Meenakshi Temple Gripes

I fell in love with the Meenakshi temple of Madurai. Today you can only photograph it from outside, because security requires that you do not carry any electronics in. If a camera were allowed inside, I could have spent days photographing the incredible architecture, the tall columns and the clever use of sunlight, and the sheer scale of the temple. I could capture none of this. The colourful processions of priests, accompanied by nadaswaram and cymbals, the little foodstalls where the only things I recognized by name were laddus and murukku, the people waiting patiently for a darshan, are all things that I have to narrate. Cameras were allowed earlier, and I hope that peace returns to the world so that they can be allowed again.

In the intervening years we will all have to do what I did. Spend time walking around the temple, taking photos of the gopura. This will be a long story. I begin with my first glimpse of the east gopuram. This is supposed to be the oldest of the outer gopura, and was built in the early part of the 13th century.

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Three temples

Rameswaram is a temple town, centered on the ancient temple of Ramanathaswamy, which is another name for Shiva. Every few centuries a layer of gopura (gates) was added to the core temple with the shiva lingas. No cameras are allowed inside. We walked through the famous corridors, gaping at the long painted outermost corridor lined with statues. Then we passed into the next circle; no plaster and colour here, only finely carved stone. The carvings were finest and most exuberant in the innermost layer.

Later in the day I was at the western gopuram while the setting sun shone on it. This was a wonderful sight, I thought, as I took the featured photo. In this wonderful light I could zoom in on the clay idols which decorate the gopuram. At the top is a gigantic representation of the mythical Makara. This recurs in the rest of the structure as well. But the different layers of the structure contain well-modeled human figures. I could see elements of the Ramayana depicted here. The uniform golden colour of the gates of this temple are unusual.

This style of decoration is followed in smaller temples. At the edge of Rameswaram town, on the way to Dhanushkodi, we saw a temple to Nayaki Amman. The gate was simple: two pillars with a beam laid across it. This is a modern temple, so the gate was made of concrete, with baked clay idols put over it as decoration. The bright colours are characteristic of south Indian temples. The female figures on the pillars are modelled pretty well, although I found it difficult to tell because of the foreshortening. The figures over the beam are less well done.

On the way to the Pamban bridge I saw this lonely but bright temple on the sea side. In the bright sulight it looked like it could have been the subject of a painting by an Indian De Chirico. Coming closer, I realized that it was a temple for Kali. I’d begun to recognize the red and white stripes as a sign denoting a temple. There was no one around, except a person who tried to sell us sliced fruit.

The clay figures decorating the spire above the temple were clearly the work of an amateur. Parvati, Ganesha and Murugan were done fairly well for an amateur. They stand in wooden poses, but are not misshapen. The lions, on the other hand, are clearly done by an artist who has never seen the animal. I would see such extremes in temples through the rest of the trip. As always, the quality of the work depends on whether you are able to pay for the services of a good artisan.

Church of coral

The drowned town of Dhanushkodi was big. You can still see the railway station, a post office, a big school, and a church. I saw the front of the church with its niche for a bell from the road. We’d just wandered through the ruins of some houses, but Sathiamoorthy was happy to stop the car. I walked up to the church wondering whether the bell tolled as the Christmas super-cyclone of 1964 approached. Maybe they had tied it down against high winds earlier.

More than half a century, two generations later, there is no sense of tragedy here: only a romantic ruin standing on a clean beach. There’s a steady trickle of tourists. I waited for families to finish taking their group photos in front of the gaping doorway of the church. The last family was large, and apologized for the long time they were taking. I was happy to wait, I assured them. When they went in, the grandfather said to me, “I can’t walk any more.” I told him he was not in the way. I liked him sitting there to give a scale to the photo. So many tourists stop here that a large cluster of shops in shacks has sprung up around it.

I walked around the structure and looked in through a hole in the wall to find that the altar is fairly undamaged. It would have been raised fairly far above the pews, but it is now level with the sand. I realized that the hole that I was looking through would have been a window, possibly raised waist high above the floor of the church. That is a lot of sand, but then it has been many years since the church was abandoned.

There was something interesting about the wall. I stepped forward for a closer look. The church walls had been built of blocks of coral, brick was only used in arches. What an amazing thing to do. The church must have been for the use of the British functionaries here. Stones had been transported to make the railway station and the port. Bricks had been used in houses. It must have been a conscious decision to make this church out of coral. You can see three different types of coral in the photo above. The storm of 1964 killed the reefs here. I wondered whether the previous half a century of work in the surrounding waters had depleted the reefs so much already that the storm just struck a last blow.

