Serial lives

We had half a day free in Hefei after my work was over, and it had started to rain. The Family and I gave up the idea of a stroll in a park to see Hefei’s Lord Bao’s temple. Plan B was to go down to the Huaihe shopping street and look into a couple of interesting spots. One was the Mingjiao temple. There’s been a temple in this spot for more than fourteen centuries. The earliest one was destroyed in war at the beginning of the 7th century CE, at about the time chess was invented in India, and smallpox was first recorded in Europe. A century later, an iron statue of the Buddha was found in the ruins of the temple, and the Tang emperor Daizong ordered a temple to be rebuilt on this site. This was called the Temple of the Iron Buddha. Seven or eight centuries later, during the Ming era, it was renamed the Mingjiao. In the 19th century the temple was destroyed again in war, and rebuilt in 1886. During the 20th century it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The version that we saw was rebuilt in 2015. We’d gathered this much from a tourist booklet in our hotel before we set out in the rain to see it.

The temple looked pretty impressive even in the dull light of a very overcast and rainy day. I spent some time in the open area in front of it trying to get a photo. The temple is too long, and the area too short, to get the full complex into one shot. I gave up on it and climbed the stairs to the Shanmen, literally the mountain gate. The few people inside the gate were curious to know where we came from, and the word Yindu produced welcoming smiles. We entered our names in a book that was pointed out to us, left our wet umbrellas near the entrance, and walked in.

Just inside the gate was the usual outer hall of Buddhist temples, called the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings. The main statue is of Maitreya (featured photo), the Buddha who will come in the future. The other kings were also impressive: you can see one above and another below. They are clearly very powerful beings. One of them sits on an elephant, and dwarfs it quite thoroughly. The other holds a lotus bud as he sits on a beast which looked like a lion at first sight. But when I looked closer it turned out to be the Suanni, one of the hybrid dragons of Chinese lore. The blue of the Suanni was quite striking.

The temple had a rectangular layout. Along the sides of the rectangle were rooms. We had entered through the main gate which was in the center of the longer, south-facing, side. Covered corridors ran along the inside of the rectangle, facing an open courtyard which we had to cross to get the main hall. This is called the Mahavira hall (photo below). It was raining too hard to pause in the courtyard to take photos, but I got a reasonably complete photo of this central hall from the corridor.

I can’t pass up an opportunity to take photos of elephants, even if they are made of stone, have three pairs of tusks and wear a red bonnet. This is a representation of the Elephant King incarnation of the Buddha. I don’t recall having seen this image in India (although there is at least one in Ajanta), but it seems to be pretty common in China. In fact, the introduction of Buddhism to China has been dated to at least the first century CE by tracing the appearance of six tusked elephants in Chinese art.

The rain was not going to taper off soon. The Family and I ran across the courtyard and up the steps of the Mahavira Hall. The golden statues and the yellow light inside looked warm and inviting. I was very impressed by the statues behind the main altar. This triplet of statues of the Buddha was too dimly lit for a good photo. It is possible that on a less gloomy day the light is sufficient for photography.

On one side wall were more statues of Bodhisattvas, previous incarnations of the Buddha. As I walked around and got to the back of the main altar, I saw a really impressive statue of Guanyin. This incarnation would be called the Avalokiteshwara in India, and Kannon in Japan. Somehow, in traveling from India to Japan, the gender of this Bodhisattva changes. I found it interesting that this statue is backed by an enormous wall-sized print of a forest glade with a woman in the center. In China, forests are deeply associated with Buddhism and its message of the renunciation of worldly desires.

At the back the Mahavira hall joins the northern part of the corridor. “How silly,” I said to The Family, “We need not have run. We could have just walked round the back, and we would have come here without getting wet.” She disagreed, “It was nice to come up the steps and see the Buddha statues first,” she replied. It was. The little hall behind is dedicated to the Buddhist monk Ksitigarbha (called Dizang in Mandarin). I like the offerings of fruit piled up in front of him.

There were many more statues of the Buddha in the side halls, but the only one I was allowed to take a photo of was this one in his last sleep, the Mahaparinirvana. I leave you with this photo of the Buddha, as, according to belief, he finally departs from the burden of serial lives.

