Almost a year back an internet petition did the rounds amongst Tamilians to gather support asking UN to declare Madurai Meenakshi amman temple as 'world heritage'. The effort fell flat. As a guy from Tanjore I was intrigued and wanted to check out the temple. I planned a trip to see Madurai. On a eleventh hour impulse I booked the Taj Gateway Resort at Pasumalai for a night. Thankfully so. The resort stay was the ONLY beautiful part of the trip.
The highway from Trichy to Madurai was good. 4 lanes, 2 lanes on either way complete with service exits, entry points at every kilometer. Just as we were cruising smoothly I had the shock of my life. A guy on a motorcycle with an infant straddling on the petrol tank nonchalantly was driving against the traffic in our lane. This was not an isolated incident and not just two wheelers. Simple reason, the drivers need to go to a particular spot on the opposite but using the proper entry points might mean an extra kilometer or so. Solution, enter where you need to enter who cares if you are driving like the woman in Matrix. Couple of times we avoided fatal collisions. Welcome to what some NRI's with glassy eyes romantically label as 'mystic touch of India' (of course they are glassy eyed ensconsced abroad where traffic rules are obeyed).
We drove straight into Madurai under benevolent archangel M.K.Azhagiri looking down from a poster at every turn of the road (literally!!). We had to leave our footwear at a building quite away from the temple and walk on tiles (90 deg F). We headed to the sanctum sanctorum straight as they would close in 2 hours (12:30 PM). Two placards told us to buy tickets. We could buy Rs15 ticket (really long queue) or Rs100 (long queue). Thanks to my US dollars without a second thought I bought Rs 100 tickets for the family. Even the lords know the value of money. But what the lords truly respect more than money is political or beauracratic power.
It was a Sunday so the faithful had turned out in droves despite the sweltering heat. Forget about fans to cool, there was no exhaust to take out the heat. The lines snaked mercilessly. Lacking in blind faith I dropped out. That was it for me. But I stayed close as my faithful mom stuck on. I and my dad stood by and watched some interesting sights. Two temple staff who were prodding the queue mericilessly shoved women aside who lingered for more than 10 SECONDS, the shoving would be accompanied by choice curses.
We saw that people were being let in through a side door of and on. A priest, bare chested, was cooling himself off, I asked him why this was done. He answered with a quiver "those people are let in by the Superintendent amma". I asked him whether he can point her to me. He was shaking to his barefeet and said "ayyo I cannot do that". Given her imperious nature that woman was easy to spot out. She was stocky, an air of uncouth authority hung about her, she was screaming at a walkie talkie and gesticulating very dictatorially. For a moment freeze this in your mind. The Brahmin priest was too afraid to even identify this woman, let alone stand up against what was wrong. The woman was unmistakably from a reserved class. Before people yell at me let me just say, nothing against her belonging to any class reserved or not. Also in a country where government jobs are indeed given based on caste I am only pointing out the obvious. But look at this Karunanidhi and his minions made a big deal of breaking down the Brahminical exclusivity of becoming priests, of course in the name of social justice. Who in their right mind would want to replace that measly priest????
The hapless priest helpfully added that politicians, relatives of temple authorities, heavy donors get privileged access. While the Pope preaches the virtues of poverty after flying in chartered flight wearing Prada shoes can Meenakshi Amman be behind? At least gender equality is preserved. We did see a Temple authority (a Brahmin now, identified him by the unique way in which he prostrated headlong) walking around imperiously with two cops in tow. Damn the queue for him. The surging crowd of 'huddled masses' meanwhile could barely get a glimpse of their deity.Oh I saw a notice that said "Non-Hindu's not allowed ; should not wear lungis". The temple beaurocrat wore a Veshti. Lungi's are a favorite wear of Muslims.
The temple itself had pedestrian architecture. The sculptures that adorn the roofs and the towers (gopurams) were of deplorable quality and structure. Wikipedia gives more details than any onsite plaque http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meenakshi_Amman_Temple .
I then visited the adjacent "Thousand Pillar hall". That hall had shelves with some archeological pieces. The shelves laden with dust surely attest to the ancient history of what was displayed. Imagine walking barefeet on stone to reach the hall on a hot summer day. I've nothing against making me remove my slippers in the name of tradition but suitable arrangements should be made. If I say things like I get brickbats about not hearing the "whispers of traditions in my ears". Some deaf ears I have.
The next day we visited Thirumalai Naicker Mahal. Mani Ratnam had used this venue memorably in his "Iruvar". When drove around to the entrance we were greeted by a guy who was happily urinating next to a "do not urinate" sign. The entrance was difficult because a dumpster was overflowing with a month's worth of variegated stinking dump that would make a skunk run away with disgust. But we persisted on going in. I bought Rs 5 tickets (RS30 for still camera) before I could identify the ticket vendor I wandered into the building if somebody had not yelled "sir come here to get tickets" I'd have thought the building was a movie set to depict war ravaged buildings in Stalingrad. Only after I bought the tickets did I notice that foreigners have to pay twice the amount. I've been a foreigner visiting Europe (as Indian and American) never have I paid any differential pricing. Indians happily visit the Smithsonians in DC without paying a penny.
We stepped into the Mahal. A dishevelled guy, unshaven and unkempt gruntingly asked for the tickets. He tore the tickets into halves. We were handed a torn half as souvenir while he dumped the other half into a bucket that used to have paint and was now a waste basket. The famous light and sound show has now resumed but we are cautioned that "no refunds due to current cuts". Long Live Kalaignar. Its a simple Durbar like construction that Mani Ratnam had skillfully made into character in the movie. One rickety metal board informed us that the Mahal was identified and renovated by governor of Madras John Napier (God bless the British, it was Lord Curzon who formed the 'Archeological Survey of India' to inventory and protect the treasures of India). The dance hall houses some ancient artifacts in the most deplorable and insulting conditions one can imagine.
We stepped out into a courtyard to find a nice collection of statues only when the stench hit us did I realize that the collection was right next to a toilet that a pig would consider too stinking to use (dead rats and lizards and other unmentionables). There was a commemorative plaque informing that a certain MLA was proud to have inaugurated the toilets!!!!!!
Lets take a breather. The temple is managed by the government and is a shining example governmental incompetence exceeded only by the imperiousness of its bloated babus (pun intended). The Archeological Survey of India and the Tourism ministry outdo each other in insulting history. But then the orientals are yet to learn the meaning of "objective history" or "professional historian".
I think back with lots of pain about the immense pleasure I got out of visiting historical landmarks in the west. When Indians react with smugness looking at 'stolen' treasures in British museums I say "at least the treasures are where they are respected".
I shall talk about the wonderful experience of the resort and more importantly the happy saree shopping at Madurai Pothys. Both represent a slice of the nice part of a nation that is learning its table manners before sitting at the table on par with the developed world.