Sunday, December 11, 2011


temple gopuram in Madurai
Our next destination was Madurai, which is farther inland than we've been so far.  The ride out of Kanyakumari was hazy and warm, but the scenery was lovely. Rice paddies, small waterways, coconut palms, all very green against a backdrop of ancient looking mountains.  I think they are the tail of the Western Ghats, which start somewhere southeast of Mumbai and run all the way down the country.  They remind me of the karst formations in Halong Bay, the way they rise from the flat ground and appear to almost float on the green.  

Once we wound our way out of Kanyakumari on the city roads, we entered the most beautiful piece of pavement we've seen in months.  The road was divided, with two lanes in each direction, no potholes, and access roads!  And for some reason, there was very little traffic to make it even more delightful.  Apparently the Indian government has given up on road construction and has turned it over to the private sector.  Companies build roads and make their money back over time through toll collection from cars, trucks, and buses (but not motorbikes).  Unfortunately, it takes so long to recoup the costs, and with the global economy as it is, the companies don't want to invest their money in road projects, so there aren't many new roads.  Colin and I both enjoyed the ride to Madurai as a sort of vacation.  We could look around at the scenery and windfarms in the area, and I even sang in my helmet for the first time in weeks! 

Our pleasant ride ended when we got to Madurai and joined the usual hordes of vehicles all trying to get somewhere.  We got into the city, and I found a room while Colin waited with the bikes and chatted with a woman from Chapel Hill, NC who is here to do some volunteer work.  Once we got settled into our beautiful room in a shabby, old hotel, (the room really was gorgeous.  It had new everything- fixtures, furniture, floor tiles, A/C, linens.  The lobby and hallways hadn't been touched in probably two decades or more, but they were gutting other rooms while we were there) we went for some lunch and then worked on ride reports and blog posts in the room until dinnertime.  Colin still wasn't feeling well, so we found a place with non-Indian food on the menu for dinner and then went to bed.

The big attraction in Madurai is the Sri Meenakshi temple.  It was built in the mid-16th century and is huge, covering six hectares and is marked by twelve gopurams, which are giant towers covered with Hindu deities and other figures, all painted in an explosion of bright colors.  The tallest of the towers here is 52 meters high.  After fending off the usual touts and guides, and here, tailors, we checked our shoes and went inside.  Everyone seems to be a tailor, and they all want to make you a shirt or pants in two hours or less for 50 rupees!  They offer to take you to a building just outside the temple grounds, where you can climb to the rooftop for a better overall temple vista.  Then they start the sales pitch.  I got snagged by one tout when I stopped to buy some dates from a street vendor (30 rupees/60 cents for a big bag).  I thought I was dealing with the date salesman, but after I paid, he started into his tailor pitch.  We managed to lose him and made our way into the temple. 

sacred cow and camels
The first thing we saw once we were inside was a procession of temple camels, cows, and an elephant, all decked out in their finery, followed by drummers and men wheeling large carts holding deities.  Like most of the temples in India, some areas are off-limits to non-Hindus, but here, large portions of the temple are open.  We spent the next few hours touring the temple, observing the pilgrims, and marveling at the architecture.  Re got “kissed” on the head by the temple elephant as a blessing, and hopefully the elephant snot in her hair will bring her good luck.  Sometime after noon, we wandered back to the hotel, stopping on the way to pick up some baked goods which I thought I could eat. 

statue of Mahatma Gandhi
After eating our food, we hopped on the bikes and rode the three miles or so to the Gandhi Museum.  We arrived at around 1:15 and soon found out that the lunch hour at the museum is from 1:00 until 2:00.  So we killed our 45 minutes by wandering around the grounds of the museum and having our picture taken several times by other visitors to the museum.  This is something that happens at nearly every site we visit.  People love to have their picture taken with us (I assume with other foreigners as well) and I have no idea how many people's vacation photos we will eventually end up in.  Re and I joke that if we charge five rupees for each picture, we could pay for our trip.  Finally, 2:00 pm rolled around and we entered the museum.  The first half of the museum tells the story of the occupation of India from the early days in the 1500s through to India's eventual independence in the late 1940s. The second half of the museum is dedicated to the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi.  His life is a fascinating story and is told in great detail through text, photos, exhibits, and letters he wrote.  For me the most moving part of the exhibit was the blood-stained dhoti that he was wearing when he was gunned down by a Hindu zealot on his way to a prayer meeting in 1948.  

His dhoti actually brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat as I stood there looking at it in its glass case.  To see his glasses, his shoes, and the thread he spun, is... I don't know what to say.  It is difficult enough to believe that a man such as Mahatma Gandhi ever lived on this earth, but to have died at the hand of a fellow human being is just about incomprehensible.   

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