A First Class Indian Adventure Part 7: Temple Running In Madurai

It was another day in paradise and another friendly driver to take us to the airport. Though what our chauffeur added in driving ability that morning he more than made up for with flatulence! At least what he had to say about the ins and outs Chennai’s famous IT district was more than hot and stinky air. We arrived at the new looking Chennai Domestic Terminal and after a quick ID check our bags were scanned and we were checked in by a lady that shared barely a word or smile with us the whole time.

Flight: SpiceJet SG305 MAA to IXM
Depart: Chennai 13:30
Arrive: Madurai 14:40
Seats: Seats 9A and 9B (Economy)
Aircraft: 737-800 (Reg Unknown)

The terminal was quite pleasant and with every passing day I worry less and less about the entertaining Indian airport horror stories of old, with Chennai, Delhi and also Mumbai all having fantastic new airport facilities.

Unfortunately there was no Priority Pass lounge available so after a quick lap of the departures hall I sat with Anne-So and caught up on writing this tale.

Boarding was called early by the desk agent yelling, “Spice Jet, Madurai” and knowing the stampede that would follow we jumped into line and luckily found ourselves near the front.

We were soon aboard our Boeing 737 and settled down into our seats, 9A and 9B. The flight was fairly empty and as we’d only spend an hour or so in the air we decided against swapping seats.

During the flight I asked Anne-So to take a few pictures from her window seat whilst I continued writing and awaited the call for landing.

An 80’s power ballad struck up on the PA and that meant only one thing, ten minutes to landing! I turned off my iPad and settled down for our approach into IXM. We touched down well ahead of schedule after a relatively smooth landing and parked up next to a Mihin Lankha A320. Interestingly, once we touched down, our aircraft completed a full 180 degree turn on the runway before we headed off to our stand. We were waved fondly off the aircraft by the crew, including a member of the flight-deck and then hurried off on to the waiting bus.

We quickly concluded that so far on our trip the quality of service on SpiceJet had exceeded IndiGo by a bit and our Jet Konnect flight by some distance.

We arrived at the terminal building and our baggage appeared promptly on belt three and for me that meant only one thing, trouble! Unsurprisingly our pre-booked pick up was nowhere to be found amongst the throng of people congregating outside the terminal building, so rather than wasting money on a roaming call to our hotel we just hopped in a pre-paid taxi figuring it would probably be cheaper in the end.

It didn’t take us long to realise that the traffic flow in Madurai was a little chaotic, with wide roads and a one way system that encouraged all kinds of overtaking. Half an hour later we pulled up at our hotel for the next few nights.

Hotel: JC Residency
Room: Executive Room – Room 306
Status: N/A

They tried hard at the JC Residency but our first impression was one of far too many cooks!

Immediately on arrival our car was swarmed with meeters, greeters and bell hops grabbing at our bags and placing them on to a waiting trolley. So eager were the waiting staff that we were almost ushered inside the lobby before our poor taxi driver had a chance to get us to sign the slip for our ride. We walked over to check in and the first thing the front desk asked for was my printed voucher, which was of course sat outside in my confiscated bag atop the bell hops trolley…

At least it allowed me to make an elephant in the room joke!

I disappeared back outside to get my bag and produce said voucher. Whilst I had gone to get my things, welcome drinks were prepared and served. I believe from the taste we sampled a fruit iced tea of some description.

We were handed our room key and card and are taken up to our room, number 306.

There was also a large wall mounted Panasonic TV complete with a memory card slot so we could finally review our photos on a decent quality screen.

We settled in and began to make plans for dinner. From reviewing our ever helpful guide book we knew there was only one possible place to eat on our first night in Madurai. Our book told us that Surya Restaurant, ‘the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Supreme offers a superb view of the city, stand-out service and good pure-veg food.’ We picked up a tuktuk outside the hotel and the driver was adamant that the fare to town would be 100 INR and like Columbo’s famous Basset Hound would not budge an inch. On the upside we were quoted significantly more for our return journey so perhaps our negotiating skills were better than we thought.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at Hotel Supreme and the lively, if not somewhat decrepit lobby was bustling with a healthy mix of staff alongside domestic and international tourists. We hopped in to an interesting looking lift that appeared to be halfway through a refurbishment. Although parts of it looked brand new, the display showing the current floor regularly cycled to 0! After the lift finally deposited us on what we believed was the sixth floor we found we still had to walk up to the seventh for the restaurant.

We bravely continued through what looked like the back of the kitchen before finding ourselves out on the terrace where the amazing view was immediately obvious.
As we were quite early for dinner we ended up with a great spot at the front of the terrace where we checked over the menu whilst enjoying the wonderful view.
We started off with a large Kingfisher which turned up almost immediately along side a bar snack of spicy nuts.
Due to the early hour we were not hugely hungry, so we ordered some onion bhaji to start that were both delicate and spicy, made with the fresh red onion we’d seen for sale everywhere on the streets since we’d landed in Madurai.
For our mains we both went with paneer dishes; I picked out a paneer masala dish with an onion heavy gravy and plenty of small chunks of cheese.
Anne-So went for a paneer kofta, effectively a huge boulder of paneer, large enough to rival Krishna’s butterball that was slathered in a spicy tomato gravy and a pillowy-soft naan to soak up the sauce.
Whilst our food wasn’t bad, the view of Meenakshi Amman Temple was absolutely first class.
Having largely skipped lunch we decided to share a pineapple pancake to finish our meal before we returned to our the hotel for the night.

