Poetry in stone

Print edition : April 24, 2009

The now cemented Golden Lotus Tank inside the temple.-

WE are standing on the eastern side of the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, chosen on March 30 as one of the Seven Wonders of India by NDTV through a poll it conducted as part of the Union Tourism Ministrys Incredible India campaign. Although it is only around 9 a.m., business has already picked up, with devotees and Indian and foreign tourists bargaining with shopkeepers in the temples pudu mandapa (new hall). Even as we scan the tall, stupendous base of the unfinished Raya gopuram in front of us, with its ornate thoranas, elegant carvings, sculptures of dancing damsels, lion-based pilasters and niches, the eyes of the scholar-leader of our team light up. He darts forward, removes the wooden planks propped up on the base and reveals a beautiful stone sculpture of Tirumalai Nayak (A.D. 1623 to 1659), the ruler of Madurai who contributed to the temples expansion.

A few steps away, we are on Ezhu Kadal Street, one of the oldest streets in Madurai. To our disappointment, the sacred tank, after which the street is named, is no longer there. A big multi-storeyed shopping complex has taken its place. I have seen the tank brimming with water in the early 1980s, says K. Ganesan, Special News Photographer, The Hindu/Frontline.

Ezhu Kadal (Seven Seas) has a 500-year history behind it. An inscription that used to be at the spot referred to Saluvanarasa Nayak, an officer of the Vijayanagar emperor who excavated the tank in 1516 to collect merit for the emperor Krishnadevaraya. Opposite the multi-storeyed shopping complex is a small temple dedicated to Kanchanamala, mother of Meenakshi. According to legend, Sundareswarar, Meenakshis consort, made the seven seas converge in Madurai to fulfil Kanchanamalas wish to bathe in the seven seas of the world. Back in the pudu mandapa built by Tirumalai Nayak, a world of poetry in stone awaits us. It is full of sculptures of indescribable beauty: Siva as Ekapadamurthy, Gajasamharamurthy, and Ravana anugrahamurthy; Siva performing the Urthava thandava dance; Kali; prancing yalis; warriors on horses; mythical animals; and so on. There are also sculptures depicting scenes from Siva Lila (Tiruvilayadal Puranam in Tamil), which took place in Madurai Siva converting foxes into horses, a stone-elephant coming alive to eat sugarcane, Siva feeding milk to a piglet, Siva preaching to a black sparrow, and so on.

The gargantuan base of the unfinished Raya gopuram (in the foreground), the pudu mandapa, and the raja gopuram at the eastern side of the temple.-

Another facet of the pudu mandapa emerges as a temple employee opens the gates and leads us into its central nave. Standing on huge pillars on either side of the imposing corridor are majestic portrait sculptures of 10 rulers of the Madurai Nayak dynasty from Viswanatha Nayak, the progenitor of the dynasty, to Tirumalai Nayak with his two wives.

The real beauty of the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple is emerging before the viewers eyes, thanks to the temple administrations efforts to give a facelift to the historic site on the occasion of the khumbhabhishekam, held on April 8. The 15-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) temple complex has been bustling with activity. From September 2007, several hundred artisans, artists, sthapathis and masons have been working to refurbish the complex. Load-bearing granite beams and roof slabs that had developed cracks have been replaced with new architectural members. The hideous metal cladding that obscured the view of the geometrical and floral designs of the pillars have been removed. The vimana of the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine of Meenakashi has been gold-plated now. About 30 kilograms of pure gold was converted into sheets to cover it.

Karumuttu T. Kannan, Chairman, Board of Trustees of the temple, called it a challenge to replace the four beams and 87 roof slabs with new members. Kannan said: It was not easy to take them out because these structures were several centuries old and their stability was involved. The metal props that supported the structure in the south-east corner of the Meenakshi shrines sanctum sanctorum were replaced with pillars. A team of sthapathis sculpted these pillars with carvings.

