Madurai is the third largest city in Tamil Nadu and one of the state's top tourist destinations. Its history can be traced as far back as the 4rd century BC, when Greek ethnographer Megasthenes visited and wrote about it. The city's role in spice trade with the Mediterranean led it to have cosmopolitan connections and a cultured lifestyle. Madurai also hosted gatherings of Tamil writers and poets during the ancient Sangam era, and has remained a major center for Tamil culture and learning. Many of the city's magnificent temples and buildings were constructed during the prosperous rule of the Nayak dynasty in the 17th century. Over time, Madurai came to be called the "Athens of the East" because of its similar architectural style, particularly pedestrian walkways and the lofty towers of its Meenakshi temple that could be seen from anywhere in the city (similar to the Greek pantheon). These days, Madurai attracts pilgrims and tourists in equal numbers.
The four-hour walking tour led by Madurai Inhabitants is an excellent way of exploring and immersing yourself in the city. The company's guides are very knowledgeable and they offer a range of customizable tours. Storytrails also conducts a recommended three-hour Once Upon a Madurai walking tour that brings the city and its heritage to life.
Explore Meenakshi Temple
17th century Meenakshi Temple is must-see south Indian temple and the focal point of Madurai. Apparently, the city was built around the Shiva lingam that's inside the temple's inner sanctum. The temple complex covers an extensive 15 acres, and has a Hall of Thousand Pillars and 14 towers. You could easily spend days in there, as it's a "living temple" with a lot going on including a constant stream of couples waiting to be married in its corridors. It's worth going to the temple once in the morning and again in the evening for the night ceremony. Here's what you need to know to plan your visits.
Go Shopping at Puthu Mandapam
Opposite Meenakshi Temple's east tower is the cavernous 17th century pillared entrance hall, Puthu Mandapam. Venture inside to find rows of tailors and stalls selling fabric, scarves, jewellery, fashion accessories, handicrafts, and art work. You can get good quality clothes made there, including decent replicas.
Balbina Boutique, at shop 119, is popular with foreign customers. The lovely lady who runs it speaks excellent English. I bought a couple of stunning Madhubani paintings from her.
Southeast of Meenakshi Temple, Thirumalai Nayak Palace is Madurai's second biggest attraction. King Thirumalai Nayak built it as his residential palace in 1636, with the input of an Italian architect. It's a classic fusion of Dravidian and Islamic styles. The palace's distinguishing feature is its pillars and there are more than 240 of them. Sadly, only a quarter of the original structure is intact. This consists of the entrance hall, courtyard, dance hall, and audience hall. The palace was even used a district court during the rule of the British, and continued as such until 1970. Substantial money was recently spent on major restorative works.
The entry fee is 50 rupees for foreigners, plus a 30 rupee camera fee. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except between 1-2 p.m. when it closes for lunch. There's a sound and light show every evening.
Saint Mary's Cathedral is only five minutes walk from Thirumalai Nayak Palace, on East Veli Street in Madurai. Officially called the Church of Our Lady of Dolours, it was constructed in 1841 by the New Madurai Mission (a Jesuit mission originating from Portuguese colonization of Goa) and modeled on Saint Mary's Cathedral of Trichy in Tamil Nadu. The church was later expanded, in its present Gothic style, and completed in 1916. Its elegant architecture features two tall bell towers and beautiful stained-glass work.
Marvel Over the Banana Market
Madurai's wholesale banana market is a fascinating place to visit. Apparently, 16 varieties of bananas are sold there! They arrive, clustered together on branches, by the cart load. Watch as wiry workers unload them and carry them inside, up to half a dozen branches at a time. There's a vegetable market next to the banana market, which is also a hive of activity and great for people watching.
If you want to taste the best South Indian food in town, renowned Murugan Idli Shop on West Masi Street is the place! This restaurant is simple and unpretentious. with a focus on food rather than decor. Apart from idli and dosa, the highlight is their special blend of spicy chutney powder. It's ordered separately, along with oil to mix it with.
If you're keen to explore local cuisine, Foodies Day Out in Madurai does the best food tours in the city!
Across the dry Vaigai River, housed in the Tamukkam Summer Palace of Nayak queen Rani Mangammal, is one of many museums in India dedicated to Gandhi. It contains various items used by him including a shawl, spectacles, yarn, and the bloodstained dhoti (loincloth) that he was wearing when he was assassinated in Delhi in 1948. Gandhi took up wearing the dhoti in Madurai in 1921, as a sign of national pride. Admission to the Gandhi Memorial Museum is free, and it's open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. The Madurai Government Museum is also located in the same grounds.
If you have time, head out to Thiruparankundram, about 20 minutes southwest of Madurai. There you'll find one of the city's other impressive ancient temples, the Arulmigu Subramaniya Swamy temple, dedicated to Hindu god Murugan (handsome son of Lord Shiva). He's revered as a favorite god of Tamils. At the top of Thiruparankundram hill is a 14th century grave shrine of the Islamic saint Hazrat Sultan Sikandhar Badhusha. Time seems to have stood still there, and a single family has taken care of the shrine generation after generation.
See Artisans at Work at Vilachery Pottery Village
On the outskirts of Madurai near Thiruparankundram, about 200 families in the interesting village of Vilachery craft small idols of Lord Ganesh for Ganesh Chaturthi and Bommai Kolu dolls for Navaratri out of clay. They also make nativity sets for Christmas. It's possible to take a walk through the village and see the artisans at work in their homes. Storytrails runs an insightful Potter's Trail tour to the village, where you'll get to uncover many stories and legends.
Hike Uphill to Jain Caves
Off-the-beaten-track north of Vilachery, Keelakuyilkudi village is also worth visiting for its collection of painted mud horses and Jain sculptures. The mud horses, located in the village's picturesque Karuppasamy temple, are donated by potters from Vilachery for the village festival every year. Behind the temple, climb the hundreds of steps up the rocky granite Samanar Hills to the Jain caves. You'll be rewarded with ancient rock-cut sculptures of Jain deities and a panoramic view over the countryside. Go early in the morning or late afternoon though, otherwise you'll get hot!