The Chen Clan’s Place

I had a quick look at the history of the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall of Guangzhou before we left India. It came highly recommended, but I was faintly disappointed to see that it was built as recently as 1895 CE, and that too by two Chinese-Americans who returned to Guangzhou. The intention was to provide a training academy for the Imperial civil service examination to young men (I don’t think women took the exam then) from the 75 families of this clan. Within 15 years the exams were history, and the clan turned its holdings to other ends.

An exit from the Chen Clan Academy metro station deposits you right at the door of the complex. The free standing gate which we saw (photo above) is a staple of travel posters and coffee table books about Guangzhou. I’d seen this photo of the gate in a book in our hotel room, and had no idea where it was. I was surprised and happy that it was here.

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The decorations on the external walls are stunning: whether they are representations of birds (as in the featured photo) or googly-eyed lions, phoenixes goosing pigeons, scenes from Cantonese opera or the countryside (as in the slideshow above). The clay images overwhelm your eyes, and I found that I had to examine them one by one in order to make sense of them. Not being tuned to the asymmetry of the Chinese decorative style also presented a problem which I had to resolve by scanning these clay images very slowly. The result was that it took me a long time to just walk into the complex.

The entrance is past these grand doors with their painted dwarpalas (heng ha er jiang in Mandarin). I saw many of these fierce guards painted on doors in Guangzhou. I suppose that by the late 19th century CE every one wanted their doors to be guarded by such guardians. Space must have been too precious to install the statues that earlier would guard temple doors. So the paintings were a neat cultural evolution. I was so engrossed in looking at the arms and armour carried by the dwarpala that I nearly missed the lion-head knockers on the doors.

I guess I will write another post about what we saw inside. But one thing that I need to put into this post are the lovely doors we saw inside. They are a little battered today, but they are elegant in a very understated way. “Quite different from the rest of the decorations” The Family said when she saw them. I wondered how they escaped unscathed through the cultural revolution.

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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.