We came back later before sunset to walk on the beach here. The sand is very clean. There aren’t even the remains of sea shells. From the number of shops here which sell things made of sea shell, I guess there must be beachcombers busy at work after every high tide, picking up whatever has been washed ashore. I walked out towards the incoming tide to take this photo. The salt wind and water must be at work to wear down this remnant of a short lived port. The atmosphere is gently corrosive. No lichens or moss grow on the walls of this church. We were on the verge of a bad sunburn as we walked away.

Kalam’s memorial

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, but I don’t have any Gandhi memorabilia to write about. Instead I have a photo of the memorial to the 11th President of India: A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. He started as an engineer, became the chief of ISRO, and after retirement was elected the president for a single term in 2002. When the memory of the Mahatma is fenced into the little boundary of keeping your house clean, it is good to break out of it to look at the country which he was partly responsible for creating. This is a country in which the son of a fisherman could become a president.

Kalam is buried in Pamban island, a few kilometers from the site of the house where he was born. We walked through the memorial built around his grave. From outside the building looks blocky and closed, but the corridors inside with enclose little gardens. From inside the structure is full of light and air, not at all like its forbidding facade. I wish I could find out which architect designed it.

Houses of Rameswaram

Whenever I travel soutwards into the Indian peninsula past where it narrows to about 600 kilometers or so, I spend a lot of time in admiring the change in colour sensibilities. Southwards the colour schemes on houses are similar to those on the wonderful south Indian silk sarees that you see. When I was younger and less exposed to differences between people, I would find some of these combinations jarring. Now, I can’t stop photographing them.

The Family is quite as much into this hobby as I am. Between the two of us we got a range of houses in Rameswaram: from multi-story family houses to little huts. They all have bright colours and interesting gates or doors. Many of them have the traditional kollam outside the door: a new one every day. As always, you could click on any one of the photos in the panel above to go through a slide show.

Urban Jungle

It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.

When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get

Psychopomps

The only thing I remembered from a visit eight years ago to the Krishnapura chhatris in Indore was the sandstone figures. I wrote about the chhatris yesterday, and I wanted to show you these memorable figures today. The featured photo shows the beautiful contrast of the red sandstone figures and the dark slate on which they are placed.

The two panels above show the range of activities which is depicted in these figures. I’d remembered the soldiers around the base of the chhatris. Maybe I hadn’t looked up on my earlier visit, but this time I did not miss the figures of musicians, scribes and ascetics which decorate the upper parts of external pillars. You can see a musician and a soldier in the photos above.

A psychopomp is a person who guards you in afterlife. Typically one thinks of such a character as a spirit guide. Since scribes and scholars, musicians and ascetics can guard rulers against falling into error, the collection of figures here are psychopomps for the dead rulers. In the photo above they guard the steps which lead up to the platform where the pyres of the kings were lit.

The two figures in the photo above are clearly court functionaries. There were very few courtiers here. Although the lives of the royals would have been hemmed in by such people, their presence is measured. I liked the balance that the design has between different walks of life. These are memorials to rulers in settled times; this shows in the choice of professions and the weight given to each.

The figure in the photo above is clearly from the early 20th century CE. The musket with a bayonet and utility pouches in various belts are clearly modern. But there is an air of dressiness in the breeches and leggings, and the non-utilitarian headgear, which speaks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t know the exact date on which this chhatri was completed, although it could not have started before 1908, when Shivaji Rao Holkar, who is memorialized here, died. Very likely the chhatri was completed before the start of the first world war. This soldier would have been a contemporary figure.

Cenotaphs of Indore

On our earlier visit to Indore we’d hurried through the chhatris, but they left little impression on me; just a vague memory of small terracotta soldiers. I wonder whether it was the lack of time, or the fact that before their restoration they were not very easy to access that blanked out my memory. The chhatris stand close to the rajwada and right on the Saraswati river. The town and the river have been cleaned up, so the ambience may be closer to what it was when the funeral pyres of the old rulers were lit, and the chhatris erected over the ashes.

