He led the way down a long corridor, its ceiling supported by pillars decorated with ornate carvings of some fantastic mythological creature, half elephant, half lion. "Now extinct."At length, we came to the temple's "thousand-pillared hall", now turned to service as a museum. A chained elephant snatched fruit and coins in its trunk.
It contained a dazzling profusion of bronzes, statues and objets d'art. Some of the exhibits were in glass display cases, into which visitors had slid their business cards. There were stalls offering every imaginable item for religious devotion - prayer books, garlands, postcards - and a range of items - bangles, plastic toys and household goods - whose religious significance seemed more obscure.
Whether this was for a blessing or in the hope that the god Shiva might one day require the services of D N P Narayan, joint executive manager, accounts, at Tyco Sanmar Ltd, was not clear. "This was never allowed in previous years," sighed Mr Santamoorthy. Now it is a place of business."The next day I returned to the temple alone to explore at my leisure.
But in India, I was quickly reminded, one is never alone.
To enter the temple is to step into a medieval labyrinth: what seems like mile upon mile of corridors, arcades, courtyards and chambers, crammed with shrines to the gods.
India's religious tradition is vast, complex and, at first glance, dauntingly impenetrable.
He re-emerged a few minutes later to anoint my forehead with red kum-kum paste and present me with the fruit basket and an ostentatious garland of yellow marigolds, which some nearby children fell upon with delight. His attitude seemed poised halfway between a palpable pride and reverence for the complexity and beauty of these rituals, and incredulity that anyone of sound mind could buy into such superstitious nonsense.
"What people don't understand is that these stories about the powers of the gods are metaphors. She came to the temple and gave offerings that her next born should be a son. She gave birth to a daughter." He chuckled, apparently delighted with this evidence of the fallibility of the gods.
There was the man who scurried past at odd intervals, smiling broadly and shouting "Hello, sir", as if we were old friends - which, in a short time, we were. She had first approached me the day before, gracefully swinging a young baby on her hip and, with her free hand, magicking a string of bracelets from inside the folds of her sari, which she held out for inspection. Now she appeared from the crowds outside the Meenakshi shrine, no bracelets this time, just a tug on my sleeve, a dazzling smile and the question: "Your name? Two life-sized bronze deities stood behind a barrier.
Crowds pressed through the arch and into a dark, cavernous chamber, bearing offerings of fruit and flowers.
A line of Western tourists snaked past, huddling together for comfort, wearing billowing plastic bags to protect their bare feet, which made them look ludicrously like laboratory workers.
Of all these temples, the Sri Meenakshi is the largest and most splendid of all.
The statues of the goddess Meenakshi and her consort, Sundareshwara, the two great presiding deities of the temple, had indeed been taken from their chambers, on a religious excursion to a lake outside the city. The city of Madurai is at the bottom of the spine that forms the great temple trail of southern India, including Tanjore, Tiruchirappalli and Kanchipuram.