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The temple of the city god

Reading Western accounts of Taoism may lead you to wrongly believe that it is an austere philosophical way of life. But, in its day to day practice, it is far from this. The religion is full of gods who may be worshipped with incense, fruits, and money. The temples are big and shiny, full of numerous subsidiary gods. The Temple of the City God (Chenghuang Miao, 上海城隍庙) in Shanghai is a glittering example. Every walled city in China would have its city god temple: the word cheng means wall and the word huang means moat. Shanghai got its temple during the reign of the Yongle emperor in the 15th century.

We had missed seeing this on our first visit to Shanghai three years ago. Local tradition holds that if you haven’t seen Chenghuang Miao, then you haven’t seen Shanghai. So this time we paid for our tickets and walked into the busy temple. The main city god seems to be Qin Yu Bo, a 14th century bureaucrat declared to be the protector of Shanghai when the Yongle emperor decreed the construction of this temple. Signs in English are few, and I managed to figure out only the city god and the pantheon of wealth. But all the statues were very impressive (see the gallery above for photos of a few).

The temple was apparently shut down during the Cultural Revolution, and was renovated and reopened only in 2006. There was such a large throng of worshippers, that I did not dare to approach any of the monks to ask about the statues of immortals and gods. This was probably lucky, because I later read that the monks are notoriously bad tempered. If you want information on the Taoist gods then the internet is full of explanations.

An artists’ market

Later in the day we spent some time walking through the market place surrounding the Yu garden and the temple of the City God (Chenghuang Miao). On our first stroll through this area three years ago, The Family and I had found it a little overblown, what with all the gold and silver shops. Now that we had the time to take a closer look, the marketplace began to grow on me. A couple of months earlier I’d traveled through several of the major temple towns of India and was struck by the marketplaces built around temples. The parallel to India was striking: the market here could be the modern version of a historic market that has always existed around the temple of the City God, I thought.

I later found that Frances Wood and Neil Taylor, in the Blue Guide to China, agree with this assessment. This would be the remnants of the prosperous trading town that Shanghai had grown into by the early 18th century, by the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing eras. When the Treaty of Nanjing forced China to concede port and trade facilities to the opium trade of the western powers, those settlements were built outside of this old town. The silverworkers and other artists who have their stalls here may have been here many times in history. We walked through the market and sank into the wonderful craftsmanship on display. Some distinguish China from other cultures: calligraphy, paper cutting, seals, and fiendish wire puzzles. Others are common across the world, though they come with a Chinese flavour here: silverwork and jade, wood and glass work, ocarinas. I wonder how many cultures came in contact with each other over history in order to transport these crafts across the world.

Yu Garden

If you are a casual tourist like me the Yu garden of Shanghai could be the only classical Ming period (16th century) garden that you get to see. The featured photo shows you most of the special features of these gardens: white walls enclose it, pierced by round doors called moon gates, large areas of water are surrounded by trees and rocks, and there are pavilions where you are supposed to sit and enjoy the view. It is worthwhile checking out these pavilions, because the garden was designed so that the view from each pavilion is a set piece to enjoy.

What you see in the photo above is one of these set pieces. I was lucky to be able to capture this view in a little moment when there were no people in the frame. The garden was quiet, and I could hear the soft rustle of leaves. When the Ming dynasty official, Pan Yun Duan, had this garden built in 1565 I am sure the soundscape was also part of the design.

This becomes clearer in another part of the garden, a view of which you see in the photo above. The tiny waterfall is designed to produce a gentle sound of water. After meeting the sound of falling water in tens of upmarket shops across China, I am inclined to think that you are meant to hear a classical Chinese garden as well as look at it. This must be a part of culture which is so deep that little is written about it. In the same way no one really writes about the fact that a traditional Indian garden engages the sense of smell more than sight.

