Madurai : Blending the Old and the New

Kester Clark
Devizes, U.K

One of the most ancient cities in the world, Madurai today is poised on the brink of change. Kester Clark wanders through the by lanes of the ancient Madurai and also through its more contemporary quarters, and concludes that such developments are certainly not harmful to the city’s historic and cultural legacy.

Street-level view of Meenakshi temple east tower

Madurai, the ancient capital of the Pandya kingdom in south India, is a city famous for its rich history. Records stretching back almost two-and-a-half thousand years describe the city's rich cultural and political history: its importance as a global trading centre, even with the ancient Greeks and Romans; its religious significance; its thousand-year rise to prosperity as the capital of the Pandya Kings; its status as a centre of Tamil poetry; and its architecture, which the Greek ambassador Megasthenes found impressive even in the 3rd Century BC. Indeed, among its numerous other names, the city is also known 'The Athens of the East'.

For a newcomer to the city, particularly a foreigner, it is easy to get lost in Madurai's history, and look no further. However, venture off the tourist trail, and one will quickly find that Madurai, like much of India, seems to be entering a period of dramatic change.

Frozen in Time

'Old' Madurai remains much as it has been for hundreds of years, and has only developed slowly. Indeed, the street layout in the city centre has remained largely unchanged since the first centuries AD. The area is still dominated by the stunning Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple complex. The towering gopurams of which came as quite a shock to an unsuspecting foreigner trying to navigate his way through the heat and noise (and, at this time of year, the water) of the busy streets. They are stunning: a twisting mass of beautiful figures twisting in a riot of bright colours, rising high above the surrounding buildings.

The streets themselves, arranged around the temple in a lotus-like pattern of concentric squares, are perhaps less beautiful, but no less engaging. Again, Madurai centre has not changed greatly with the 21st century: small-independent shops tucked into the bottom floor of buildings vie with each other to sell a variety of merchandise, some traditional goods, some modern appliances, while freshly-made omelettes and parota are easy to pick up from a number of traditional eating-houses.

Levi’s showroom on New Vakkil Street

Rubbish inevitably piles up along the roads, picked over by wandering cows and street dogs, while in the air the fumes of auto rickshaws compete with the ever-present smell of incense from the city's many temples. The area buzzes with life and colour, and for tourists who never leave the city centre - practically devoid of high rise buildings and global retail chains - Madurai is 'an example of a typical South Indian City'. However this is certainly not all the modern city is today.

At Cross Roads

Mr Sethil Kumar is the area manager for Coffee Day Cafe, a major international chain of coffee shops which opened a branch in Madurai in 2004, and as such is an a position to appreciate the changing face of Madurai. The café is doing well, with customer counts rising to more than two hundred customers a day on weekends. He was quick to point out that major changes had occurred in Madurai in recent years, but that 'many people do not see them.'

This is a valid point. Unlike the well-developed hubs of commerce and industry (for example Chennai, or Bengaluru) Madurai has not gone through a period of rapid expansion. However, there is much evidence to suggest that in the next few years such an expansion will begin. Most of the changes Mr Kumar referred to are not obvious ones, but are simply changes in the attitudes of the government, big business and industry towards the city. Madurai, a tourist hot-spot with excellent health-care and education facilities, plenty of space for expansion, and a status as the pre-eminent city of the far South is becoming increasingly attractive to investors. The city is also famous for its overland transport links, also very important for investment. The rail division repeatedly receives the award for the best-maintained stations in the Southern Railway, despite Madurai Junction being one of the busiest stations in the country. The Junction is currently undergoing expansion, and another terminal is being constructed at Koodal Nagar. Madurai's bus links are also well known; it being the only city in Tamil Nadu to have a 24-hour bus service, earning it the nickname Thoonga Nagaram – 'The City Which Never Sleeps'.

Critically, in the next few months Madurai airport should receive international status, a development which is bound to bring in more tourists and investment.

Milan-em Mall interior

Exciting Developments

As of now, these changes have not greatly affected the city. In certain areas, however, the first signs of expansion are becoming apparent. For example, the recently constructed 90,000sq.ft Milan-em shopping mall is the only shopping mall in Tamil Nadu outside Chennai. Moreover, another mall, twice the size at 175,000sq.ft, is under construction two kilometres from the city centre. Vishaal Mall will house a five-screen INOX cinema multiplex, as well as a variety of major brand shops, and fast-food outlets. The mall should be at least partly open by March 2011.

A number of other major retailers have plans to open new supermarkets, and outside the world of retail four new technology parks are currently under construction around the city, furthering Madurai's increasingly important IT industry.

Developments such as these, together with improved transport links and an international airport, should bring in more people from the surrounding areas, as well as bringing the increased numbers of tourists out of the city centre. This in turn should stimulate even more development, and Madurai could, perhaps, come to resemble much larger Indian cities with many global chains and greater facilities.

Whether this is a good thing or not is for everyone to decide for themselves, however many Maduraiites are hopeful and relish the thought of development. Sasitapur, 34, a resident of Madurai for seven years and a regular customer at the recently opened Domino's pizza restaurant said that 'Madurai needs some more change ... some more places like [Domino's], more complexes'. He also went on to stress his belief that the presence of more international chains and a modern consumer lifestyle could co-exist easily with the city's historic culture. His thoughts were echoed by many other customers, as well as shoppers at the Milan-em mall. Alagan, 25, who works in a hotel, was equally positive. He is proud of being a resident of Thoonga Nagaram, and expressed a desire to see more change, particularly 'more indoor games, table-tennis, snooker, bowling...'

It seems to me increasingly likely that Alagan's wish will come true over the next few years. Madurai is well-placed to grow and develop at an accelerated rate, and, with good management and respect, there is no reason why such development should be harmful to the city or its culture. Indeed, it is far more likely to bring international fame to the city, and wealth and prosperity to many.

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December 2010 Issue