My City Through My Nose

The clang of the knives on the tava as the cook pounds the parotta into small pieces, accompanied by the juice enticing smell of the stew that goes with it. The intoxicating smell of the myriad of flowers, dominated by the sickly sweet jasmine, on the roadside, that immediately conjures images of flowery meadows or the sanctum sanctorum of temples in your mind, depending on how religiously inclined you are. The fresh grassy smell of cow dung that is either a blob on the road swarming with flies, or splattered on the walls to make dung cakes for fuel. All of these, accompanied by the not so gentle whiffs from the open gutters here and there. These are the predominant smells that come to my mind when I use my olfactory senses to think of my home town- Madurai, the city of temples, the city that never sleeps.


The roadside parotta stall.

Madurai, which started out as a very small town in the southernmost part of India,  that was built around the renowned Meenakshi Amman temple, is now a very hazardously grown city, with its too noisy streets and too crowded roads, that intensify the flavours and reek a very heady odour. The city truly is a haven of different smells, that vary from nose wrinkling ones to those that make you nostalgic and bring a smile on your face with the image or incident you correlate it with. Having grown up all my life alongside these odours, I never truly appreciated the variety and intensity of them until I packed my bags and took off to college. Returning to the oh-so-familiar sights after a month, I realised how much I had missed not only the sights, but also the smells that accompany them- that which are only so peculiar to my city.

Never until you visit a temple will you fully comprehend the various intricate details that are involved in it. You can find such temples on every road and on every street in Madurai, varying only in size, but all bustling with people at all times of the day. The smell of the incense sticks that puff out smoke painfully slowly, of the lip-smacking tamarind rice the priests distribute to the bakthas, of the ghee or the oil that the pious ones use to fill the lamps with their lips constantly moving in silent prayer, of the squashed fruits and the coconuts burst open with bravado- these constitute just the tip of the iceberg. It is not only your nose that is kept busy; your ears are full too- with the clanging of various bells, the priests shouting out mantras, vendors calling out their trade, beggars calling out for money and lamenting about their disability or poverty- your entire nervous system is kept on its toes, tingling with anticipation, till you finally step out of the gate, emotionally and physically drained.

An Ayyanar temple...

A typical entrance of an Ayyanar temple…

On the other hand, drive away from the bustle of the town just a few kilometres away from the centre of the city, you are treated to the sight of the pristine arable lands. Interceded with small ponds and brooks and hillocks, you get to see a whole new side of the town. The smell of the freshly tilled wet land, of the grass torn out by the roots and of the sapling waving about in the wind in unison, together form a very balmy smell that will make you take deep breaths every now and then just to get your lungs full of it, in the hope that you would have a little left in your lungs when you return to the roads filled with exhaust fumes.

My favourite side of my city...

My favourite side of my city…

Madurai, just like every other city in India, is a complex aggregation of people and nature and culture, all maintained in a very delicate web of balance. People always write and talk about what they see and what they experience, but rarely about the odours that come with them, which are just as important when it comes to experiencing a wholesome enterprise. Even though I never realised it then, I now realise that of all things that I miss about my home, the smells compound an integral part of it…

28 thoughts on “My City Through My Nose

  1. Wow, what a beautiful home town – I especially love your favourite vista of the not so bustling side of it 😉 Home is definitely a full, sensory experience, isn’t it? The smell I miss most about my birth place is probably woodsmoke – from the wood heaters and kitchen combustion stove that burns all year round. And perhaps, the smell of damp eucalyptus leaves from the bush.

    • Oh, yes!! Home definitely is a completely satisfying experience that haunts you for the rest of your life… Just like you remember those earthy smells from your birth place. Must have been a serene place, from the sound of it. Glad I could tickle your olfactory sense!! 😉

  2. This was beautiful, Sumithra. Your descriptions of your home are so vivid that I can almost smell those smells you are talking about. This makes me want to look up Madurai and read more about it.

  3. Extremely well written Sumi J My compliments J



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  4. I enjoyed this a lot. And when you wrote of the smells – you’re so right. But you know, looking at the pictures, I can almost smell being there.

    Vivid writing. Really liked it 🙂

  5. My images of your country come from Hollywood/Bollywood only, but I’ve had a strong desire to visit for as long as I can remember. Your evocative descriptions have done nothing to diminish that desire – quite the opposite, really. One day!

    • Thank you, Sir. And I really hope you make it to India, one day. Its overwhelmingly complex structure and culture is something that one has to see and experience first hand to fully appreciate it…

  6. the last time I visited Madurai was in my teen years.. and the picture still is fresh in my mind.. but the smell bit is something that I could only relate after reading it here.. you write it so well..

  7. Your blogs are so interesting! I always feel like I’ve travelled around the world when I visit here, and feel so good about what I see. My faith in our survival as a world-people, world-planet, is renewed, despite the troubles we continue to have. Thank you.

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