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My Madurai, the City of Meenakshi

I think of Madurai often. Madurai is an ancient city mentioned in the old scriptures of India. The city is built around the Temple dedicated to the Goddess Meenakshi, a princess of Madurai married to Shiva in a wedding celebrated every year in the Chittirai Tiruvizha Festival. From ancient times pilgrims have come to Madurai to pray at the Temple or the many other shrines in the city or the surrounding hills. Like Kyoto, the city is filled with these spiritual.

Madurai is also the seat of ancient Tamil culture with a long tradition of arts and literature patronage by the Pandyan kings who ruled the city for much of its history. During the Sangam period poetry contests were held in the Temple’s pond as offerings to the Goddess. The engineering of the city also amazes me from the planning of roads originating around the Temple to the building of the Temple itself. (link to picture)

Then there’s my Madurai, Madurai town as it was known in the 30s and 40s when I was growing up. It was a busy place with pilgrims arriving at night, farmers walking in from neighboring villages for market day and travelers passing through by train and bus. Even today I hear it being mentioned as the city that is always awake.

The train station was an important connective junction where passengers arrived to connect to the Trivandrum Express or the Madras line. It was always crowded. Next to the train station was Regal Talkies, the only movie theater that showed English movies meaning those from both Hollywood and Britain. Here also was Victoria Hall where important public meeting were held in Madurai. All the famous political leaders of the day including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru came to speak there. In this complex was the Madurai Men’s Club where the civic leaders of Madurai met, played tennis and socialized. There was also a nice Nursery there which sold plants and trees. The central Bus Stand was not too far off. Traveling by train and bus were the main way of getting to other places unless you had your own car as there was no air service in those days.

Madurai was one of the first towns to have an efficient local bus service, run by TVS & Sons. T. V. Sundaram Iyenger started his bus service known for its punctuality and employee courteousness. Near the station was Mangamma Chathram or chowltry, built by a Queen for the weary traveler who did not have much money but needed to rest. In the olden days, it was free for people to stay for a day or two though in later days a small fee was required, still cheaper than staying in a hotel.

My family lived across from Regal Talkies next to the United Christian (UC) High School. It was a bustling time with people coming and going, relatives visiting and my father’s legal clients arriving for consultations. Like the British show "Upstairs, Downstairs" there were cooks, maids, clerks and various servants. My paternal aunt, whom I was close to, lived with us and was very active in social service and was a city magistrate for a while.

One of the favorite excursions for my sister and me was a visit to Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, where my father, an Advocate, would go to represent his client. Built as a mansion for his wife by King Thirumalai Naicker, it was at that time the Madurai Sessions Court, our main interest was in the court canteen famous for its snacks. When I was born, my father was Additional Public Prosecutor for Madurai and Ramnad Districts. Later on he went into private practice doing civil and criminal defense.

During this time, the Independence Struggle was blossoming and many of the leading lawyers in Madurai joined the Congress Party to fight against British rule. Their wives donated their jewelry to Gandhiji for the cause and started preaching to the common people about the Congress Party and what they were doing to free us. Under British rule Indians could never reach the top levels of government jobs reserved for those of European descent. Therefore a generation of Indians studied law or medicine to develop independent careers outside of this system. In Madurai this class of professionals used their education and position to help India become free.