One of the pavilions has a view of the very special stone called Yu Ling Long (玉玲珑, exquisite jade rock) which you see in the photo above. Understanding why this is exquisite takes you to the heart of Chinese aesthetics, and its preference for artful asymmetry. The stone, said to have been collected and lost by the northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong, is said to be shou, zhou, lou, and tou (ie, it is slender, gnarly, full of channels and holes). The holes are said to be such that if you light incense at the base, the smoke pours out from each of the 72 holes in the rock. Also, it is said that, the channels are such that if you pour water at the top, it flows out of each of these holes. Since there is no demonstration of this, I expect these are the usual superlatives which you have to take for granted.

Around the tranquil pond in front of this, I noticed sparrows and turtles. Turtles are supposed to be symbols of longevity, and good luck, on par with dragons and the phoenix. Placing them in the pool was symbolic of good health and long life. Maybe I could have considered the sparrows to stand in for the phoenix. In that case I could count this as a wonderfully lucky sighting.

I am quite certain that this view is not meant to be special, just that foreigners like me find it very typical of China. The pavilion on water and the banana trees around it looked to me like a transformed village house from Assam, Bengal, or Odisha: the kind of parallel with a difference which I use as a private scheme to understand China. This garden has been destroyed many times, and rebuilt again. It is unlikely that there is a single unified design any longer.

This young girl who wheeled her suitcase up to the water’s edge and then sat down to start feeding fish, however, acted within the design parameters of the garden. The carp were seeded here to be looked at, admired, and fed. There was soon a crowd around her. She kept reaching into the suitcase and bringing out feed. That is when it struck me that the large number of people whom I saw wheeling around suitcases were not out-of-towners enjoying a stroll through Shanghai. They are locals. The wheeled suitcase is preferred over a backpack by many people in China. I find that a garden is a good place for people watching.

Aladdin’s cave of kitsch

The Family and I walked into a store room full of painted plaster figures ready for shipping. Three people were busy packing things into boxes and did not mind us walking around and looking at things. These were not high art, like some of the statuary we had seen in the Meenakshi temple. As you can see when you look at the gallery below, they are kitsch: mythological figures, figures from popular TV serials, scenes from a traditional middle class Tamil life.

But it is amazing to be surrounded by thousands of such figures. After some time they can begin to look faintly menacing, even with their cheerfully bright colours. While I was lost in fantasies of fighting off hordes of bright blue cats, The Family had made a few purchases and needed my help in having them packed safely for a flight.

Hari Potter

Magic creeps up on you slowly as you walk through the village near Madurai called Vilachery. People who asked us to visit this place told us that it was a potter’s village. Initially that conjured up images of potter’s wheels, and ranks of pots and jugs. Then, slowly, as I began to realize that Tamil visual culture is steeped in clay images, a vague other image started taking shape in my mind. Sathiamoorthy parked the car in a widening of the dirt road through the village, and we started walking. The first indication that something sparkled in the air was the door in the featured photo. Headless angels and a madonna with a hidden face? “The game is afoot,” I told The Family.

I need not have bothered. She’d already found a workshop behind blue doors. “Who’s next?”, she asked. We peered through the door. Nobody was home. The whole row of houses here had workshops attached to them. We walked on, peering at courtyards piled with large and small statues. In a very real sense, this was the heart of Tamil culture, at least its visual expression. I was glad we had decided to come here.

In another lane in the village we came to the workshops of those who use clay. In a little opening around which two of these workshops clustered, we found a smoking heap of straw. In the straw were many different kinds of figurines, but several of each type. Again, economics dictated that multiple copies of each be made.

This row of workshops seemed to specialize in moulded plaster. I guess the ability to make many copies with molds is way to make a steady income. I peered into a workshop and saw a whole battalion of the figures that you see in the photo above. A woman sat near them and was hand-painting them one by one. She had several day’s worth of work ahead of her, I guessed.

I looked through an open door and found a workshop of a slightly different kind. Two large Ganesh sat here. They were clearly individually crafted, since their postures were slightly different. The master spoke only Tamil, but with Sathiamoorthy as an interlocutor I figured that a framework is built first in bamboo and straw, and then clay is applied over it. Similar techniques are in use everywhere in India.

