One of the most pleasant Indian cities, Madurai has a charming situation on the River Vaigai, fringed by lush paddy fields and coconut groves. It is both the home of Tamil culture (poets, artisans, artists, scholars and saints have used it as their base for centuries) and the special abode of the goddess Meenakshi, the ‘one with eyes like fish’. The vast temple complex built here in her honour is perhaps the finest achievement of the Dravidian architects and still remarkably intact. The nine soaring gopurams of Madurai are the first thing most visitors see, whether coming in by air, rail or road.
Over 2500 years old, Madurai takes its name from mathurem, the nectar which Shiva let fall from his flowing locks after Kulaskera, a Pandyan ruler, began praying for a new capital. The Pandyas, great patrons of Tamil art, architecture and learning, ruled ‘Nectar City’ from as early as the 6th century Bc, right through to the 13th century AD, apart from a short period of Chola rule during the 11th/ 12th centuries. After the Pandyas came the Delhi Sultans and the Vijayanagar kings, but it was left to the enlightened Nayak rulers, who governed Madurai from AD 1559 to 1781, to build the city in its present form. It was laid out in the shape of a lotus flower, with the impressive Meenakshi temple at the centre, in accordance with the Shilpa Shastras (ancient laws of architectural science). In AD 1781 the British ousted the Nayaks, razed the old fort, and converted the surrounding ditches into broad avenues known as yeli (outer) streets. The growth of the modern town outside the temple walls was thenceforth rapid.
Full of colourful bazaars, itinerant street tailors, thronging pilgrims and academics, and joyful religious processions, Madurai today is a small, bustling town which attracts up to 10 000 visitors from outside each day. For fun and spectacle, come for the month-long Chithrai Festival of April/May. People have been known to pass out in the heat and crowds, but it really is a glorious pageant. Otherwise, there’s the cooler Teppam (Float) Festival of January/February. Madurai is popular all year round, but the climate is most pleasant from October to January.
Air Indian Airlines flies Madras–Madurai daily (Rs945) and returns via Trichy (Rs376), and to Bangalore (Rs847) a couple of times a week. From Madurai airport it’s a 6-km (3 3/4-mile) ride into the city centre by airport bus (Rs15) or taxi.
The fast Vaigai Express from Madras gets to Madurai in just 8 hours, stopping at Trichy on the way. The morning Madras-Quilon Mail takes 8 hours to reach Quilon, and crosses the scenic Western Ghats. You can’t advance-reserve seats on either train, but they’re often half empty. If you don’t fancy taking the chance, contact the TFDC information counter inside the station.
Madurai has two main bus-stands, adjoining each other off West Veli St. The PRC stand is for Kodaikanal and for local city buses. The TDC stand is for Kanyakumari, Madras, Trichy, Trivandrum and Kottayam. With TDC buses, you must buy your tickets in advance.