After exiting the Hotel Supreme we easily found a tuktuk and managed to negotiate the fare of 120 INR down to 100 INR.

We spent the rest of the evening looking at our photos on the large TV and we were pretty happy with what we had. Tired, we turned in early as we knew we’d want to beat the queues for the Meenakshi Amman Temple the following day.

With an early start we headed down to breakfast a little behind schedule.

The buffet was an all Indian affair so I loaded up on all my usual favourites: varda, pongal, fruit juice and coffee.

I also treated myself to two dishes that I’d yet to try on our travels, both resembling fried noodles, though on tasting them, the orange coloured ones were anything but noodles! If you know what either of these two breakfast items are please let me know?

Just before 09:00 we picked up a tuktuk from outside the hotel to the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This complex with its plethora of exquisitely carved and brightly painted, “gods, goddesses, demons and heroes” celebrates the legend of the beautiful three breasted goddess Meenakshi (meaning fish-eyed) and was as spectacular as anywhere you could hope to visit in India.

It was a shortish ride and we arrived at the popular East Gate of the complex.

It was quite a sight to see so many colours on a temple as most of the ruins we had seen in other parts of India had long since lost their paint jobs. We were advised to head round to the South Gate to pick up a guide. Surprisingly we failed to find any guides milling around outside, so we dropped our shoes and bags at the cloakroom for 20 INR before we headed through the usual security frisk and into the temple complex. We purchased two ‘foriner’ tickets for 100 INR though nobody ever checked them, even after we later left the complex and went back in again. We asked at the ticket desk if it was possible to have a guide and someone bustled off to find us one.

Our temple guide was a nice enough man, though sadly it was often quite hard to understand his English. He often tried to explain to us the meanings of names of gods and temples by telling us their original Tamil names which at times added to our confusion. He started us off with a brief history of the temple and how its internal and external structure was designed to mimic the human body.

Our first stop was to visit Ganesha and ask for his good luck to be bestowed upon us.

We also made friends with two young boys who really, really wanted to be in all of my photos.

Eventually I got them to pose and after that they soon left us alone!
We were then shown a large ceiling painting of a shivalingum which had different meanings depending on which angle it was viewed from.

Sadly we were unable to understand what any of those meanings were, sorry… We continued our walk along the spectacular thousand pillar hall.

After that we learnt about the uses of colour in the Hindu religion, red for good luck, danger, fighting and females. White for masculinity and for Shiva.

On the next part of our tour we entered a large room where we saw a giant golden object that had been placed for good luck.

Apparently an object like this is always placed at a temple entrance to keep bad luck out and hold good luck in.

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is particularly famous for the intricately carved statues and their true to life details, such as the texture on their toenails.
We then visited the nine planetary gods which we circled nine times as per the custom.

The Karma Sutra was also depicted in part on each of the towers and there was also a shrine where sick children can be blessed.

Our tour ended up in the usual government tourist shop, but this one had one key difference, a viewing platform on the top floor with excellent temple views and better still, no hard sell, just some gentle prompting to take a look around.

We enjoyed our walk though the temple complex even though it was frustrating but equally understandable that large amounts of it were off limits to non-Hindus.

We exited the museum and went and get our shoes and bags from the cloakroom where we were hounded for tips. We didn’t see anyone else handing out any money, so rightly or wrongly we said we’d already paid, which technically we had done. We finally managed to pick up our things, thankfully dodging the chaos of a giggling gaggle of red uniformed school girls who had just arrived at the temple.

We sat down hoping to catch our bearings and no sooner had our rears hit the floor than we were accosted by two rather persistent young children selling stickers who cleverly manoeuvred us into a gauntlet of old men waving maps and post cards in our faces.

We took the hint and realised it was time to move on.

Next we decided to visit the other significant tourist site in Madurai, the 17th Century built Thirumalai Nayak Palace. After walking for half an hour through the hot sun, traffic and crowds of the city we were grateful for any shade we could find. We arrived at the palace and our first impression was that the building looked rather grand and closely fitted our guide book’s description. The queue for tickets reminded me that by and large people don’t queue in much of India.

Once inside the palace structure, the colour and paintwork were indeed magnificent.

Sadly, the condition of the building was not. Filled with pigeons, bee’s nests and quite a bit of graffiti.

There was a forlorn looking museum at the end of the walking circuit to round off the experience and once again people wanted their pictures taken with us, so we obliged but only if they posed for us too! I also couldn’t help myself and had to pose when I saw the so called, “Hero Stone”.

We managed to find a seat in the shade so we could make our lunch plans whilst enjoying a welcome respite from the heat of the beating sun.

