Passing a temple

On the drive from Rameswaram to Madurai we passed a very large number of temples. Every village has a few temples, as does every neighbourhood in a small town. I would have liked to stop and look at the painted clay images decorating each one of them, but that would require a fully dedicated trip. Instead we chose to stop at one. This was a middle sized temple, probably dedicated to an aspect of Vishnu. I can’t read Tamil, so my guess is entirely based on the iconography that I saw.

The main entrance opened to the east, as usual. The gate was closed, but this hardly mattered because the temple lacked a northern boundary wall. I walked in through the opening and took a closer look at the dwarapalas. The friendly looking warriors were supposed to be strong enough for horses to rest their weights on them. Sages and women sheltered under the horses. If you dared to pass between them, then two benign dwarapalas invite you to ascend the steps to the door of the main temple.

Above each of these second rank of dwarapalas was an unidentifiable bird. Was it a pigeon, or a peacock, or a different pheasant? The white body spoke of a pigeon, but the beak and long tail was of a pheasant. The colourful feathery circle around it probably denoted a peacock. The artist had given himself the freedom to use any colour he liked. Why be a slave to nature?

Above the lintel of the door were the traditional symbols of peace, prosperity and good health rendered in clay: a coconut with a swastika painted on it, standing on a pot (kalasha). I didn’t pay attention to this elsewhere, but I would guess that a similar decoration would stand above the doors of most modern south Indian temples. At the base of the arch over these are two of my favourite motif: the mythical makara.

Right on top of the entrance were the figures you see above. This was what clued me in to the purpose of the temple. The god whose feet rests on a lotus is probably Vishnu. I don’t recognize the symbol in his hand, so I can’t be sure. My north Indian eyes probably missed several cues here. But the two aspects of his consort Lakshmi, each holding a lotus, are unmistakable. The elephants next to her denote that she appears as gajalakshmi, symbolizing prosperity. I was happy to see another makara head here.

The flat roof of the temple requires water spouts. Older temples had peaked roofs, so spouts were not needed to help rain water to run off. As a result, no Indian equivalent of gargoyles were invented. Today’s temple architecture could easily co-opt fish, or even makara for this purpose. I guess something will eventually emerge, but for now there are simple unadorned pipes. I liked the Ganesha statue positioned above it.

There was a small peaked shikhara above the roof. As in all Tamil temples, it was extremely well decorated. The central icon of Ram faces east, and the corners are taken up by fierce warriors. The one facing me had a benign look on his face. I found the elephants quite charming.

Further on the south wall I saw a clay icon of Krishna. Note the difference in skin colour between him and Ram. The person next to him must be his consort Radha. I liked the smiles on their faces. Contrast this with the expression on the face or Ram. There is a clear separation between the two aspects of Vishnu.

Above the warrior on the south wall, armed with his mace and heavy sword, looms another icon of a makara. This one has tusks, like the makara which appear on the pillars of the Ramanathaswamy temple. One day I will travel around Asia taking photos of how the makaras transform across the continent. But this is not that story.


Cathedral of Madurai

I’d marked St. Mary’s cathedral in Madurai as something to do if we had enough time. We passed by as we were off to an early lunch. The Family asked “Why don’t we take a look?” It sounded like a good idea, so we stopped the car and walked in. Someone had set up shop right outside the gate. I looked at it in passing and thought that this was exactly the kind of thing which I would spend my pocket money on when I was a school child. Sure enough, when we were leaving two school boys were buying little treats here. That’s the featured photo.

Just inside the gate we had a good view of the two steeples flanking the entrance. It looked very festive; either some festival had just got over, or would take place soon. The plastic chairs piled up echoed the blue-and-white colour scheme of the facade. It was a big church, so I was a little surprised that they would need extra chairs. When I looked at the web site of the cathedral, I realized that the congregation was big enough that it might need the chairs on special days. Apparently the church was expanded a couple of times since it was built in 1841 CE, and I wondered whether it would be able to do that again.

The stained glass above the entrance was bright but quite simple. The rose window was also a simple pattern. I wonder why I did not take a photo. Perhaps it was because I was quite overwhelmed by the interior as I entered. The church was dressed up in pink and blue, with paper streamers strung between pillars and hanging from the roof. I wondered whether it had anything to do with the St. Mary who the church is named for, and it was. We’d arrived halfway between two days devoted to her.

I liked the flowers massed before the altar. The Family and I walked over to look at it. The church was very warm, although there were fans circulating air, and windows along the sides were open. We sat down on one of the benches under a fan, and looked around. The walls were painted white and orange, but there were gold highlights in various places.

Just above us a plaster cherub smiled down from his place on a pillar. The bright colour scheme was rendered louder by the decorations for the feast. I looked around and saw the next cherub frowning at me. I decided to take a photo of the friendlier one. I didn’t look at the other to check whether his frown had changed to a scowl.

I’d cooled down enough to walk around again. I’d missed the decorated statue of the Virgin on one side of the apse. It was the kind of painted clay idol which we’d seen on temples everywhere in and around Madurai. “Probably done by the same people,” I told The Family. She agreed. These statues are not replaced so very often, so there can’t be too many people making them, we thought. Later in the day we would find out how wrong we were.

Off on one side I saw a painted relief. I’m not sure I know the story which is being told here, but I noticed that the modeling of human figures and expressions was quite good. When the church was built enough money must have been spent to get the best of artisans and artists to decorate it. Lunch called us. We walked out, past schoolboys buying little treats from the auntie at the gate, pausing only to take a photo.

