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.
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.
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.
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…