Sunday, January 29, 2012

Madurai and Trichy and their colourful temple complexes

The locals in Madurai consider the Meenakshi temple complex to be the Taj Mahal of Southern India. It is a very large complex of Mayan style architecture (pyramids) that was first built in the first millennium, but whose present carved stone structures were originally built in the fifteenth century. Additional sculptures were added on top of the stone structures in wood and stucco in the seventeenth century.

At a glance from a distance, the temples are amazingly colourful and intricate. It took several questions to our guide to ascertain that the temples are indeed repainted and updated every twelve years and not original pigments from the 1600’s. With this new knowledge, our evaluation and appreciation of the entire complex seemed to lose its luster so to speak.

On closer inspection, the abundant sculptures covering every inch of the structures, all painted in a pastels and “brights” as I would call them, were more akin to a Disney animated movie palate than the spiritual respect that one would expect should be accorded a holy shrine. The sculptures themselves were amazingly Disney like. So much so, that I am quite sure the inspiration for many Disney characters must have originated here.

I had a hell of a time understanding our guide’s English so Google, as always, to the rescue. Here are some facts.

“The enormous temple complex is dedicated to Shiva, known here as Sundareshvara and his consort Parvati or Meenakshi. The original temple was built by Kulasekara Pandya, but the entire credit for making the temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayaks. The Nayaks ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th century and left a majestic imprint of their rule in the Meenakshi - Sundareswarar Temple.

The temple complex is within a high-walled enclosure, at the core of which are the two sanctums for meenakshi and Sundareshwara, surrounded by a number of smaller shrines and grand pillared halls. Especially impressive are the 12 gopuras. Their soaring towers rise from solid granite bases, and are covered with stucco figures of dieties, mythical animals and monsters painted in vivid colours.

(We also visited) The Thousand Pillar Mandapam is considered the 'wonder of the palace'. Actually the number of pillars count to 985 beautifully decorated columns. Each pillar is sculptured and is a monument of the Dravidan sculpture. There is a Temple Art Museum in this 1000 pillars hall where you can see icons, photographs, drawings, etc., exhibiting the 1200 years old history. There are so many other smaller and bigger mandapams in the temple.

Just outside this mandapam, towards the west, are the Musical Pillars. Each pillar when stuck produces a different musical note. The kalyana mandapa, to the south of the pillared hall, is where the marriage of Shiva and Parvati is celebrated every year during the Chitirai Festival in mid- April.”

The next day we drove a short distance to Trichy, home to the Rock Fort and Ranganathaswamy Temples. We found more of the same there, just without the guide who I couldn’t understand.

Marc and I had mixed feelings about both towns and both temple complexes. The Disney style seemed to us inappropriate for places of worship (very presumptuous of us I know, but that is how we felt), yet the structures and complexes were magnificent in their own strange Indian way. Marc read somewhere that this style of architecture (Dravidan) has been compared to an Indian style Baroque. I think we both agreed that this was an apropos description.

But we will let you make your own decisions. Here are some photos. The first batch are in Madurai,

and these are from Trichy.


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