Imagine an antiquated, intricately hand-carved hall that serves not as a museum, but as a living, breathing market. Instead of the sculptures and carvings being preserved behind glass, small birds roost in the crevices, and shopkeepers hang their wares in any opportune crack. Such a place exists just outside the ancient temple in the heart of Madurai, India, deep within the state of Tamil Nadu.
That's my husband and son with their backpacks on in the photo above, walking through a colonnade of 400 year old sculptures that now serve as a backdrop for rows of tailors and shops. This place is called Pudhu Mandapam, and until about 200 years ago it was a place where parties and festivals were held. Little by little, shopkeepers began to sell their wares here, and today it is this amazing space where you can buy notions and fabrics and have a garment tailored for you while you wait.
We arrived in Madurai with only a few hours to explore the temple area before grabbing an overnight bus to Pondicherry. I wish I'd had more light for my camera to capture this place, but we were rushing through at night. I also wish I'd had more time to browse the ribbons, trims and other notions on display here. Imagine only having a few minutes to browse this market. And no space in your backpack or time to buy one of these tantalizing trims....
In doing my research on this place after-the-fact, I discovered that many locals believe it is lucky to shop here. Some of these vendor stalls have been continuously operated by the same family for over 80 years! The shopkeepers inherit their shops from grandparents, parents or close relatives, and each shop represents a family tradition that goes back generations.
I spent time watching different tailors work. None of them work with a paper pattern or a muslin or pin their pieces together. They just directly cut the fabric and hold it together, clearly working off of a very familiar pattern in their own heads. A pattern probably steeped in as much tradition as this space in which they work.
We didn't read about this wondrous place in our guidebook, we just stumbled on it, took in as much as we could of it, and moved on to our next adventure.