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Madurai

The colourful and extrovert Hindu city of Madurai is the heart and soul of Tamil Nadu culture. The Thoonga Nagaram, meaning ‘the city that never sleeps’, has long been an important and old established city.

The ancient city originally evolved around the great Meenakshi Amman Temple, and still today it is deeply rooted within daily life. From far and wide, travellers and pilgrims come to celebrate and marvel at the majestic and magnificent temple, which is dedicated to the triple-breasted warrior goddess, Meenakshi, the consort of Lord Shiva. The impressive 6-hectare temple complex is often considered to be the peak of South Indian temple architecture – 12 towering gopurams, festooned with a staggering array of brightly painted gods, goddesses, demons and heroes, with gold finials gleaming on top. The spectacular Hall of a Thousand (well, 985) Pillars also houses a temple museum, and vibrant ceiling and wall paintings reflect the temples happy and vivacious atmosphere. Every evening at 9pm, there is a procession which carries an icon of Shiva to Meenakshi’s shrine to spend the night. It is a frenetic experience, full of the sounds of Tamil loudspeaker music, temple bells and clouds of incense!

The city is also famed for its palace, a 17th century structure built in 1636 by King Thirumalai Nayak, ruler of Madurai's Nayaka dynasty. The original palace complex was four times larger than the site is today (in its heyday it was considered one of the wonders of the south), but it is still worth a visit. The architectural style of the palace combines Dravidian, Italian (owing to the Italian architect who supervised the project) as well as Islamic. There is a daily sound and light show (weather permitting) which explains the virtues of King Thirumalai and the features of the palace – a light hearted spectacle, and worth it if you have time!

Now the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, in around 300 BC it was ruled by the great Queen Pandai and built up a magnificent trade in pearls, silks and spices. It became known for its elegance and splendour and was capital of the Pandyan dynasty from the seventh to the 13th century AD. Throughout the city, one can see tiny shrines and temples dotted amongst the streets, and there are wonderful, bustling food, flower and wholesale markets. An early morning walking tour takes in these sights and sounds, and women practicing the skilled kolam, an art form with both philosophical and religious motifs.

Madurai has an airport which has direct flights to and from Chennai and Delhi, and could be the be perfect start or finish to an South India itinerary.

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