It's the glory of Madurai. The sprawling, magnificent Meenakshi Amman Temple around which the city is built. The seven large goparam, or gateway towers, are Madurai's landmarks. Most of the temple is seventeenth century, though some parts of it are up to 500 years older.
Meenakshi - the name means 'fish eyes' - is a form of Parvati, the consort of Shiva. It's unusual for her, rather than her better known partner, to be the main temple deity. And every days, thousands throng to offer darshan - to see and so revere her.
The thousand pillar hall is exactly that ... in one corner of the complex, there are stalls selling anything from coconuts and bananas to offer to the deity to silver bangles to cheap plastic toys ... just a few strides away, you find the most exquisite temple art.
And as so often, much of the life of the temple is in the streets surrounding, as devotees gather, undertake rituals and seek blessings (the baby's name, by the way, is Rahul).
Madurai, so famous for its temples, has other havens too. I stumbled across the local Theosophical Society, which provides a free reading room and library. This is one of the oldest branches of the TS - dating back to 1883, within a few years of the foundation of the movement. It has a large library - named after a local lawyer, A. Rangaswami Aiyar, and apparently based on his own collection.
I spotted about fifty titles by Annie Besant alone. She must have come to Madurai, and I wondered whether she had personally given any of her books to the local society and inscribed them. I couldn't find any signed copies - but among the several thousands volumes and pamphlets kept carefully behind glass, I am sure there will be real gems. How nice to find such a wonderful, public spirited institution.
The reading room takes the English and Tamil daily papers and seems to have a loyal coteries of users. How long the society can survive - the street it's on is largely given over to modern, high-rise hotels - I really wonder, but there is something soothing and special about such a tranquil spot amid the bustle of this restless temple town.
What is it? Well a very tasty and refreshing concoction - rather gloopy - of milk, almond gum, sasparilla, sugar and ice cream. You can get it at roadside kiosks and in the more traditional eating places for between 30 and 50 rupees. It reminded me a touch of horchata, the chilled Spanish 'almond milk shake'-like drink. But the Madurai mixture is altogether better.
You want the recipe? Here goes - courtesy of this website:
As you can see, it's not exactly slimming - but if you want a cool heart on a hot day, then you can't beat a Madurai jigarthanda!
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