Gandhi at the Meenakshi temple

A month ago, on the occasion of Gandhi’s one hundred and fiftieth birth centenary, I wrote that I did not have any Gandhi memorabilia. I remembered later that it was not true. I had a photo of a memorial to Gandhi just outside the eastern wall of Madurai’s Meenakshi temple. It is a sign of the very high esteem that Gandhi is held in that this statue is placed so prominently near the very center of tradition in Madurai. At the same time it is outside the temple, and not inside, with statues of gods and goddesses. A very calibrated placement, I thought. I post it a month late, but better that I post it now than forget it.

The ancient East gate of Madurai’s Meenakshi temple

The marriage of Meenakshi

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.

Sunset at the west gate of Meenakshi temple

Vigorous dancing

We saw the west gopuram of the Meenakshi temple in the best possible light. It was late in the afternoon, just before the sun dipped below the line of the buildings around it. When we reached, the long shadows of these buildings had begun to creep across the road, and by the time we left they were climbing up the walls of the tower. This 47 meter high tower is the second oldest of the outer gopura, having been built between 1315 and 1347 CE in the reign of the Pandya king Parakrama.

By the time I came to this tower my confusion was complete. I’d expected that this temple to Meenakshi, consort of Shiva, was firmly in the Shaiva tradition. On the other hand, this gopuram has an image of Vishnu’s avatar as Narasimha, and several other Vaishnava images. Later reading told me that, in the south Indian tradition, Meenakshi is Vishnu’s sister. As a result, this temple is important in both traditions.

That certainly put a lot of the imagery in perspective.

The amazing south gate of the Meenakshi temple

I don’t think it is incorrect to call the south gopuram the high point of our visits to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Its 49 meters of height makes it the tallest of the towers of the Meenakshi temple. The web page of the temple trust records that it was constructed in 1559 CE by Siramalai Sevanthi Murthy Chetti. I couldn’t find any information about the donor. I guess he must have been a rich merchant, because the custom of businessmen donating to, or constructing, temples persists even today.

This tall tower is said to be decorated with 1511 figures. I liked the colours. The figures in the Meenakshi temple are very colourful, but not nearly as bright as in the small modern neighbourhood temples. This gate seems to be at the end of the 12 year cycle of restoration. I wished I’d come here with binoculars. In the absence of a pair, The Family and I clicked away at everything that caught our attention. You can see a small sample of them in the gallery above (as always, click on any photo to start a slideshow).

Treatise on Arts

It is often said that the old city of Madurai is laid out according to the principles of the Shilpa Shastra, a set of Sanskrit texts which together make up a treatise on the sixty four classical arts. In actual practice, it means that the streets are laid out in concentric squares surrounding the square ground plan of the Meenakshi temple. The primary axis of the city runs east-west, facing the Vaigai river to the east. We spent a couple of afternoons in the innermost layer of the old city. This is the Chittarai street, which runs around the temple wall.

The afternoons were hot, and sensible people kept indoors. In response, many of the shops were closed. You had to be a crazy photographer on a limited time-budget to look for street life at this time. The Family ducked into jewelry shops which line the street and emerged with occasional bargains to display. This area is known for jewelry, clothing, and bookshops. By and large the bookshops were closed.

I saw a large family waiting in the queue to get into the temple. A young boy broke away to go sit in the shade below one of the bookstores. The father was not very pleased, but the boy successfully convinced his father that he would sit in the shade until the rest of the family reached the head of the queue. This distraction gave me enough time to take a photo. After a while the boy’s younger sister joined him in the shade.

Most doors which were closed were locked up. The one which you see above was just tied shut. It didn’t have a signboard. Was it a business? If it was, then wasn’t the owner worried about the merchandise being stolen? I’m afraid this has turned out to be one of those things destined to remain an eternal mystery.

I liked the colour of this door, and since the lady selling jasmine flowers outside wore a matching sari, I had to take a photo. The Family bought some jasmine, and put it in our hotel room. The light smell stayed for the two days we spent there. I wonder whether she buys these at the Mattuthavani flower market.

One of the things you are advised to eat in Madurai is halwa. I wasn’t sure whether that is the Thirunalvelli halwa or the Nagapattinam halwa. These two old friends in the shop were so deep in conversation that they did not notice me taking a photo. I could have a halwa anywhere, but I would not get this photo again.

The long corridor

The Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram is reputed to have the longest corridors, 1220 meters long with 1200 pillars. The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is a close runner up with 985 pillars and fifteen more replaced by a couple of shrines. I suppose that means that the corridors are over a kilometer in length. Unfortunately it is not possible to take photos of these any longer, since electronics is forbidden inside the temple: one of my gripes.

So I was forced to stand outside the security barriers in front of the east gopuram and take photos down the corridor. At daytime the inside is very dark, so the photos you see here were taken at night. The security men obligingly moves out of the frame. The entrance is lined with shops which sell paraphernalia needed for religious ceremonies in the temple. I took these photos less than an hour from the time when the gates are shut. The crowds were thin, but many of the shops were still open. These photos show you the scale of the corridor, but do not convey the calmness of the light which filters in during the day.

During the day the colours of the paintings really show up. The blues and greens do not show well at night, but at daytime you realize that these are the main colours in the paintings. The yellows, reds and golds are highlights. There is a twelve year cycle of maintenance, during which the plaster and clay decorations are touched up, and replaced if necessary. I don’t know whether the paintings are restored in the same cycle, but since they are integrated with the idols in the niches here, I am quite certain that it would make sense to restore them together.

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.

Temple life

The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is such a grand structure that I had to take it slowly, in little bits and pieces. Here was my first gentle entry into the life of the temple: a squirrel which skittered along a wall before I could take a photo. Then it paused on the far side with the brush of its tail showing above the wall. I had a sudden sharp memory of buying very delicate paint brushes when I was a school child; they were made of squirrel hair.

In Tamil Nadu red and white stripes on a building denote a temple.

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.