A view of the temples raja gopurams and the inner gopurams.-

Now the temple premises is a riot of polychromatic colours. The 12 gopurams, including the four majestic raja gopurams with hundreds of stucco sculptures, painted in multicolours, glow in the sun. Mandapas with pillars and elegant sculptures have received a generous coat of polyurethane, which K. Rajanayagam, temple executive officer, claimed was a preservative. Panels of small sculptures that run for several hundred metres above the capitals of pillars dazzle with enamel paint. Rajanayagam said the attempt was to restore the temples originality as per the principles of agama.

The temple complex stands in the heart of Madurai town, on the banks of the Vaigai river. Its architecture is marvellous, with inner and outer prakaras running around the two sanctum sanctorums. On the four sides of the complex are streets that run parallel to each other, in the form of a square within a square a testimony to the excellent town-planning of those early days. The temples origin, growth and development are organically linked to those of the town.

In her book Madurai Through the Ages: From the earliest times to 1801 A.D., D. Devakunjari says, Whether as a temple city or a capital city, the history of Madurai is distinct from that of other cities. Politically, Madurai was the capital of a single dynasty, the Pandyas, who ruled continuously as far as is known from the early years of Christianity down to the 14th century. This fact alone, more than anything else, is enough to gain for Madurai a unique place. Even after the Pandyas, Madurai continued as the capital of some dynasty or the other for four centuries more. It has, therefore, had a continuous history as a political capital for eighteen centuries.

The sculpture depicting the wedding of Meenakshi to Sundareswarar, at the pudu mandapa of the temple.-

In this book, published in 1979 by the Society for Archaeological, Historical and Epigraphical Research, Chennai, the late Devakunjari says: The history of Madurai as a religious centre goes back to remote times when the temple, one of its oldest institutions, has had a coeval history with those of the rulers and remains as important as ever even after the rulers have disappeared. The Madurai temple is not only of hoary antiquity but possesses an entire purana of its own, relating to the lilas of Sundareswarar, the deity of Madurai. This purana, known as Halasya Mahatmya or Tiruvilayaidal in Tamil, narrates the 64 lilas performed by God.

The temple has four raja gopurams, on the east, the west, the south and the north. Each gopuram is nine-storeys tall. Besides these, there are eight gopurams of which two are vimanas. Inside the temple is the Golden Lotus Tank, which unfortunately was cemented up a few years ago.

As Devakunjari says, the raja gopurams have a singular beauty and grace of their own. Many temple gopurasare either too wide or too narrow in proportion to their height. The builders of the Madurai temple had a fine sense of artistry and the towering outer gopuras are standing monuments to their genius. Each gopuram teems with hundreds of stucco figures of the deities in the Hindu pantheon, the various forms of Siva and his lilas.

A VIEW OF the 1,000-pillared mandapa with the image of Nataraja at the centre.-G. MOORTHY

The east gopuram was built by Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan in the 13th century and is the oldest of the four. At its base are two Tamil inscriptions, which refer to the gopuram as Sundarapandya Tirugopuram and Avanivendaraman Tirugopuram (the king who conquered the world).

The west gopuram was built by Parakrama Pandya in A.D. 1323.

The 161-foot (49.1 m) south gopuram is the tallest of the four. It is a magnificent structure with late Vijayanagar and early Madurai Nayak characteristics. The squatting lions on the wall pilasters are typical of the Vijayanagar period. It was built by Siramalai Sevvandi in A.D. 1478. Structurally, says Devakunjari, it is one of the most beautiful. The two tiers of its stone base are well proportioned to each other and are of an imposing appearance. The brick structure is of singular beauty though myriads of stucco figures hide its architectural construction. The sloping edge has a more concave sweeping curve than in the other three gopuras. This gives it a peculiar elegance which is admirable.

The sculpture of Parvati riding a peacock.-

The north gopuram was built by Krishnappa Nayaka (A.D. 1595-1601).

Another wonder is the unfinished Raya gopuram, with its gargantuan base: 200 feet by 120 ft (61 metres by 36.6 m). Devakunjari says: It is a stupendous structure and if it had been completed, it would have been one of the biggest gopuras in South India. The building owes its origin to Tirumala Nayaka, who is also reported to have built similar unfinished gopuras in numerous other centres in South India. The monolithic pillars of Raya gopuram are over 50 feet high and mark a high degree of proficiency which the Dravidian stone masons attained.