This was a two storied house. I’d assumed that the ground floor was the workshop and the upper floor was where the master and his family lived. As I wandered past the blue Ganesh, I saw the marvelous sight which you can see in the photo above: a large clay statue of Ganesh in a kitchen. Where is the mouse, I wondered. Has it wandered off into the kitchen?

Even though the master worked on such large pieces (individually commissioned) the workshop did not disdain the plaster figures that others made. In one corner of the workshop there was a company of figures, made up of small platoons of several different kinds. The history of globalization since the 16th century can be seen in these figures: they bring together influences from India, Europe and China.

Private audience

At the northern corner of the Swarga Vilasa, a small door connects to an ornate room called Natakasalai. The name seems to imply a theater, but the information that you can read on your way in implies that Thirumala Nayak lived in this area. Other areas in the now vanished palace complex had uses which would need a theater. I could steer a middle step in guessing, and say that this could well be a private audience chamber. It is ornate enough to befit one of the richer kings of the south, whose kingdom encompassed a large part of modern day Tamil Nadu, and some portions of Kerala and Karnataka. The featured photo looks eastwards down the length of this hall.

The center of the room is sunk a little below the level of the Swarga Vilasa, and on the east the space resembles a raised stage. It reminds you of a modern theater with its raised stage and low seating. But in the 17th century the king would not have sat at a lower level. If this was used for dance or theatre, then the performers would have been in the center, with the king seated to the east. If this was an audience chamber, then again the king would have sat on the platform in the east.

The decorations here are finer than those outside. There were the usual winged lions rampant on the finials of the pilars, but below them the ornate leaves and vines were much finer and more delicate than the beautiful work I’d already admired in the outer chamber. I have not seen such fine work in clay before.

This area is used as a somewhat haphazard museum. Some of the sculptures on display are interesting, but perhaps the most interesting are the pillars with epigraphs which are kept in a small and bare side chamber.

At the court

My first sight of Thirumal Nayak’s palace knocked the breath out of me. When I recovered I walked along the side gallery of the audience chamber, called the Swarga vilasa. When you do this you cannot help noticing how closely the thick pillars are set. If I hadn’t known it already, this would have been my first realization that the palace does not use stone. Stone pillars could be more slender. These pillars are made of clay, excavated from the teppakulam of the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.

I walked down the corridor and looked up at the cupola in the corner. Using clay as a building material has its constraints. Walls and pillars are thick, and getting enough light into a space requires different solutions. The syncretic architecture that had grown after the incursion of the Delhi sultanate into Madurai offered the beautiful solution which you see in the photo above. A cupola in the roof allows space for a whole series of windows which let in light. I admired the technicality and the beautiful design on the roof.

The light filters easily down, lighting up a large pride of lions which looked down their noses at me. This was more work in clay. Madurai is not very far from mountains, and transporting stone would not have been out of the question. A professional historian would be able to shed more light on the choice of building material: was it economics, or familiarity with the material which led to the use of clay here? After all, the Meenakshi temple, rebuilt during the preceding century uses stone. Why not this?

I walked down the side gallery to the space behind where the king would make his appearance. The space is vast, but broken by pillars. The vistas that greet you inside the Meenakshi temple are absent. The pillars are said to be coated with a plaster made from powdered sea shell bound together with egg protein. The smooth white finish has attracted a generation of people to express their thoughts in pencil and ball pen, in defiance of notices which request people not to do so. If you thought that the internet is where you see the most interesting opinions, you could be wrong.

The largest dome on the roof lies over the center of this space. Every tourist stops below it to gape up at the interior of the dome. I decided to go with the flow. It is worth it. The ceiling is beautifully decorated, and there is enough light to admire this by. The complex is maintained by the state archaeology department. Typically departments such as this are starved of funding; even more so than health and education. In spite of that, I thought that they have done a fair job of maintenance.

Next to the central dome there seems to be a smaller cupola. I looked up at the painted ceiling; it looked coffered. Was it trompe l’oeil? I walked around below it and saw from the change is perspective that it really was coffered. I didn’t see any structural reason why this part of the ceiling needed strengthening. Perhaps it is something that is only visible from above. The design was spectacular, what ever the reason.

