One of the oldest cities in South Asia, MADURAI, on the banks of the River Vaigai, has been an important centre of worship and commerce for as long as there has been civilization in south India. Greek ambassador Megasthenes wrote of its splendour in 302 BC, and described its queen, Pandai, as "a daughter of Herakles", while, the Roman geographer Strabo complained the city's silk, pearls and spices were draining the imperial coffers of Rome. This lucrative trade enabled the Pandyan dynasty to erect the mighty Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple.
Although today surrounded by a sea of modern concrete cubes, the massive gopuras of this vast complex, writhing with multicoloured mythological figures and crowned by golden finials, remain the greatest man-made spectacle of the south. Any day of the week no less than 15,000 people pass through its gates, increasing to over 25,000 on Fridays (sacred to the goddess Meenakshi), while the temple's ritual life spills out into the streets in an almost ceaseless round of festivals and processions. The chance to experience sacred ceremonies that have persisted largely unchanged since the time of the ancient Egyptians is one that few travellers pass up.
Madurai's urban and suburban sprawl creates traffic jams to rival India's very worst. Chaos on the narrow, potholed streets is exacerbated by political demonstrations and religious processions, wandering cows – demanding right of way with a peremptory nudge of the haunch – and put-upon pedestrians forced onto the road by ever-increasing numbers of street traders. Open-air kitchens extend from chai shops, where competing parotta-wallahs literally drum up custom for their delicious fresh breads.
Although considerably enlarged and extended over the years, the overall layout of Madurai's old city, south of the River Vaigai, has remained largely unchanged since the first centuries AD, comprising a series of concentric squares centred on the massive Meenakshi Temple. Aligned with the cardinal points, the street plan forms a giant mandala, or magical diagram, whose sacred properties are believed to be activated during mass circumambulations of the central temple, always conducted in a clockwise direction.