As the level of the road around the Raya gopuram has risen by 10 ft (3 m), the tall stone carvings of dancing damsels surrounded by ornate creepers are hidden from our view. With commerce settling on every tree, to borrow a phrase from Ananda Coomaraswamy, textile shops have taken over the base of the Raya gopuram.

Some of the minute ivory carvings on display at the 1,000-pillared mandapa.-

Besides the gopurams, what amazes a visitor are the dozen mandapas built by Vijayanagar rulers and the Madurai Nayaks the pudu mandapa, the Nagara mandapa, the 1,000-pillared mandapa, the Rani Mangammal mandapa, the Ashta Sakthi mandapa, the Kambathadi mandapa, the Meenakshi Nayak mandapa, the Kilikatti mandapa, and so on. With massive pillars and secular and religious sculptures, they are amazing feats of workmanship. The most outstanding one is the 1,000-pillared mandapa, built in the 16th century by Ariyanatha Mudali, the great general and Minister of the first three Nayaks of Madurai Viswanatha Nayak, Kumara Krishnappa Nayak and Veerappa Nayak.

At its centre is a big image of Nataraja, dancing on a kurma peetam, surrounded by pillars with splendorous sculptures. On the base of the mandapa are long panels of sculptures of warriors on horses, battle scenes, Nataraja, Kali, Dakshinamurthy, Arjunas penance, and so on. On either side of the entrance there are tall, elegant sculptures of Chandramathi holding her infant in her hands, a gypsy woman (kurathi in Tamil) with one child on one of her shoulders, another child clinging to her breast and a third walking beside her. The adjacent sculpture is that of a gypsy man (kurvan) with his gear.

An outstanding sculpture inside is that of an elegant-looking virali woman, with an aristocratic mien, a sharp nose and a sensuous body, wearing a pleated sari and huge earrings. The sculptor has paid so much attention to detail that even the strands of her coiffured hair can be seen.

There is also a fantastic sculpture of Arjuna as a eunuch teaching dance to Uthirai, whose sculpture is on the opposite side. In his eunuch form, Arjuna is shown with a big, hanging moustache, big breasts, tall headgear, ornamental earrings and a waistband. The sculpture of Uthirai is equally arresting. There are also sculptures of Nagaraja, Siva as Bhiskhadana, Siva beheading Dakshan, Siva giving a reprieve to Dakshan with a ram head and a ram-headed Dakshan worshipping Siva. A puzzling carving on a pillar shows three men with a single torso, one head and four legs.

The 1,000-pillared mandapa also has bronzes of Nataraja, various forms of Siva, Ambica and Sivagami and minute ivory carvings of amorous couples, Yavana women, Tirumalai Nayak, prancing yalis, decorated hand fans with blades made of thin ivory, and so on. There is a massive door of the 17th century, which stood at the entrance to the east gopuram. The door, 9.38 m high and 2.14 m wide, has hundreds of superb carvings.

The vimana of Sundareswarar, called Indira Vimana, is unique. It is supported by sculptures of eight massive elephants, called ashtadigh gajas, standing and facing in eight different directions. One of them is Iravatham, the elephant-vehicle of Indra. No other temple in Tamil Nadu has this type of architecture, where ashtadigh gajas are supporting the vimana, said K. Sridharan, retired Superintending Archaeologist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department. The Indra Vimana was built by Viswanathan Nayak.

The temple is full of inscriptions on the prakara walls, on the gopurams, on the wall abutting the steps leading to the Golden Lotus Tank and even on the two giant, arched brass lamps that rise to a height of more than 25 ft (7.6 m). Just a month ago, interesting inscriptions were discovered on both lamps. An inscription on one of the lamps says it was erected in 1819 by Syed Ismail, the tahsildar of Madurai Madakulam, on the orders of Collector Major Ross Pieter.

