There have been beautiful towns and cities in India ever since the ancient times. Some cities still live and breathe, some do not have that luxury. From the ruins of Rakhigarhi and Mohenjodaro, to painful ruins of once flourishing Vijaynagara in Hampi, to Kashi and Mathura, still busy in their hustle and bustle, numerous other ancient cities dotted the entire sacred geography of Bharatvarsha.
Every ancient city has its unique flavour. One such city is Madurai, considered the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu and situated on the banks of river Vaigai, it has been continuously inhabited since two thousand years at the least. There had been many rulers of Madurai. In brief, it was the capital of the Pandya Kingdom, then it came under the Chola Empire. For some time it was captured by the barbaric Madurai Sultanate but then it was freed by the Vijaynagara rulers and came under their rule. The period was followed by the Nayaks, followed by the rule of nawabs of Arcot and finally by the British.
During its long history, lot of people had described its beauty – poets, travellers, inhabitants etc. but one of the most beautiful description comes from an early classic Tamil poem Maduraikkanchi of the Sangam literature. Part of the Pattupattu anthology, the poem was written in honour of the second century Pandyan king Nedunjeliyan, though it is generally dated a couple centuries later in 3rd to 4th century CE. The following description which the poet gives of Madurai forms the concluding part of the Maduraikkanchi. The realistic portrayal makes the city come to life in front of the reader and one can enjoy the beauty of the lifestyle of an ancient Indian city unfolding in front of their eyes.
“The poet enters the city by its great gate, the posts of which are carved with images of goddess Lakshmi, and which is grimy with ghee, poured in oblation upon it to bring safety and prosperity to the city it guards.”
When the poet arrives, the city is busy in celebration of a festival. The streets and the market places are filled with rivers of people of every race. One can see the royal procession lead by the elephants walking to the sound of conchs on the street. The procession is followed by majestic chariots and fierce looking footmen.
The stall keepers are selling sweet cakes, garlands of flowers, scented powder and betel quids. Old women go from house to house to sell jewelry. Noblemen pass through streets flashing their gold-sheathed swords in their chariots. Women are watching the festival from their balcony. Their ornaments are flashing in the golden hue of sunlight.
The temples are abuzz with the sound of music, with devotees offering flowers to the gods and honouring the holy sages. There are all sorts of craftsmen, from bangle-makers, goldsmiths, coppersmiths and cloth dealers to painters and weavers and sandalwood vendors. People are buying greens, jack fruit, mangoes and sugar candy. The evening comes and the city dancers entertain their patrons by singing and dancing to the sound of lute. Music is filling the atmosphere. Some drunken men are tumbling in the roadways. The evening is made even more beautiful when women, along with their children and friends, make haste to the temple carrying diyas. They dance and sing in the temple courts.
In the night, the city finally sleeps except, the bold housebreakers who are ready with their roped ladders. But, the night passes in peace due to the ever vigilant watchmen. This beautiful chaos of the ancient Indian city comes to a halt until the crack of dawn.
“Morning comes with the sound of Brahmans intoning their sacred verses. Wandering bards renew their singing, and the shopkeepers busy themselves opening their booths”.
People welcome the new morning and one can hear the sound of opening doors all over the city. “Women sweep the faded flowers of the festival from their courtyards. Thus the busy everyday life of the city is resumed”. This lively description not only provides us a glimpse of chaotic beauty of ancient Madurai but it also gives readers some ideas about the other ancient cities of India.
* References and excerpts are from The Wonder that was India by A L Basham.