Tour With Madurai Mani- A Cycle Rickshaw Champion

Trip Start Sep 29, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
KT Lodge

Flag of India  , Tamil Nadu,
Thursday, March 19, 2009

On the road again

After devouring a packet of sesame seed balls, a packet of Lays and a packet of Tiger Snack biscuits bought from the train station shops, we boarded a train going from Trivandrum to Madurai and managed to get ourselves into an empty sleeper class cabin and sprawl out with our books. Our senses seemed to be heightened probably because they have not been stimulated so much in the peace of the ashram life. We cruised through many stops but nobody seemed to bother us except for some chai wallahs who had tasty brew, a coffee vendor who stopped for a chat about the cricket and to massage one of my feet and a magazine seller who looked at me and said 'would you like to buy a fashion magazine miss, so you can look trendy'. I looked down at my backpacker threads and asked him if he thought my Afghani Ali Baba trousers were out of fashion already. Then i told him that the pirate look is very trendy in Australia and that i wouldn't be in need of a magazine.

We had the first few hours to ourselves as the train chugged on past small rural villages built next to the railway tracks where locals smiled, blew kisses and waved at us and we saw water wells, bathing lakes filled with lotus flowers and lillypads, rubbish littered everywhere and people lugging impossibly huge loads of  produce, sticks, bricks, rocks, anything and everything on their heads. At one part we passed a mountain with a temple at it's peak and could see the pilgrims making their way to the top for puja. We also cows, goats, chickens, temples, shrines, beautiful Keralan women and children playing with even smaller children carried on their hips. I sat at the open door of the train for awhile to catch the air rushing by and to watch the people going about their lives of simplicity on the farms amongst the greenery of palm trees and banana crops. Day trains are gold when they're not overcrowded.

Once we crossed states into Tamil Nadu we saw the landscape was littered with windmill farms. Wind power is the new renewable energy that is being harnessed in India to meet its growing needs. It will only make small difference to India's overall energy mix, but in a country rapidly industrialising, some would say that for green energy to play any part at all is a significant achievement. What's hot this month? Windmills! What's not? A whole crew of chatty men crammed into our previously peaceful cabin. It could be said that they had been hitting the La La Toddy Parlour for a knock-off  beverage or two after work. They were swigging mysterious liquid from a plastic bottle and got overly excited about the cricket and Ricky Ponting when they found out that we were Australians. Pirate evidence. They went on to point out to us every windmill they could see and there were alot of them. When they were leaving,  the main spokesperson for the group turned to me and said in English 'i see you are enjoying your life, Congratulations'. Nadine tried to buy a South Indian cookbook from one of the vendors who sell books to passengers but they thought she meant she was hungry and within a couple of minutes a guy wearing a shirt that read 'train courier' arrived and asked if we wanted some chappati bread. So it was that we discovered the train courier service guys who will run food from the platforms for you in during the brief stops.

As night started to fall, the legitimate ticket holders of our sleeper beds boarded the train and we had to vacate the seats and walk with our packs through the very narrow aisles for the entire length of the moving train whilst trying not to bump into limbs or spill people's banana leaf thali dinners. We crawled into some empty upper berths ignoring some lads who told us it was  a 'citizen's carriage' and slept until an angel of a man woke us up at Madurai station, lucky he did or we would have woken up in Chennai. I breathed in relief after a brief moment of terror when i thought i'd lost a beloved Birkenstock only to discover somebody had kicked it a couple of cabins ahead. We did the walk down Madurai main hotel street where a few touts got the sniff of fresh blood on their territory and  stalked us as we looked for a budget room. The cycle rickshaw guys who had previously been curled up asleep in the back seats of their rigs pounced on us too. One tiny, older, guy with an impressive beard and no teeth, who resembled a horny dwarf and who called himself Sarawati Chillum Sai Baba came up alongside us and asked us in a raspy voice if we wanted some marijuana then gave us a giant smile. Nadine let him and another guy show us some hotels because the budget choices were horrendous. Our baksheesh bought the touts dinner. I am sure the Indians have a good sense of how long you've been in India by the way you look, your confidence, the way you walk and your attitude, they have a very good instinct for this and we've found the more time in India, the better the interactions we have with the locals and the more enjoyable travel becomes. We ended up at KT Lodge watching the Australian show 'Bondi Rescue' on television and wondering if Australian men are all as ridiculous as the ones in the show.

Next day Nadine had her hair cut by some ladies in the street using some dodgy paper cutting scissors but they had no experience with short styles so we later had it trimmed up at a place called Big Boss Barber where the boss had faux red vinyl and chrome original swivel chairs and were listening to American rap music on a TV in the corner of the room. Nadine was ushered into the back of the shop and the curtain was pulled across the glass windows out front so nobody would know they were cutting a woman's hair inside.  I took up position in the window so i could watch the action outside but was soon hidden from view too. The barefoot 'Big Boss' watched closely as he stood over his nervous young apprentice chopping away. The kid was so nervous to cut a western woman's hair that he dropped the comb five or six times.