The inscription on the other lamp refers to it as Makara Thorana Tiruvasi and says it was erected on November 21, 1898, by Bangaru Tirumalai Swamy Nayak on the orders by Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Duraisingam alias Gowri Vallabha Devar, who was a zamindar of Sivagangai. There are two inscriptions on the talas for the dance of Nataraja. They are titled Nardhana tala and Saptha suzhadhi tala. There are several inscriptions in Telugu and Tamil.

There is a wealth of murals in Rani Mangammal mandapa, the kalyana mandapa and the unjal (swing) mandapa. The murals on the ceiling of Rani Mangamma mandapa give one an insight into an important custom of the Madurai Nayaks: the Nayak rulers giving their royal sceptre to Meenakshi and receiving it from her every year. Another interesting mural shows Rani Mangammal along with her grandson, Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayak, watching the wedding of Meenakshi to Sundareswarar. Other murals portray various forms of Siva and Meenakshi battling the Dighbalas. These murals, belonging to the 17th century, have label inscriptions in Telugu and Tamil.

A MURAL PAINTING at the unjal mandapa with label inscriptions in Tamil and Telugu.-

Arvind Kumar, coordinator, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), whose team is conserving these murals, said, We are treating these murals as antique paintings. There is no repainting or recreation. It is scientific conservation.

THE "MAKARA THORANA Tiruvasi", the giant, arched brass lamp with an inscription dating back to 1898.-

According to S. Ramachandran, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, Madurai was called Madirai during the pre-Christian era and up to 10th century A.D. The earliest references to Madurai occurred in the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions of the second century B.C., found at Mettupatti and Azhagarmalai, near Madurai. Inscriptions in these places refer to a village elder named Visuvan, a goldsmith, a Jain monk and a salt trader as belonging to Madirai.

THE MASSIVE DOOR (9.38 m high and 2.14 m wide) with minute carvings on display at the temple's 1,000-pillared mandapa.-

Even Mathura, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, was originally known as Mathira, said Ramachandran. It was from the 10th/11th century A.D. that Madirai came to be called Madurai.

THE EXQUISITE SCULPTURE of the 10-headed Ravana Anugrahamurthy at the pudu mandapa.-

The Meenakshi temple dates back to 1,800 years, says V. Vedachalam, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, in his article titled Inscriptions in Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple, published in the volume brought out on the occasion of the kumbhabhishekam. The Kumbhabhishekam Malar 2009 is a treasure of information on the temple. It runs to 400 pages with 100 pages of illustrations. The volumes editors are M. Arunagiri, Vedachalam, Devendra Bhoopathy, and L. Manivannan and its assistant editors are Dr. S. Kumaresamoorthy and T. Vijaya Raghunathan. The entire volume has no advertisements.

The Tamil literary works Purananuru and Madurai Kanchi of the Sangam age (third century B.C. to third century A.D.) refer to the temple, and Paripadal of the post-Sangam age talks about how the town came up with the temple at its centre. While Madurai was earlier a political capital, it is Paripadal which makes the first reference to the town being a religious centre, says Vedachalam.

Although several dynasties contributed to the temples development, as far as the inscriptions are concerned, only those from the end of the 12th century A.D. are available in the temple. It is a big surprise how the Vattelettu inscriptions of the early Pandyas and the Chola inscriptions are not available in the temple. Although no inscriptions of this period are available, the fact remains that the temple flourished during the rule of the early Pandyas and the Cholas, asserts Vedachalam in his article.

Right from the seventh century A.D., the temple has witnessed a remarkable growth during the rule of early Pandyas, the Cholas, the medieval Pandyas, the later Pandyas, the Vijayanagar kings, Vanadirayars (the chieftains of the Vijayanagar rulers), the Madurai Nayaks and the British rule. It was during the rule of the Vijayanagar kings and the Madurai Nayaks that the temple expanded a great deal and reached the status of a huge temple complex that it is today.

Did the Vijayanagar rulers and the Madurai Nayaks, who expanded the temple a great deal, throw away the inscriptions in the process of expansion? We do not know, he says.

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