The area where the king would have sat is architecturally interesting. A series of cupolas and domes let in a lot of light, so the king would never be in darkness. The central cupola and the arches could also have been designed for its acoustics. I could not test that, but it seems possible given the shape of the area. Just in front of this is a vestibule and steps leading down to the courtyard. The vestibule is crossed by rods which could have held fans meant for ciruclating air through this whole area.

At the bottom of the steps were two beautiful stone sculptures which at one time would have shown horses with riders. The riders had been cut off quite expertly. It looks like planned plunder. The balance of probability is that the busts of the riders are gracing a collection somewhere in the wider world.

Heaven’s Court

After the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, their viceroy in Madurai, Vishvanatha Nayak declared himself king of Madurai in 1529 CE. Thirumala Nayakkar became king almost a hundred years later, in 1623 CE. His palace is one of the stops on a tourist circuit of Madurai. It didn’t look like much when we came to it. So our first view of what we saw when we entered the door (see the featured photo) was a shock.

That wonderful soaring facade stood at the end of a large courtyard. The place felt like a court, a place where a king can make a ceremonial appearance. My guess was not incorrect. This part of the palace is the audience chamber, known as Swarga Vilasam, which one can loosely translate as Heaven’s Court. One reads that the rest of the palace was destroyed in the 18th century CE. I could not find the circumstances in which this destruction took place, but it would be interesting to read more about it.

There is a sound and light show every evening in this palace, and the courtyard was filled with rows of chairs for the show. I sat in one and admired the clay images which decorated the facade. During this trip I began to realize that a common cultural thread which runs through medieval and modern Tamil society is the wide use of these decorative clay images. Th winged lion, whose photo you see above, is a particularly nice example.

I was initially a little surprised to find a representation of an angel in this court. But on a little reflection I remembered that the first Christian churches were built in Madurai with the permission of Virappa Nayak, Thirumala’s father. Since I’d seen the cathedral decorated with clay images, it was clear that local artists had already learnt to use Christian symbolism. A winged human is not so different from other imaginary winged creatures after all.

The Makara recurs throughout the palace. This one caught my eye because of the two parrots which float in its beard. The decoration on top of the arch and the supports above it are incredible. I was astounded by the wealth that this symbolized. A pity that a large part of the palace is gone, taking much human ingenuity and artistry with it. I must remember to try to find out when and why the rest of the palace was pulled down.

Finally I shifted my attention from the arches and pillars to the decoration in the top layer of the facade. These are equally complex. Lions and snakes separate groups of three warriors. In our machine age we fall into an assumption that if a pattern is repeated, then every repeat is identical. But in the early modern age, when this palace was built, this was not true. Every bit of the pattern received individual attention. So the groups of three warriors are all different. In these two groups, see how individualized each warrior is. Even the stances of the warriors are slightly different, somewhat individual.

The ancient East gate of Madurai’s Meenakshi temple

I’ve saved the oldest of the gates of the Meenakshi temple for the end. This is the east gate, built between 1216 and 1238 CE by the Pandya dynasty king Maravarman Sundara. It is less than 47 meters high, and has just over a thousand clay images depicting scenes from the Puranas. It is also special in that it stands over the main sanctum of Meenakshi.

By the time I reached this place my confusion over whether this is a Shaiva temple or Vaishnava was resolved. As I found out, in one telling Meenakshi is married to Shiva in his aspect of Sundaresan, but she is the sister of Vishnu. This is the story you can see in one of the photos in the gallery. Shiva is shown with the moon in his hair, as usual. Vishnu can be recognized by the fact that he carries the Sudarshan chakra in one of his hands.

I wondered whether I was imagining things, but these images seemed slightly different from those on the other gates. Compare the figures in the detail of the top rung of images with those from any of the other gates. The modelling of human features seems to be different. The lions are definitely different. Although the clay images must have been replaced many times, it is possible that a strict tradition governs them, so that they remain fairly true to the originals. If this is so, then these differences could be reflections of the difference in artistic styles that developed in the centuries which passes between the construction of the different gates.

I am not an expert, and this is not an academic paper. So I am free to speculate.