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.

Slack time

The Family and I walked through the densely packed rows of shops in the streets around Madurai’s Meenakshi temple one afternoon. It was quite hot, and the crowds of shoppers had thinned. This was a relatively slack time of the day, and we saw most shopkeepers in a relaxed mood. Two of them sat outside a brass shop chatting. It looked like Aladdin’s cave. The Family wanted to look for brassware.

As she shopped I walked about a bit. Every one had a little time off. These three were probably street hawkers. They took some time out to finish lunch. I liked the way they are sitting together in a little group at the doorway of the narrow flight of stairs between two shops. I had to take a photo in passing, without giving them time to react. I can see the tiredness on their faces in this photo. If they’d noticed me then that slackness of expression would have been replaced by something else.

Sunset at the west gate of Meenakshi temple

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.

A fruit market

My first encounter with trigonometry had left me completely at sea. A person whose day job was to run a wholesale fruit business was found to be a suitable tutor by my family. I spent a couple of days in his shop, listening to his explanations, while crates of fruit were loaded and unloaded around me. Although he never complained about his job, it was clear that he loved maths. He also explained it well. This turned out to be a very fruitful time for me, so to say. Angles and distances have never bothered me since then. I also understood that among the scores of boxes of fruits, one or two pieces would be bruised, and over ripe. They would fill the surroundings with a heady smell.

I took a walk through Simmakkal fruit market in Madurai with my phone at the ready, and recognized this smell of ripening oranges and pineapples. I saw people picking out and separating these fruits, just as my erstwhile tutor would. Most people were busy but friendly, and smiled at the camera if they noticed me. Just one turned her face away. Now looking at these photos as I edit them, I wonder whether there are people here whose hearts and minds are not in the business they are engaged in. Could there be secret mathematicians, novelists or sculptors among the people I saw in this fruit market?

Pudhu mandapam

Pudhu Mandapam (literally, new pavilion) stands outside the east gopuram of the Meenakshi temple. Today it is mainly a market full of jewellery, cloth, and tailors. It looked totally incongruous, makeshift shops cluttered at the base of wonderful 17th century sculptures. It was constructed between 1628 and 1635 CE, during the reign of Thirumala Nayakkar, as a place for temple festivals.

My first view of the place was at night just as it was being locked down. We returned the next afternoon to look at it again. We walked through the large 100 meters by 32 meters rectangular structure, held up by 124 pillars. Each pillar is worth looking at. The gallery above contains some of the highlights: the lions bowing to the gods and kings who pass through these corridors, the dancers celebrating the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareswar, Meenakshi with three breasts, in her aspect of nurture. Other sculptures commemorate the Nayak kings. I’m sure a person more well-read than me in Tamil history will be able to identify them by name. The Family took a few photos of the tailors at work, one of them is included in the gallery here.

It seems that the surrounding market spilled into this mandapam in 1902. I wonder how the place looked before it became encased in a nest of wires, haphazardly erected stalls, and oddly placed lights.

Quick breakfasts

We had a long breakfast before starting, but The Family proposed a short break for a filter coffee. I thought it was a wonderful idea. But 10:30 in the morning turns out to be a little late for coffee in Madurai. Most of the wonderful little holes in the wall declared that it was too late.

Satghiamoorthy was not a person who gave up easily. He found a promising place within a few hundred meters. We crossed the road and went up to the stall to check, and found we were in luck. While we had our long coffee we saw that there was still a trickle of people coming in for their elevenses.

There were plates of pakoras laid out next to the cashier. At a counter inside idlis and vadas were piled high. This is what is called tiffin in Tamil Nadu, the small snacks which you can find all day. The previous night we did not want a large meal for dinner, and found a little shop where we had a serving of idlis. I’m sure most places make competent idlis in Madurai, just as they make competent coffee. We finished our competent coffee and were ready to start the day.

Cock fights

I saw a very lean cock strutting about a little village we passed through. It couldn’t possibly be the kind of free range chicken which is good to eat, I thought. There was too little meat on it. Only when I saw its other wing, bloody from cuts, that the penny dropped.

This was a fighting cock. I’d only seen photos of black fighting cocks before; the white variety was new to me. A law passed in 1960 made all animal fights illegal, but a search will immediately yield reports and videos of fights.

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.

Ganesha in Rameswaram

Very close to the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram we passed a large idol of Ganesha on a truck. Since we visited Rameswaram at the beginning of the Ganapati festival, this was not unusual. What made me stop was the drumming. A group of boys was ranked in front of the idol, wearing a white dhoti and a purple angravastram, playing a staccato rhythm on drums. It was loud, and the rhythm was not very complicated, but it was clearly the first act.

Behind them were older men with a yellow angavastram, with drums. I waited for them to start. It was a treat when they did. I discovered a wonderful new sound, made by rubbing the curved stick across the stretched membrane of the drum. Note the oldest man in the ensemble (at the center of the photo above, facing the camera). If the colour of the angavastram is anything to go by, then he was clearly special. He was absolutely focussed on the music, and seemed to be directing the others.

The drums are an announcement of an approaching event, and my guess was that this was merely the start. It would be some time before the truck moved, and the drummers would move behind it, announcing the approach of Ganesha.