Madurai in southern India

By Sandra Hicks
This item appears on page 20 of the September 2021 issue.
In Mumbai, laundry is done at Dhobi Ghat. Photo by John Hicks

Because my husband, John, and I had had a fascinating monthlong private tour of northern India in 2015 conducted by Indian Panorama (No. 5 Annai Ave., Srirangan, Trichy, Tamil Nadu 620006, India;, when we decided to tour southern India, we contacted the person who had planned our northern India trip.

We found Tim Hawley ( very good to deal with, and he understood what we were interested in. We were happy with the plan for the trip, which took place Nov. 10-Dec. 10, 2019.

Shortly before we left, a domestic airline went out of business, so Tim had to change our schedule. For both of us, the final cost for a month of touring — including all internal flights; wonderful 4- and 5-star heritage and boutique accommodations; breakfasts and a few other meals; a car and driver, and local guides — was $15,120.

Separately, we booked our business-class flights with Singapore Airlines for $7,488.

We landed in Mumbai on Nov. 12, touring the city the next day. The most interesting thing we saw was Dhobi Ghat, where the city’s laundry is done. Acres of hand-washed bedding and clothes could be seen hanging in the sun to dry.

After two nights in Mumbai, we flew to Bangalore in central India, where we were met by our driver, Raj Kumar, with our car. Raj took great care of us for the next 24 days. This was a big job because traffic was heavy, with large trucks, packed metro buses and hordes of motorbikes and scooters on the, mostly, 2-lane roads.

It’s hard to choose just one part of this trip to highlight, but here is what we experienced during part of our stay.

Weather around the hill station town of Munnar was mild and a little rainy at times — a relief from the heat and humidity of the lower altitudes. We visited a tea museum and saw fields of tea where patches of plants looked like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and women worked their way around, trimming off tender shoots.

Leaving the mountains, we began a 4-hour drive down the heavily forested mountains of Kerala state. The road was in very bad condition, and we often saw repairs being made along the way. Once we reached the plains in Tamil Nadu state, the roads greatly improved and we were able to make good time into the traffic-crowded city of Madurai.

A lady drawing a kolam on her front step — Madurai. Photo by Sandra Hicks

That evening, we were given a “food safari” tour of five eateries and street stands. The five unique Tamil Nadu dishes all were good. Our final stop was at a stand for a drink made with ice cream, milk and spices.

It rained part of the evening, and streets were flooded in places. There were lots of tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) and pedestrians.

The highlight of our 2 nights and 2½ days in Madurai was the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple, with 14 highly decorative gopurams (towers) covering 14 acres. The towers are from 65 up to 177 feet tall and contain thousands of brightly painted plaster figures of various gods, goddesses, monsters and animal-like mythical figures.

Some of the foundational concrete structures reportedly date back to the 4th century, but the towers were built by various rulers from the 12th to 14th centuries, then rebuilt and expanded in the 16th century after the temple was destroyed by looters.

To tour any temple’s interior, we had to remove our shoes and socks outside on the wet, muddy street and go barefoot. We also had to leave our cameras and cell phones at a reception desk. Photos were not allowed, so we had to resort to buying postcards.

The south tower contains 1,511 painted figures that have to be restored with fresh paint and stucco every 12 years. The interior surrounds a large sacred tank or pond that was formerly used for cleansing but has now been blocked off.

Interior hallways were highly carved and decorative. We weren’t allowed to enter the main prayer temple, which was okay with us, as there was a long line of pilgrims waiting to get in. We just walked the hallways past a gold-plated flagpole that was used to announce religious ceremonies. People were prostrating themselves fully on the floor in front of it. Then we exited back onto the street.

After retrieving our shoes, we stopped at a tailor’s shop to be measured for and order two custom kurtas for John (INR3,600, near $49) and two kameez shirts and a pair of matching churidar pants (INR5,800, or $78) for myself. This women’s outfit is commonly worn all over India. The custom garments were delivered to our hotel around 7 p.m.

A woman picking tea near Munnar, Kerala state, India. Photo by Sandra Hicks

At 5:30 a.m., we were picked up for the “Vanakkam Madurai Walking Tour” through a typical neighborhood in the main part of the city. We walked through rain, muddy puddles and narrow alleys to visit residences as the people started their day.

Cows were being milked on the street before being turned loose to find themselves something to eat. Housewives were drawing traditional kolam (decorative art) with both white and colored rice powder, marking doorways as a sign of welcome to protective gods and to drive away evil spirits.

At water tanks along the streets, women were filling jugs with water pumped from underground wells. People fill up as many as six jugs to haul back to their residences for cooking and to boil for drinking.

We concluded the 2-hour walking tour by passing through wholesale markets of fruit, vegetables, coconuts and bananas on the main streets.

Our monthlong trip was interesting and highly varied. We found southern India to be very different from northern India — the land, the cuisine and the people — and that’s the reason we travel!

Tehachapi, CA

East Tower of the Minakshi-Sundareshvara temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu state, India. Photo by Sandra Hicks
Brightly painted plaster figures in Minakshi-Sundareshvara temple — Madurai. Photo by Sandra Hicks
A detail of carvings at Airavatesvara Temple in the village of Darasuram, visited along with Madurai on a custom tour of southern India. Photo by Sandra Hicks