More is more sometimes.
Tamil Nadu, the sprawling, proudly independent southernmost state of India, might as well be another country. Even though hindi is India's national language, I was hard-pressed to find it posted anywhere, save for the most official of documents. The Tamil people claim a staggeringly rich heritage- argued by scholars to be the only intact classical civilization presently on earth. Much of this good fortune is due to geography: Tamil Nadu, along with the three other dravidian cultures of southern India, were spared the brunt of political and religious conquests that rippled across northern India, leaving the native culture largely intact.
The tamil people are deeply religious, and while christianity and islam are well established in the region, hinduism blooms in its plateaus, mountains and shores in a uniquely technicolor display of maximalism. Interestingly, tamil hinduism is seen as a sort of folk-inflected mélange incorporating existent mythologies and local deities, but the wondrous art and architecture that have sprung from these cities and villages have become representative of much of the finest in hindu and Indian art.
Madurai is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, and contains some of the finest examples of south indian architecture. The Meenakshi Amman Temple, dedicated to the fish-eyed (a term of beauty) incarnation of the goddess Parvati, is extraordinary– and notable in that it is one the very few major temples dedicated solely to a goddess. It seems here as though the tamils invented the pre-modern skyscraper, and then decided to people it with the entire panoply of heaven.
Incredibly, this confection of a tower (called a gopuram) is but the entry into the temple complex, and there are not one but four nearly identical towers pushing into the sky and demarcating the four cardinal directions. Photography was not allowed inside the temple grounds— but it was strikingly different than the exterior. Besides the candy stripe-stepped pool and accompanying elephant, the interior resembled a dark, mysterious, Indiana Jones set: blackened, oiled sculptures adorning each monumental pillar, and a beautiful exhibition of Chola-era bronzes that made my nascent sculptor-heart pitter patter. That famous icon of a multi-armed dancing Shiva encircled by a ring of fire arose from this culture, and seeing it in its context of cultural origin (rather than a shiny college textbook) was phenomenal.
My favorite parts of Madurai were, in fact, outside of the temple. The city reminds me of the best part of living in Manhattan's Chinatown: there is a store for everything. Its a DIYer's, paradise. Need foam? Covered. Lighting fixture odds & ends? Check.
And—this is a very big and— the most fantastically situated market I've ever seen. Rows upon rows of tailors, kitchenware, brass vendors, bindi pawners, and booksellers, all wedged into every inhabitable nook of the ancient entry hall of the ancient city. I couldn't keep from returning again and again, and ended up (in spite of myself) with a new wardrobe of haggled-over, hand-tailored clothes.