Celebrating Pongal in Madurai, Tamil Nadu

A few hours after boarding the train at India’s most southerly point, we landed in the dusty heat of Madurai, one of Tamil Nadu’s ‘temple towns’, home to the famous Sri Meenakshi temple. Once we had schlepped around for a while with our backpacks on, we settled ourselves into a Hitchcockian Psycho-esque hotel (kitsch furniture, formica finishing) near to the entrance of the temple’s West Tower. The immediately noticeable thing about Madurai was the omnipresent sound of car horns (and I thought that living in Hackney was bad.) Despite the traffic being as crazy as it seems to be in most cities, we took an instant like to it, found it easy to navigate and the people as characteristically nice and friendly as they had been elsewhere in Tamil Nadu.

Sri Meenakshi Temple


We spent the afternoon getting our bearings, wandering around and catching up on admin. There is something about the Indian way of life which means that what you might allocate half an hour to in ordinary life, you have to multiply by four here. And even then you might not be able to get things done. Everything seems to take so much longer than it should and Liz and I have often wondered where the hours go in a day when all you need to do is something as simple as send some emails, upload some photos and post a parcel. We finished the evening dining on the roof terrace of Hotel Supreme – each Indian town or city tends to have a unique quirk and rooftop restaurants seemed to be that of Madurai. We enjoyed ourselves up there, far from the madding crowd and the streets below. On the way back down, we popped into the hotel’s Apollo Bar, based on the inside of Apollo 13. It looked like something A Clockwork Orange meets Space Invaders – I was sorry at that moment that I was continuing my abstemious behaviour post ashram as I quite fancied a beer in those space-age surroundings!   

A Pongal kolam on the pavement 

What we didn’t know was that we had happened to rock up in Madurai just in time for the celebration of ‘Pongal’ or Tamil harvest festival when people give thanks for crops, nature and cows. We found this uot when a well wishes shouted “happy Pongal” to us in the street – then we couldn’t stop doig the same, to the surprise and delight of pretty much every Tamil we came into contact with for the rest of the day! We learned that during Pongal, people draw colourful diagrams or kolams outside the front of their houses, clean and decorate their homes, cars and rickshaws with palm leaves. The famous dish associated with the festival is sweet pongal – made from rice, milk, dhal and sugar. We decided to have an authentic Pongal experience and so after an expensive buffet breakfast at Hotel Supreme (which was totally worth it for the famous cold coffee – my first proper caffeine since the ashram – yes!)  we took a local bus 40 km out of town to the village to the Alagar Temple. This is a huge, awesome building built in the Dravidian style – a mind–boggling kaleidoscope of colourful carvings, reminiscent of something that might have been built by the Mayans. The aesthetic also evokes a kind of East-Asian style but in fact it originated here in India and was. in fact later taken to the East. As usual in even the most remote places, the bus was completely crammed and we stood for the entire journey, squished between families dressed up to the nines in preparation for the pongal celebration in the temple, the ladies with fresh jasmine woven into their hair.

Dravidian style: Alagar Temple
The appearance of two white women in the village caused quite a stir and many families came up to ask our name, where we are from, to shake our hands and to ask us to pose for pictures with them, to which we willingly obliged. It was lovely to be out in the countryside and to be part of a real Indian celebration. One family came up to us to offer some ‘apom’ to eat so we sat with them in the shade of one of the main temple buildings and ate the lovely sweet buttery paratha-style snack out of a scrap of newspaper. The father of the family told us that we should take a further bus up to two other temples on the hilltop and come back down to the main temple for 4pm. So up we got onto another bus and headed up the hill with more Indian families surprised and happy to see us, sharing their food and allowing us to play with their beautiful children. 

Celebrating Pongal with Indian families


When we arrived, we meandered up the hill then queued for over half an hour to get to the tiny temple at the top. We were squished amongst lots of chattering, cheeky young Indian men and every now and then a monkey would dart past. We didn’t know what would happen at the top, but as we drew nearer we could see people getting changed and could hear the unmistakeable rushing  of water. It transpired that the temple gushes with holy water and we got dunked when we reached the top! After offering puja and lighting oil votives at the inner sanctum we made our back down to the smaller temple where were only delighted with an impromptu musical performance of bhajans by a group of men who were chanting and playing drums and tambourines. Although Liz and I were careful to sit to one side with the women, one of the men noticed that Liz was recording the musical sounds and beckoned her over to sit with them. After a hot chai (poured again and again from one cup to another so that it was uber frothy and caused us to nickname it cupachaino) we made the descent back to the main temple for afternoon puja. On our way back to the noisy bustle of Madurai on the bus we reflected on a lovely, spontaneous day and were so happy to have shared a slice of Indian village life together, reasoning that if either of us had been travelling alone here we would probable have not taken the risk to go so far off the beaten track.

After being dunked in holy water!

That night, after being measured for a tailor made punjab set and a sari top by a local tailor (the thing to do in Madurai – a whole new whistle and flute for less than 15 quid), we hurried to visit the main Sri Maneeksha Temple. It was eerie and enchanting wandering through the temple by night as bats flew low around us.. Earlier in the day we had found ourselves invited into an Aladdin’s cave of an antique and arts shop, sharing cardamon and cinnamon tea with the rather dashing owners (one of whom managed to get a Kashmiri carpet sale out of Liz). We had been invited up to their roof terrace to enjoy a fabulous view of the temple’s  grounds and the surrounding region, including ‘elephant mountain’. Even viewed from this aerial position, the star attraction Sri Maneeksha temple was too big to take in. It comprises 14 towers, the tallest of which rises to 170 feet. Apparently in times gone by you were allowed to climb to the top of the towers, until a a pair of star crossed lovers, forbidden from marriage due to caste differences, had  together plunged to their death. Since then , the towers have been closed to the public.

The tailor who made my sari top and punjab set in a matter of hours

Liz and I arrived just in time to wander through the temple’s grounds, offer puja to Ganesha and witness the ceremonial procession of the deities, where priests and holy men paraded the effigies. However, crammed in between many westerners, clicking away with their digital cameras, Liz and I felt it somewhat artificial in comparison to earlier in the day, where we had experienced the warmth of local people, the joy and intimacy of a family celebration and the exhilaration of being dunked from head to foot in cold holy water. We were very thankful to have enjoyed pongal with the locals and the monkeys!

Offering puja in the temple on the hill


















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