Our hotel was in the industrial area of the city and we enjoyed wandering around the streets where life was a fusion of old and new school and things were still being done by the traditional methods with a modern twist. Madurai is an active animated city and there isn't any sense of edginess there. One of the friendliest we have been to. It was quite early when we were out so we had some chai, spoke to an ironing cart guy and to a supari and pan shop vendor. It's nice to have the time to chat with locals, they really are quite hilarious. The landmark Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple complex was the highlight of the city with it's gopurams (towers) covered in a rainbow of carved, multicolored images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. The temple is a good example of Dravidian architecture. They were so colourful you wanted to snap a piece off and eat them like candy. beautiful. Some of the towers are being renovated at the moment and are covered in palm thatching and bamboo scaffolding but you get the whole idea of the awe-inspiring work here. It was fascinating to watch the workers climbing the scaffolding to repair and paint the carvings and from our position under the workers i finally found out that they don't free ball under the lunghi cloths. Indians are wonderfully creative ideas people. 

We surrendered our shoes then went through a metal detector, had our bags checked and were taken to a curtained off area where all the female visitors are frisked by a female security guard beofre we could go in. Once inside the temple we were greeted by the first Indian man we have ever seen with an afro and by a midget selling postcards. We followed the pilgrims around the maze of a site where there was a museum and many shrines found amongst large wooden doors, pillars, gateways, large rooms and hidden sections. We watched lots of activity as people prostrated, lay on the ground, dotted their foreheads with coloured powders, walked around statues, lit ghee oil candles in clay pots, offered baskets of fruit and lotus flowers, smudges sandalwood paste onto their heads, made mandalas on the floor, chanted, touched the feet of statues, hung garlands of flowers, squeezed lemons, worshipped and were blessed by the temple elephant. There were miniature paintings and decoration everywhere including on the ceilings and floors. There were sculptures alongside all the pillars and we were most impressed by the Hanuman, the acid trip goblins, the dancing woman with a peacock and some dragons with trunks. Somebody smudged ash onto my forehead and i think the significance is to renounce the past as though it has been burned to ash. There was a tank in the middle of the complex with a golden lotus flower installation. We also watched a ceremony where a priest was pouring milk and holy water over a Nandi bull statue then throwing sandalwood powder in ritual. 

Madurai is one of India's oldest cities and has been a textile centre from way back, the city was also where Mahatma Gandhi made his decision to wear nothing but khadi (homespun cloth). We met a wonderful cycle rickshaw guy with a magnificent, enthusiastic smile named Mani who we hired for a couple of hours to take us around the city and through the backstreets and alleyways local knowledge style. A great way to get around and up cose to the locals. Mani was barefoot and it was scorching hot as he dodged bullock carts, rickshaws, dogs, cars, people and motorbikes to cycle us around to all the sites on his custom 'tour'. We visited a sandalwood paste store where sadly, they had two of those cute meercats in cages, apparently they milk them for medicine. We went through the copper, bronze and metal street, the onion street, the spices and to visit his friend's handloom factory where we were completely amazed to see young ladies hard at work making towels by hand weaving them on old looms. We stopped at the fruit and flower markets and met some more friendly workers. We chatted with and photographed some ladies selling potatoes and some young banana vendor lads who were keen to show off their muscles. There was goats heads and legs for sale but we went for the bananas. School children became our shadows when we visited the Gandhi Memorial Museum where there was a detailed account of India's struggle for independence and also the blood stained dhoti loincloth that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated in Delhi.

There's many cloth stalls and tailor shops around so we headed to Puthu Mandapam where there are rows of underemployed male tailors sitting at sewing machines and shelf afetr shelf of beautiful cotton print fabrics and silks lined up behind them. Next to them there are some Shiva and Parvati shrines people were worshipping amidst the noises of the sewing machine feet whirring away. I couldn't resist getting some red and gold jester trousers designed and Nadine had a beautiful raw silk kurta top made. Life is peachy. Later that evening we went to collect the clothing and watch a ritual in the temple where there was lots of drumming, smoke and peacock feather waving.

We ate on the rooftop of a restaurant where the menu said they have some 'excitement' in the basement. We went to investigate and i turns out that the excitement was the weird Apollo Bar, an 80's style darkened room decked out like a spaceship. It was a little like being in Dr Who's tardis and stank like stale cigarettes. We got out of there and Nadine bought us a feast of street food including lentils, peas, idly and sauces, noodles and other delights which we ate picnic style on our bed.

We're parting ways for one month as of tomorrow, Nadine is off to the Sivananda yoga ashram in Madurai and i am going to Rameswaram, one of the holyiest sites, a Shiva's abode that each Hindu pilgrim is expected visit once in their lifetime.


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