to the facilities, the staff and support my experience at Sivananda was a wonderful and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to add depth to their yoga and meditation practice.
So in total, including my stays either side of my trip to Sri Lanka and the four nights I spent at the Ashram I was in Madurai for a week. It is not a glamorous city, and not designed to pander to the tourist. But Madurai definitely has some great qualities. There is a really convenient public bus, the 10A that leaves from the main bus station and for only 20 rupee takes you right our front to departures, a service not often found in Indian cities. The food it cheap and good and service friendly, there are more than a couple of really interesting things to see and do and the Madurai airport has excellent international and domestic connectivity as well as connections overland by bus to many other cities. Madurai is energetic and ancient, it shows and spills out of the cities dining halls, sidewalks, temples, and tuk-tuks.
Check out the video of my favorite memories from in and around Madurai