The oldest chhatri is the westernmost (photo above) and commemorates the death in 1849 of Krishanbai Holkar. The larger structure (featured photo) is a double chhatri, the western end in memory of Tukoji Rao Holkar II who died in 1886, and the eastern part of the cenotaph for his son and successor, Shivaji Rao Holkar who lived till 1908. It was pretty late in the day when we arrived, and the weak sun was close to setting. In spite of this, the spires of the chhatris looked very colourful: a dark slate, red sandstone, and white marble. There is also a smaller and more plain marble cenotaph raised on 1954 to the sister of the last king.

Funerals are traditionally performed next to a river, and this place close to Indore’s rajwada is an obvious location for the memorials. Unfortunately, that means that one has to look at the spires from very close, so foreshortening the view, or to walk across the river to get a perspective. Unfortunately, it was too long a walk, and it would be too dark by the time we got to the other side.

I climbed the steps up to the platform of Rani Krishnabai’s memorial. As you can see from the photo above, the elaborate roof and pillars are largely made of sandstone. I am certain that this is hard to maintain in the traffic fumes of the busy neighbourhood. On the base and pillars you can see the terracotta molded figures which I will describe in a later post.

The pillars on the platform are stunning in detail. There was a minor fashion shoot on even at this late hour, and I pirated their lights to get shots of the details of the stone work. This oldest memorial has the most elaborate carvings, and I wished I’d climbed into this first. The light was really low now, and I only had harsh artificial lights to work with.

There is a sense of calm here which many locals wander in to enjoy. Once you are inside it is easy to forget the mad traffic whirling past just outside the small compound. I seem to have startled such a person from his rest by trying to take a photo of the double cenotaph from inside the queen’s memorial.

The cores of the cenotaphs are guarded by doors. The remains of the queen’s pyre lay behind the finely carved marble screen which you see above. The other door, guarded by a Nandi and flanked by two statues, stands outside the remains of Shivaji Rao. One of the two statues is a representation of the king.

No large monument in a city is complete without blue rock pigeons. I spotted two of them here. The one half hidden in the darkness above the head of the statue seems to be a little bit of a giant.

Lalbagh Palace

Lalbagh must be one of the more common names a palace or garden, although perhaps not quite as popular as a Mahatma Gandhi Road. When I read about the late 19th century palace built by the Holkars of Indore the associations that popped into my mind were in Mumbai and Bengaluru. A search immediately threw up many more red gardens.

With a couple of hours to kill before our flight, I quickly looked at the small list of places we had not yet seen in Indore. The choice was between a 20th century temple, a mid-19th century mosque and this palace. We chose the palace; unfortunately. The Holkars have moved out of this sprawling building, leaving behind a few chandeliers and bulky pieces of furniture for tourists to gape at. You can pay 20 rupees for the pleasure of walking through nearly empty rooms. The mosaic floors and high ceilings are of some interest if you like late 19th century architecture, but the emptiness told on us. We escaped quickly to the desultorily maintained gardens. Clearly the locals make good use of the huge spaces. We came across lovers, cricket teams and people having a nap. We came to patches of lilies which were over-running their borders, but since they were all in bloom I guess the gardeners forgive them their audacity.

We were at the airport early.

An unfashionable address

It was a holiday. Downtown Mumbai was empty. The Family and I walked down a narrow lane where nobody goes any longer except to park their cars. Decades ago there was an open air concert area on the road, very popular for jazz and classical concerts. Then a court order banned open-air concerts within 500 meters of a hospital after 10 in the evening. That was the end of this place. I saw the gates closed. Next to it was a workshop, its shutters pulled down for the day. In the usual fashion of buildings in South Mumbai, it looked like it hadn’t been repaired since the Battle of Khadki. I liked the contrast between the shabby white wooden doors and the blue rolling shutter.

Right across the narrow lane is the back of Mumbai’s most well-known college (featured photo). It was shuttered for the holiday. These shutters were painted, clean, and in good repair. No moss grew on these stone walls. The high walls shut off the fashionable part of Mumbai from the shabby reality around it.

A low stone house seemed to hold some municipal offices. It was pretty down; tiles were missing from the roof, the stone walls had not been cleaned. Although the windows were recently painted, they were not in good repair. The municipality does not manage to do a good job with keeping the city in good repair, and this building showed that they cannot even really maintain their own offices. That’s a shame, because this is a charming building.

There was a chawl nearby. This was full of life, of people coming and going. I liked the sloping window shades that went right round the building. They broke the boxy shape of the masonry structure, and also harmonized with the sloping roofs. I hadn’t noticed this building before. But then, I had last walked down this lane before smart phones were invented.