The north gopuram of the Meenakshi temple

The Meenakshi temple was rebuilt in the 16th century CE. The 47 meter high north gopuram was built in the second half of the 16th century by one of the Nayak kings. This tower was my first sight of the Meenakshi temple. The east gopuram is the closest entrance to the parking lot, but the crowds are thinner here. So we made our way to the entrance. We had to leave our footwear and phones and other electronics at a booth outside the temple, and proceed through a metal detector and a pat-down search. Everything was orderly and quick. When we came out again I looked carefully at the sculptures on the gopuram.

This gate was completed only in the 19th century CE. In the intervening three centuries it had come to be called mottai gopuram, meaning a roofless gate. I guess the four hundred odd sculptures which decorate this tower date from the 16th century. Apparently there is a twelve year cycle of maintenance and repair. The sculptures looked in fairly good shape. My first reaction on seeing these decorations was that the colour scheme was much more muted than in the modern temples that I’d seen. Could this mean that the unusual colour combinations that I’d seen elsewhere were a twentieth century style?

As we walked back towards the parking lot, I realized that the outer walls of the temple had decorations spaced regularly. This is a Shaiva temple; Meenakshi is the consort of Shiva. In a Vaishnav temple I would think that the figure in the photo above is a cowherd, associated with Krishna, who is an avatar of Vishnu. But in a Shaiva temple I’m not sure how I should interpret this fierce guy flanked by two cows. I ran into these problems of interpretation every now and then. It seems that a large fraction of the figures which decorate the temple refer to the usual pan-Indian mythology, but there is a significant part of these which deal with local stories. I would need help to understand those.

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.

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.

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.

Restored temple

Many of the beautiful ancient temples of India have taken to forbidding photography inside. This recent development means that the historic sculptures and beautiful architecture cannot be captured on film any longer. The Kothandaramaswamy temple in Dhanushkodi is more nuanced. It forbids photography of the main idol of Rama with his bow (kothanda), but otherwise photography is allowed. I wasn’t prepared for this, so I couldn’t take photos of the idol of Vibhishana. This idol was special, because the temple is said to commemorate Vibhishana leaving his brother Ravana to join Rama’s army.

One can see from the idols inside that the temple is post-medieval. The intricate sculptures that one sees in the Ramanathaswamy temple and its contemporaries are also missing. It is a few kilometers away from the drowned town of Dhanushkodi, and was spared destruction in the hurricane of 1964. However, it must have needed repairs, because a large stone tablet at the entrance says that it was restored between 1976 and 1978 by Mugneeram Ramkumar Bangur of Calcutta. The structure, with its flat roof, is clearly 20th century modern. A nod to traditional temple architecture is the well-decorated dome at the center of the roof.

I’m very fond of the modern clay images which decorate temples in south India. This one had particularly interesting examples. I specially liked the figure you see in the featured photo, one of four facing the cardinal directions. It incorporates many different artistic influences. Like many minor but important temples, this was surrounded by trees. The champa was in bloom, and its fragrance overlay the briny smell of the sea. It added a nice note to this calm temple.

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

Walking past a school of arts

I decided recently that I would walk in most of south Mumbai. Many roads have been dug up for the Metro, which is under construction, and the rest are therefore blocked with traffic, so this is faster. I figured that it would also be healthier to walk. What I didn’t realize is that I would become a tourist in my own town, seeing things which I hadn’t noticed before. The first pleasant surprise was the student murals on the walls of the J. J. School of Arts.

One of the origin stories that Mumbaikars tell each other is that Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, taught here. The story is even told in the School’s website. As a result, the Nobel prize winner for literature in 1907 grew up in a walled campus which much of the city commutes part daily. Caught in traffic jams nearby I hadn’t given it a thought. But walking past, my eyes snagged on little things behind the walls. Like the weird pipes around which a artist painted the mural which you see above.

Shabby maintenance is also evident in the work which you see above. I liked the work, with the man lying down to admire the wonderful colours around him. But the wall on which it is painted is a picture of awful maintenance. The hole which was punched into the wall to hold an exhaust fan did not account for the shape and size of the fan, and no one bothered to fill in the hole again. That this reduces the efficiency of the fan does not seem to be a concern! This in one of the country’s more popular schools of architecture!

The lovely pattern of pigeons and their coops is a rather clever trompe l’oeil. If the trick fails, it is because the real window is shabbier than the painted coops. The moss growing on the wall is doing a good job to restore the trick; I guess it won’t be long before the painting looks as unlovely as the window.

Here is a photo of the remains of a painting that I found interesting. Was this a picture of a lion and an unicorn fighting over a throne? What were the hands doing? I wish more of this was left. The more I walk around town the more I notice how utterly shabby Mumbai is becoming. Zipping across it in a car with windows down you notice only the oases of good repair. Walking, you discover the desert of crumbling buildings.

A neighbourhood temple

In 2006 we drove into Puducherry on Independence Day. In the evening we walked around the town and came across a small neighbourhood temple. I stopped to look at the people inside. There was no crowd. Passersby would drop in, pray, and leave. It was just a neighbourhood convenience. I liked the whole atmosphere. People didn’t seem to mind me standing at the entrance and taking photos.

I’m used to the plain and simple temples of north India. In the south temples are always well-decorated. Stone may be too expensive for these small modern temples, but the gopuram, the tower over the gate, will be full of layers and layers of figures. The featured photo shows some of the plaster statuary from this temple. I love these bright colours.