During my first discovery of India in 1999, I travelled in Tamil Nadu and explored magnificent temples and a total different lifestyle and world. Every second I felt I had to cling to the bus seat handles because I was unconsciously fearing that the streets would suck me in and I would never be able to get out anymore. The temples were a bit of everything, from the romantic defyng the waves of Mahaballipuram (Pallava around 6th century), to Kanchipuramtemples, to the mystic and under visited Trichy, to Tanjavur , Gangakondham, bustling and more mystical Madurai to the edge of the subcontinent through Rameshvaram island and temple. I remember with awe Chindambaram,so nicely balanced over its pool, which I discovered containing later an extensive array of dancing sculptures and to have a very particular role in Indian art and myths, to be the foremost place for the Ananda Dance (Dance of Bliss) by Shiva (get an idea here or through the essay in Met Museum Site).
All of these temples would deserve words and words, all of them have a special tale, infinite examples of a high reaching art and craftsmanship, yet this time I would like to linger on Madurai in a total anarchic timeline (Madurai is among the most recent of all the above mentioned temples).
Madurai is the example of the city temple: the inner shrine has expanded into several concentric walls with higher and higher gopuram. The gopuram, these pyramidal gates that look like military towers became taller and taller to express the power of the temple and the patrons through the years, since tradition forbade to restructure the central shrines to make them larger or higher.
The gopuram are also crowded with all sorts of characters, divine and non, that oversee and bless the temple, those stucco statues that somehow startle the foreigners and sometimes make them uneasy with indian art and iconography.
In Malaysia, where I was first sent for few months in 2002, I heard more than one non local co-worker refer to Indian Temples as barbarian structures and on the other hand praise Thai temples. (Isn’t it a bit ridiculous since Thai temples and in general South East Asia esthetics has been forged by the Eastern India craftsmen that fled here). Be as it may, surely the elongated slender benevolent Thai, Cambodian, Lao and Burmese figures conquer much more than the riotous brightly colored characters overlooking Indian Temples. I have to confess that during my first visit in 1999, I knew very soon that getting closer to that esthetics so different than the one I had been raised in (spontaneously I had loved Italian Renassaince, Neoclassicism almost considering Baroque and Mannerism like inferior trends). I started to ponder how different is the concept of beautiful and I had just crossed a couple of continents to get there and it made sense that it was attracting and alienating at the same time: yes attracting, it was but still could not tell why. I felt had to cross a gap. As much as I had to give in the very sense of intensity in smells, heat, noises and colors that was around me: everything was a riotous colorful and anarchic world to my sense (and who knows how much of these those crowded gopurams remind to the freshly arrived foreigner).
Today the question is charged with another one: it is not anymore a disordered and adventurous first contact with another culture and I came to know a bit more about the very same culture, so how to place these gopuram and the statues they are decorated with in that sense?
Indeed although this style is what is probably exported the most in contemporary Indian communities, for example here in Malaysia, it is not the only one that existed in Southern India, on the contrary. In this very same area, art of sculpture and temple making flourished touching levels that on international levels and across all ages one is sure to consider outstanding.
For example take the Pallava sculptures at Mahaballipuram or above all the Chola bronzes: the finesse, the subtleties, the ideal of beauty and the rythm from the latter brings them to the status of masterpieces difficult even to emulate and repeat.
After the Cholas came the Nayaks, from the 16th century to the 18th century; to them we owe the current style, the one that is frequently exported in other regions. Today I would like to jump in time and stay with the Nayaks style and their contemporary offshoots : these are all a very confusing lot to me.
From the beauty and balance and dynamic circularity of a Shiva Nataraja in a dance of bliss we came to see Shivas that are stiff and in the contemporary examples observed in Malaysia show here and there a proud belly, (so much for Shiva that was the first of all ascetics).
Mind my words, it is not the decadence of Shiva, the icon is still powerful but the esthetics has changed. The religion is living and alive, so it is all very normal that icons change their appearance: the fact of renovating the temples every 12 years give them a constant reality check in the fact that the artisans take inspiration from the world surrounding. We cannot argue much against it because the very same artisans have to serve that same world.
Then there is another issue which is craftsmanship and materials. Although I cannot comment about the first one, the second one is surely suffering from the invading use of cement to do statues and ornament in a cheap and fast way. The patrons have changed and communities have probably to prepare temples in a relatively quick way, especially , my guess, in immigrant communities like this one where the temple is also the source of identity and associations.
It is all very confusing and I would be delighted if you have the experience of outstanding contemporary temples that contain still that dynamism and energy of the ancient ones. I do not want to be again one European that loves only old things (and when it is old it has to be more than 200 years), I would like to read my reality but sometimes I frown upn some fleshy examples of these statues here in Malaysia.
The only connection that drew me closer to them is that they are indeed the expression of a living religion: in Madurai Menakshi temple, Vidya Dehejia says you can find a cowboy too in the gopuram. The temples are reconsecrated every 12 years and artisans redo or give a lifting to the welcoming populations over the entrances.
In Tamil Nadu, the later southern examples evolved into cities as we discussed here and here , the temple city were regulating the life of the surrounding villages and region, by lending money, land to work and being the depositary of dance and religious learning. The main enclosures today signify different layers added in history but also an absorption of the secular into the centripetal force of the religious centre.
The Gopuram resemble military towers and that is probably another sign of how the royal secular language and visual expression were used to relate to the divinity. Gopuram were added in time and increased progressively in size to satisfy the desire of the patrons that were not allowed to touch and raise the older inner shrines, since considered disrespectful.
The inner sanctum is rarely accessible to non-Hindus and here is surmounted by the same tower we discussed before but realised with tiers. The temple porticos and vestibules evolved into larger and more numerous: several mandapas can be found there all dedicated to saints , queens etc. The same goes for many inner shrines.
If you have the chance visit Tiruchirappalli temple to Sri Ranganathaswamy, with its beautiful frescoes and statues. Or Madurai that is the heart of a very vivid devotion: its festival procession had to be transmitted on tv to have all the faithfuls to be able to enjoy the encounter with the divinity. Madurai is still the seat of daily pujas filled with life and smells and incense and crowd, as much of soft om chanting in the day. Besides its massive gopurams, visit inside the one hundred pillars hall: the granite statues accompanying the pillars are a sequence of masterpieces, worth of mention Kama’s wife on her swan , besides having (a trend in only later Indian southern temple builders) real life statues of kings and (smaller,sigh) their wifes’. It is a significant and impressive evolution, the desire to be remembered and worshipped by the patrons.
In Tamil Nadu, these temples are still depositary of artistic riches, so do not miss them and do not be lured into thinking that they are all the same: statues need to be enjoyed one by one. As for our modern cement brothers here, well I still have to think but at least they remind me of the liveliness that can be experienced in this city temples, of being invaded by the incense, having ghee stuck to your feet and occasionally stepping into a tent and being showered with petal roses by the flower sellers that love to startle in this way the foreigners.