TRIVANDRUM, India — It's easy to see why Kovalam Beach, just south of here near India's southern tip, is sometimes called the country's most beautiful beach.
On its rocky headlands, palms rustle and sway above the aqua breakers that foam onto the rocks, while in the distance a pearly, palm-fringed ribbon of sand curves gently as far as the eye can see.
Bordering the sand in a tall, tufted, emerald band are magnificent coconut palms. Little thatch houses lie beneath the palms' shady fronds.
On the beach a few vacationers stroll along the sand, splash in the surf or enjoy a canoe ride beyond the waves, while villagers on the beach go about their lives seemingly unmindful of the visitors.
En route from Madras to Kovalam Beach I made a two-day stopover at Madurai, which was so memorable that I resolved to return there during my next trip to southern India.
In some ways, Madurai is the cultural heartland of India. While northern India was repeatedly overrun and conquered and its Hindu temples destroyed, the invaders--Greeks, Persians, Mongols--never captured the far south.
Madurai remained the independent capital of the Hindu Pandyan kings, who looked upon Julius Caesar as a barbarian upstart.
The Pandyans' principal monument, Meenakshi Temple, still stands in Madurai. After Varanasi (Benares), Meenakshi Temple is probably the holiest spot in Hinduism.
The Hindu godhead consists of three parts: Brahma, the distant and all-powerful creator; Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver.
Shiva was first drawn to Madurai long ago. Legend says he fell in love with Thadadaghai, a daughter of the king of Madurai. But she was no ordinary woman; Thadadaghai had trained as a warrior.
She became a general and succeeded her father to the throne of Madurai, leading her armies all over India, adding lands to her empire. She finally led her army to Shiva's domain in the mountains.
sh Lived Happily Ever After
It was love at first sight. Shiva and Thadadaghai were married in Madurai, where they lived happily ever after.
The legend says that while Shiva lived in Madurai he performed 64 miracles, the tales of which are carved into the walls of the huge and elaborate Meenakshi Temple.
On my first day in Madurai my rickshaw stopped in front of the huge south entrance gate.
"This is it."
I stepped out and looked up at the towering, colorfully decorated gopuram over the gate, one of the four stupas that decorate Meenakshi's four cardinal entrances.
For half a rupee I bought the privilege of climbing the 15 stories to the top, where, resting in the breeze, I enjoyed a magnificent view. Around the edges of the huge square expanse towered the stupas; between and in front of them shone the gilded domes of Meenakshi's two principal shrines.
A steady flow of pilgrims streamed along the many corridors and walkways; many more pilgrims were bathing in the golden lotus pond before their devotions.
On the stupa beneath me were a huge assortment of bigger-than-life, brightly painted figures of the holy family of Hinduism in their myriad incarnations--Shiva and his consort, Parvati, and their two sons, Murga and Ganesh, the latter the elephant-headed boy (Shiva beheaded him when he mistook Ganesh for an erstwhile suitor of Parvati; the son's replaced head was that of the holy elephant).
sh Merely an Appetizer
While all this would have been more than enough to ponder for one day, it turned out to be only an appetizer for what I discovered next day in Thousand Pillar Hall.
Sometimes known as the "art museum," it houses a pantheon of exquisite treasures--marble sculptures, bronzes, ivories and many displays of Hindu religious practices.
Halfway through I asked my guide if this had once been a temple.
"No. It was a place of entertainment."
"The king and his guests."
"What kind of entertainment."
"Music, dancing and sex."
Standing there in the enormous main hall, within a pillar-forest of intricately carved gods, gargoyles and maidens, it wasn't difficult to imagine Thousand Pillar Hall as it must have been: spread with rich carpets, garlanded with tons of flowers, the air scented with incense and filled with the glow of a thousand flickering lamps.
As we stood in silence I imagined the hall filled with the sound of beating drums, the lilting of strings and flutes, all resonating to the sinuous movements of the dancers' bodies, glistening golden in the lamplight. My guide interrupted my reverie.
"It's too bad," he said.
"What's too bad?"
"They don't do any of that here anymore."
"Independence . . . it rid us of all the kings and their dancing girls."
"But now you can vote," I said. "Which would you rather have . . . the vote, or dancing girls?"
He frowned a moment, then shrugged.
"If I can only have one, I suppose it has to be the vote."
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India's far south is an especially popular destination in the October through March (pleasantly warm but not hot) dry season.