We timed our entire India trip around the Madurai Float Festival, which dates back to the 17th century when King Thirumalai Nayak built a huge “water tank” – a square artificial lake that is usually placed next to a temple. In this case the King, in a creative mood, built the temple in the middle of the water tank, making it only accessible by boat. He then had the fun idea of taking the idols for a boat ride around the tank. Kids and their toys! There’s nothing like a bit of fresh air to liven up the idols. He enjoyed the spectacle so much he made it a yearly event to celebrate his birthday
Four centuries later the festival still goes on, or so all the guide books say. The idols are carried down the steps from the temple to the lake on a golden palanquin, a large and very heavy platform which is carried on the shoulders of several very strong men. Huge floating rafts await the arrival of the gods. The rafts are colorfully decorated with thousands of flowers, silk bunting and paper lanterns. The gods are carefully loaded onto the rafts and then pulled around the lake by long ropes
We find photographs of it, and it is obviously a wonderful spectacle.
The festivities begin at dusk and we make sure we get there an hour early to get a good viewing point. When we arrive we discover a slight problem
The tank is entirely empty of water. There is not even a puddle to be seen. Instead there is just grass. It is so dry that many families have brought their picnics and are enjoying it like a park instead of a lake. Mr Trump, are you listening? Climate change! We learn that there has been no water in the tank for three years and the floats haven’t been seen in that time. Our Indian travel agent had neglected to mention this – just an oversight they say!
Madurai has tried to make the best of a bad situation. They still hold the “float festival”, but without the floats. That seems like fraud to me, or at least false advertising. But the good citizens of Madurai don’t seem to care. They get a day off work, they have a lot of fun, and the idols still get to have their day out. Sixteen burly Indians struggle to carry them down the steps to the dry bottom of the tank.
They then carry the idols across the tank to the other side, while a desultory firework is set off.
The Fabulosity Meter is not impressed. It lacks any wow factor, but the locals seem to have a good time. As the sky gets darker a switch is turned on and the temple and its surrounds are covered in colorful lights. At the same time a team of volunteers light thousands of small candles all around the tank. It is a beautiful sight
But that’s it. After that, it is just a giant street fair, although the inevitable elephant is a scene stealer.
Wildly disappointed we head out to dinner. We are going to a highly recommended restaurant that sits on the roof of a backpacker hotel.
Now dear readers, you know me well enough by now, to understand that a back packer hotel just isn’t my style. The only way to get to the restaurant is of course through the hotel. It is a sorry looking affair with dirty corridors lined with badly worn and scarred wooden doors. I scurry to the elevator praying that I won’t meet anyone I know. A little unnecessary as anyone I know would not be seen dead in this hotel.
The roof top is seven stories up, and I am thankful but amazed to find that there is an elevator. It is tiny but incongruously has an operator inside. She looks as if she hasn’t seen daylight for years. She is elderly and stooped, her complexion is a very worrying shade of pasty white, her clothes are ragged and dirty and she emits a strong odor of indian spices mixed with body odor. She sits on an upturned bucket with her face inches away from the buttons. There are only two. One with an arrow that points up and the other with an arrow which points down. She takes an alarming amount of time to decide which button to press. It is not a big choice and I suspect I could have worked it out for myself. If you actually stay in the hotel (and I would strongly recommend against it) the elevator is not for you as it does not stop at any other floors. It creaks and rattles and very slowly makes its way to the top floor, while I try very hard not to take a breath.
The door opens onto a much more inviting space. It certainly isn’t stylish but the setting is charming. A completely uncovered flat roof is home to about twenty tables all with appealing views of down town and the famous temple.
Every table is full. There is a Maitre D’ although I am sure that is not a term he is familiar with, but he stands out from the other waiters because his white shirt has considerably less stains on it. But don’t misunderstand me. It is far from being clean. An even dirtier undershirt is clearly visible where the shirt is gaping between the buttons that barely hold it together over his unhealthy looking paunch. He smiles at us, but I wish he hadn’t. He is missing a few teeth and the ones that he has come out of his gums at alarmingly different angles.
He points to a nice table by the railings and says in broken English, with his head bobbling from side to side “those people have finished. They will be leaving soon”. Then to prove the point, he takes over their bill and literally pushes them out of their seats, saying “You pay at the counter”.
We get the perfect table. The view is wonderful and the food turns out to be vegetarian but delicious. It is one of the best meals of our stay. However enjoying it is a problem. More and more customers poor out of the disgusting lift. Many of them are Indian families, who think nothing of walking around the restaurant and staring at each table to see if they have finished. They then pick a table they like and stand over it, or if they are really hungry they just join whoever is at the table.
We are feeling rather fortunate that the table we have is clearly just for two.
Or so we thought
We are enjoying our food when the orthodontically challenged Maitre D’ comes over and gives us the benefit of his smile once more. He has cost the tooth fairy a lot of money over the years
“Do you mind if two people join you” he says.
We do mind, but it is not a question. As he says it he pulls over two chairs and pushes a youngish couple into the chairs and leaves. They are carrying motor cycle helmets, which immediately tells us they are not Indian because the few Indians that have helmets just use them as a decoration and hang them off the side of the bike whether they are driving it or not.
They are from Belgium and have been here for several months doing volunteer work at a leper colony (that is their term for it, they do not call it Hansens disease). They are entertaining table mates but we can’t help but hope that they went through a decontamination chamber before they came to dinner. They tell us that India has 60% of the worlds leprosy cases, this despite the fact that it is easily curable if caught at an early stage. That’s reassuring for us, but sadly not for the average Indian
This restaurant is their idea of a night out on the town. Their work is out in the country and they usually eat at little local places. They comment on how clean southern India is compared to northern India, and from our experience we would agree. They say they have never had a stomach problem
But dear readers, I just want to let you know that southern India’s version of clean is not our version of clean. You need look no further than our Maitre D’ and the hotel for which he works. Of course if you want to look further, you can
Here is the local butcher, just down the road from our 5 star hotel.
Notice the proud smile and pose for the camera. He is a little short on product, but he does have a freshly killed goat. I know you are impressed that I recognise those appetizing joints of meat hanging over his table as goat. But he did give us a small clue
The head is displayed on an upturned log by the side of the street. The owner assumes that it will attract customers to his shop. Well it attracted us! Can you see the way the eye is looking at you? He looks as if he wants to know what is going on behind him, and I could swear his mouth has a slight smile to it. Well that will wipe the smile off his face
And if you still have doubts about what meat the butcher is offering today, there is the goatskin carelessly discarded below the counter.
So, much as I applaud initiative and the desire to have a small business, this little butcher chappie is definitely not measuring up to our standard of hygiene and cleanliness. Whether he knows that is up for debate, but you must dear reader, give him the benefit of the doubt. He is trying his best on the streets of Madurai, while the streets of Madurai are not trying their best for him.
The streets are dirty with trash lying everywhere, and this may come as a shock to you, but there are rats. They are everywhere, scurrying along the streets and dashing into buildings. Some of them don’t scurry fast enough
Thank you Andrew. I’m so glad that you are enabling me to experience all this vicariously.
Baz, I remember how Idyllwild in California freaked you out, so there is no way you should go to India!
I was hoping “rats!” was a euphemism.
No such luck, Monica!