Going back the way we came to avoid the temple crowds, we visited the Dhivya Mahal Restaurant for lunch, which our guide book stated was, “one of the better multi-cuisine restaurants not attached to a hotel, clean, bright, air-conditioned and friendly. The curries go down a treat”.

Anne-So picked a vegetable thali and I chose the Chicken 65 and a portion of rice. After a short wait our food arrived.

My chicken was moreish, a hit of sour followed up by a powerful kick of spicy heat, served with a topping of raw onions; I wolfed it down in no time at all.
Anne-So’s thali consisted of a poppadom, rice, curd and three curries: lentil, potato and tomato, alongside a fiery soup with some dried chillies floating menacingly on top.

We settled up and decided to head back in the direction of the Meenakshi Amman Temple for some retail therapy, that I mistakenly assumed would be my least favourite activity of the day.

However, as luck would have it we turned into a beautiful old market, the first row was filled with book sellers and the second packed with clothing, tailors and large rolls of fabric. It wasn’t long before we discovered some attractive odds and ends that made for perfect presents without parting with a great deal of cash.

Filled with a new found confidence we got our tuktuk ride back to the hotel for a price the driver was not best pleased with.

After a hard day walking we rested in our room for a few hours before dinner. The idea of an extended rest became more and more appealing so we finally caved in and went for the hotel’s dinner buffet complete with house band and initially one solitary guest. To avoid a complete and utterly catastrophic embarrassment a small family joined the three of us in the large, almost empty dining room. A member of the wait staff took us on a tour of the spread that was mostly Indian other than a desperate looking trough of pasta. Not feeling like schlepping back into town by tuktuk we gave in, grabbed our plates and filled up.

I started off appropriately with some starters and after having some quite yummy Chicken 65 at lunch I decided to indulge on more of the same and its potato equivalent for dinner. I also loaded up on some not so fresh poppadoms and pickles.

On the other hand Anne-So just filled her plate, with assorted goodies. For my second round I hit the mains, chicken keema, lamb biryani, muhta paneer and spoonful or two of plain rice. We were also served some fresh baked plain and butter naans with our dinner. The food was not bad, but I didn’t really like the chicken keema much, it some how felt like a poor quality Indian bolognese, rather than some delicious comfort food.

For my final plate I hit the dessert section: a dry chocolate brownie cake, coconut cake, a strange green gelatinous blob and delicious sugary jalebi that were my favourite thing on the entire buffet.

Feeling full we headed up to bed and I enjoyed watching United lose away at Stoke. Though it was very sad to see the special Juan in their colours…

We slept well and started the new day with yet another breakfast buffet! Though by this point in the trip I had another embarrassing foodie confession to make, I was desperately craving a warm, flaky butter croissant, a good espresso, or even just a hot off the pan masala dosa and some decent quality freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Sadly none of that was on offer so I stocked up on my usual, today supplemented by a stack of potato rostis which I went back and unashamedly topped up.

I hoped our Mumbai breakfast at the end of the trip would be better than this and if not, then surely there’d be something tasty at the exclusive Concorde Breakfast Room to look forward to on our return to London.

We left our hotel around 09:30 and made our way on foot towards the Gandhi Memorial Museum. Initially we made good progress but were almost thwarted by a busy road with a continual flow of traffic. Unlike in Italy where one could just walk out carefully into the road and the cars would begrudgingly come to a halt, in India nothing would halt the flow bar a slow driver. We waited and waited some more, eventually finding a local to cross with us we took our chance.

After that scary moment we continued our walk down the relative quiet of Gandhi Museum Road and before long the beautiful gleaming white former Nayak palace that holds the museum came into view.

We arrived at the museum and I decided to pay the 50 INR camera charge as much for a donation as to take pictures.

I found the museum interesting more due to my lack of knowledge about the fascinating man Gandhi was rather than to the quality of its exhibits.

On seeing the blood-stained dhoti Gandhi was wearing when assassinated at end of our walk through the museum I sadly felt like I’d just read a half-finished story, rather than the tale of a man’s journey completed.

As we left the museum we had an unwelcome development, Anne-So’s stomach was feeling upset again and she briefly left me with the far more pleasant job of fending off rickshaw drivers whilst she expelled her ill feelings! A while later we commenced our trudge back to the hotel and having frightened off every last tuktuk that knew where it was located we realised we’d have to brave that awful road once more. Thankfully we found a marginally safer crossing spot by a bus stop that reduced the road by a lane forcing the traffic to slow just enough for us to cross with only a mild fear for our lives as opposed to absolute terror. Safely across the road we finally found a driver that had heard of our hotel and 40 well spent INR and ten minutes later we arrived. Exhausted we retired to our room to rest a little before checking out.

We got ready to leave JC Residency around 14:00 and squeezed ourselves and our bags into the lift, hearing its wonderful music one last time and chuckling at the very Queen’s English, ‘Ground Floor’ announcement it made to signify our arrival. We went to the front desk to check out, phone calls were made, papers printed and it all added to the general chaotic whirr of activity in the otherwise calm and spotless lobby. I signed, paid and we jumped into a worn but spacious Chevrolet that sat high on the road for the half hour drive back to the airport and our return to Mumbai.

A First Class Indian Adventure

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