Madurai

Indi­ans love to make noise, and at times it feels as though the sub­con­ti­nent is one great ulu­lat­ing street par­ty – shout­ing, toot­ing, bang­ing, and play­ing loud music with an aban­don bor­der­ing on the gay. At times, India is just like Munch’s “The Scream” – only with the sound, and it took me weeks to psy­chi­cal­ly adjust to the traf­fic noise and the lib­er­al employ­ment of horns.

My bus from Kumi­ly depart­ed a five minute walk east across the state bor­der – and so it was I entered Tamil Nadu. Like the Ker­alans, the Tamils boast a cul­ture dis­tinct from that of their north­ern coun­ter­parts, with a vast pop­u­la­tion that under­stands lit­tle Hin­di – almost as a badge of pride – and has threat­ened civ­il unrest if Hin­di should ever become the Offi­cial Lan­guage of India, as some (many mil­lions) would like. With a lit­er­a­cy rate to match Kerala’s, Tamil Nadu is an eco­nom­ic heavy­weight, and New Del­hi must tread care­ful­ly with her. As I would also learn, the Tamils are deeply and proud­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, and even as their cities mod­ern­ize at a phe­nom­e­nal rate, so do they con­tin­ue to fill their tem­ples, mosques and church­es, at the same time pre­fer­ring tra­di­tion­al Indi­an dress to the West­ern fash­ions often seen in the north. In Hampi I had seen Hin­du fos­sils, but in Madu­rai I saw for the first time the reli­gion breathe.

My arrival in Madu­rai coin­cid­ed with a fes­ti­val in which the gods are tra­di­tion­al­ly sailed around a tank. A very large tank. With a water cri­sis in Tamil Nadu, and no water in the tank, the gods had to make do with being car­ried around the dusty ground of an emp­ty pool. Judg­ing by the amount of excit­ed noise being made in the lead up to the moment, no one seemed too fussed by the incon­ve­nience – and judg­ing by my hotel’s indif­fer­ence to the impact on the men­tal health of res­i­dents caused by the skin-blis­ter­ing­ly loud music being played out­side our doors, they clear­ly thought we weren’t much fussed either. Just as Indi­ans tend to pol­lute their streets, so do they astound the air­waves by turn­ing up their stere­os so high one hears more dis­tor­tion than music, and the vibra­tions surge through the listener’s body like a bus through cat­tle. One doesn’t dance so much as one’s cells dance. Inched and budged by the son­ic ener­gy, you feel it from the inside out.

For the three nights lead­ing up to the fes­ti­val cli­max, I was sleep­less, but that didn’t stop me rel­ish­ing a vis­it to Madurai’s extra­or­di­nary Sri Meenakshi tem­ple. One of the finest exam­ples of Indi­an archi­tec­ture, the tem­ple com­plex is like a series of human pyra­mids built from a colour­ful cast of gods, heroes and crea­tures, almost as alive as the throng­ing mass of pil­grims and tourists who pour through the labyrinthine cor­ri­dors of the tem­ple like blood cir­cu­lat­ing around the bel­ly of some strange beast. With no priest offi­ci­at­ing, wor­ship­pers are left to the busi­ness of puja and prayer, daub­ing gods and bod­ies in ash and ink, bestow­ing gar­lands of fruit and flow­ers, and fix­ing their hopes on bet­ter crops, exam results, or anoth­er son. Throw in a few ele­phants and mon­keys and you have a spec­ta­cle to sur­pass your aver­age Sun­day ser­vice in Syd­ney.

Hin­duism is not a pros­e­lytis­ing reli­gion, and whilst not all Indi­ans are Hin­du, most Hin­dus are Indi­an, and so there are places in India that will remain for­ev­er hid­den from for­eign­ers, like those gloomy sanc­tums of Meenakshi with signs warn­ing “non-Hin­dus” to stay away. (Imag­ine signs on church­es say­ing: “Athe­ists Out!”) But where­as one would have to be omni­scient to weed athe­ists out of queues for the Vat­i­can, it is easy to spot a back­pack­er in a Hin­du grot­to.

But all such thoughts were soon drowned out by noise. And as is often the case in India, that’s what mat­ters. So I didn’t get much sleep in Madu­rai, but the spec­ta­cle was well worth it – a kind of reli­gious New Year’s Eve, with cows and ele­phants and no safe­ty reg­u­la­tions, as fire­works sprayed in all direc­tions like friend­ly fire, up and across a sky­line dom­i­nat­ed by the sil­hou­ette of Meenakshi, and the glit­ter­ing of the moon.

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