Tamil Nadu can not say 'NO' to Hindi anymore, most of the work force at the hotels and restaurants are from Bihar/Orissa and employers speak Hindi. Heading east from Cherthala to Kottayam (1hr, Rs.23) crossing the mountains at Kumily (3hr, Rs.43)-Theni (90min, Rs.35) we reached Madurai (90 min, Rs.32) by 4pm. From Arappalayam Bus Stand take bus number 77 to Periyar bus stand, close to Madurai Junction railway station. At walkable distance West Perumal Maistry Street has a line of budget hotels and restaurants. Look for a room away from the street, vehicle noise and dogs are nightmarish. Hotel Grands Central, 47-48, West Parumal Maisty St. (Tel: 9043133312, dbl Rs.550-770) with clean rooms, bucket shower is central if not grand. Next door Sabareesh Restaurant offers authentic Tamil Tiffin with multi-chutney and finger-licking meals for Rs 70. Don't miss the black and white photographs on the walls of Madurai from 1800s. Cheaper lodges are close to the west tower -one of 12 gopurams of Meenakshi Temple, vehicles are not allowed on this street. Anyone you meet will have a non-invasive business interest to sell you a saree or a taxi.
Madurai got its name from "Madhurapuri" -divine nectar from tangled locks of Siva fell here. Pandiyas founded Tamil Sangam for literature- Silapathikaram thus written. Vijayanagara dynasty employed Nayaks who constructed Meenakshi Amman Temple in 16th century. Hope temples will open the doors to all, being more secular. We visited the Meenakshi temple in the evening and morning, walking around this marvellous architecture. 1000 pillared hall and the tranquil pond known as Pottramarai Kulam around the sanctums are the major attractions for non-Hindus.
Ride bus number C3/75/700 to Tallakulam (Rs 9, 30min) from Periyar bus stand to visit Gandhi Memorial Museum (Friday holiday) adjacent to an old exhibition pavilion know as tamukkam. Dhoti worn by Gandhiji at the time of assassination is the main attraction. Did you know Gandhiji started wearing dhoti when he was in Madurai? Government Museum on the same grounds has ancient Tamil scriptures, an employee was polishing using kerosene. Bookshop has books on Gandhi, Aurobindo and Yoga in Tamil, English and few foreign languages.
Tirumalai Nayak Palace is 10min by foot from Meenakshi Temple or you can ride bus number C4. One fourth of the original palace remains today, partially due to the new palace erected by Nayak's grandson at Trichy using parts pulled down from this palace. Divided into two parts, Swarga Vilas and Ranga Vilas huge, huge and tall pillars decorate this architectural wonder. Light and sound show (Rs 50) scheduled to run at 6.45pm everyday. Mani Ratnam movies Bombay (Kehna hi kya) and Guru (Tera bina) song sequences are shot here.
Mariamman Theppakkulam is easily reachable by bus number C4 (Rs.11, 30min), famous for Theppam festival celebrated on full moon of Tamil month Thai (Jan/Feb). When we visited it was dry without a drop of water, thanks to the missing monsoon last year. The structure at the centre houses a small temple. The festivals in Madurai, especially Chithirai festival - marriage of Meenakshi to Sundereswar, are magnificent with humongous chariots, Kavadiyattam, Thavil and peacock dancers strolling around the six hectare temple complex.