The third-largest city in Tamil Nadu, Madurai is treated as an afterthought to Chennai. But spend a day in the heat and chaos of this city and you’re bound to find yourself forever remembering it. Steeped in a rich history that spans two millennia, Madurai is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Famous for its temples built by the Pandyan and Madurai Nayak Kings, Madurai houses one of the most famous temples in India: Meenakshi Amman Temple situated in the heart of the city. Madurai’s top sights, Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, an architectural gem; a learned centre in the Gandhi Memorial Museum, and Meenakshi Amman Temple, can easily be seen in a day.
Meenakshi Amman Temple's allure lies in its intricacy
If you enter Madurai by bus or train, you’re likely to reach early in the morning. Thus, start your day in Madurai at the Meenakshi Amman Temple. It has five entrances, though if you are carrying a camera and backpack, it’s better to enter through the main one as it’s the only one with a locker. A temple that’s extremely religious: cellphones & cameras are not allowed and a proper respectful attire are required to enter. Valuables can be deposited into the locker overseen by security guards. The temple is open between 5.00am and 12.30pm and then again between 4.00pm and 9.30pm. Numerous sculptures adorn the towers of the temple. Intricate chambers filled with statues of deities and idols make up the internal chasms of the temple, and don’t be surprised if you see a temple elephant walking around blessing young children. Because of its extreme religious beliefs, there are sections prohibited to non-Hindus, so ensure you either have a guide or are careful to read the many signs inside the temple. Before entering the temple, there will be many guides or “tailors” who will offer to take you to vantage points outside the temple to get a better view. Beware of them as they may lure you into shops and alleys and are usually crooks.
Learn about the important freedom fighters at the Gandhi Memorial Museum
Spend the afternoon in the shady and cool Gandhi Memorial Museum. Entrenched in history, the museum is a beautifully laid-out informative piece of India’s rebellion of British colonisation. Starting from the days the British first entered India and devised a plan to rule the country, it maps India’s struggle under the East India Company briefly before delving deep into the rebellion of Indians starting with the 1857 mutiny. The last half-century before Independence is the densest part of the museum with Mahatma Gandhi’s contribution to the movement at front and centre of the museum. The museum also houses Gandhi’s bloodstained dhoti and a few other artefacts that are open at sporadic times. A good depiction of the freedom struggle, spending a couple of hours at the museum and bookshop is a good way to while away the afternoon, especially in the notorious Madurai heat. The museum is also free to enter.
While away the rest of your day at this gorgeous palace
As the day gets cooler, make your way to the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal. Though only a small portion of the original structure remains, even seeing a quarter of the original palace will take quite some time. Entry to the roof and upper floors are prohibited but there’s enough to see architecturally and historically on the main floor that’ll root you to the spot in some places. The white-marbled pillars support ceilings intricately hand-painted in devotion to gods. You’ll find yourself mesmerised by the ingenuity of humans who found a way to carve and create this palace with the limited tools at their disposal. Entry to the palace is 50 INR (0.80 USD) for foreigners.
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Madurai's sights are entrenched in history and can be viewed quickly
Once you’ve seen the three best sights in Madurai, catch a bus or train from the main station out to your next city. Madurai is also a commercial and transport hub with connections to all over South India easily available from any major station. The way the city is laid out as well, all of the sights and major transport stations are within walking distance of one another. A handy tip is that the train station has a place to store your bags for a day for the low, low cost of 50 INR (0.80 USD).
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