Entry 54 - India II: Madhurai - a temple in a swamp

Madhurai at the end of the monsoon is not a pleasant place to be. Actually I am not sure Madhurai is ever a particularly pleasant place to be, but it does have a large and spectacular temple which is worth a gander.

Driving into the town, a seldom-used adjective came to mind: febrile. Yes, Madhurai has malaria written all over it. The town seems to be situated in a swamp and has untold acres of stagnant standing water. Practically every vacant lot is a foetid pond three inches deep, a potential mosquito nursery. Perhaps this is why everyone tends to be a bit evasive when the talk about the place. 'Oooh,' they say, ' that Madhuari, you either love it or hate it…it's very full on.' I feel no need to be some so circumlocutory. Liked the temple, hated the town. And I hated the town more than I liked the temple.

We found a hotel of bluntly functional design, which is pretty much the norm in pilgrim towns. Although it did distinguish itself with a restaurant which was visited by a bored looking elephant twice a day. This (vegetarian, natch) eaterie could also rustle up a dish that tasted exactly like beef, although I'm sure this is not what the Hindu chefs had in mind. Curious, I asked the head waiter what the dish contained; I asked the chef what the dish contained; I asked the man on the next table what the dish contained, but nobody could tell me. Perhaps it was beef. If not, these guys could certainly teach the manufacturers of Quorn a thing or two about realistic meat substitutes.

After eating we went to the temple, which, as billed, is pretty spectatcular. It has over a dozen of those pyramidal deity-adorned towers favoured by Hindus, one of which is meant to be older than time itself, although radiocarbon dating had yet to confirm this. In the temple's outer chambers - for it covers innumerable acres - are arcades of shops, like mini souks, where almost everything from clay gods to gold is sold. The combination of cool temple stone and devotional kitsch is an agreeable one.

I also liked the sign on the way out, an appeal to pilgrims for, what else, cash. "Give money generously," it said, "and receive the blessings of God." I was rather taken by this upfront 'market forces' attitude to religion. After all, poor people are generally reckoned to be pretty good, whereas the rich, who, understandably are too busy to be pious (camels, needles, etc.), have more money and more sin. Why not give them the chance to buy down their badness? I shoved a medium denomination note in the box and scored some blessings, a happy supply side sinner.

Guidebooks gush that Madhurai is a vibrant and colourful place - when applied to Indian cities, these adjectives tend to be, well, euphemistic. When we went for a pootle round the city, we discovered that the only thing that keeps the mosquito population down to something approaching tolerable levels is the air pollution. We had met a Danish bloke at our hotel who had developed a respiratory complaint (a hypochondriac, he thought it could be malaria; I told him his symptoms were more consistent with dengue fever). But soon I had it too and it has everything to with the city's atmosphere, which is the worst I have ever breathed.

We enjoyed some respite as the tail end of the monsoon freshened up things - briefly - before the drains overflowed and the place became an open sewer. I think it was as I stepped into a cow pat, with one foot and an overflowing drain with the other, while a beggar hassled me and a rickshaw driver demanded twice the originally quoted fare, that I realised there was no point in trying. Madhurai and I were never going to be friends.

Fortunately the American missionaries who had rather unsuccessfully tried to spread the word here in the 19th century had the same idea. Malaria claimed six of their number before they realized that Madhurai sucked. So they built a hill station 100 km away 2100m up in the Western Ghats. Figuring it was only a matter of time before we shared the missionaries' fate (and without God on our side too) we headed for the hills.

November 2, 2003