Thursday, February 9, 2012

Madurai's Magnificent Heritage – Personal Photo Album Part 13

Wonders of the World

Many major cities and towns in South India, particularly Tamilnadu, are famous for some great temple complexes of the unique Dravidian style of architecture.  The Meenakshi Temple complex in Madurai city is perhaps the most famous of these and was a shortlisted contender for the "world's new seven wonders" selection some years ago.  Determined by a process of online voting, including my own, it had risen as high as 25 in the first shortlist of 66 candidate wonders worldwide.  As most people are aware, Taj Mahal was the only one from India which made it to the final list of seven, the others being the Great Wall of China, The Coliseum of Rome, Statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Petra in Jordan, Machu Picchu in Peru and Chichen Itza in Mexico.

Some of them dating back up to a thousand years or more, these temples are generally characterized by the ornate central structure of the complex housing the deity within a large rectangular area, surrounded by pillared halls and pathways leading up to it and very tall gopurams, the pyramidal shaped towers on the outer boundaries, which are the most visible and spectacular symbols of the complex.  A number of other, smaller gopurams can also be found in most such places. The outer walls of the gopurams are richly adorned with intricate sculptures of deities, mythological characters, warriors, kings, gods and goddesses, demons, dancers, etc., painted in bright colors and all laid out in magnificent disarray and topped off with a number of brightly shining metallic kalashas, accounting for the distinctive character of the architecture.

The Meenakshi Temple

The Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple forms the heart and in many ways the soul of the historic city of Madurai built around it, with the present complex rebuilt around 1650 under the reign of King Thirumalai NayakThe complex houses 14 tall gopurams the tallest one being the southern tower that is 52 meters high, and two golden sculptured vimanas (shrines) housing the main deities. The temple complex having an area of about 45 acres is divided into a number of concentric quadrangular enclosures within high masonry walls and has four entrances through gopurams facing each of four directions. One of the most eye catching features of the complex is a large rectangular pond called Porthamarai Kulam, meaning "pond with the golden lotus".  The Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam, known as the  "hall of 100 pillars", has two rows of pillars carved with images of a mythological beast with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant. The Aayiram Kaal Mandapam, meaning "Thousand Pillar Hall", contains nearly that many carved pillars each of which is an exquisitely carved monument of Dravidian sculpture.  There are other exquisite features and structures too numerous to be detailed here.

A full virtual 360 degree tour of the Madurai Meenakshi temple complex can be performed at:

I have visited the Meenakshi temple complex many times. My first visit was way back in 1968 with a group of students from my college when we were allowed to climb up to the top of the south tower and get a spectacular view of the whole complex and surroundings.  This was apparently stopped thereafter. Unfortunately, I had not got hooked on to photography at that time and lost out on an opportunity to get my own aerial pictures.  So I am producing one here from the Wikipedia, with the tall south tower on the left and part of the 'lotus pond' in the right foreground:

[As in my previous albums, all pictures are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]

A Google Earth view of the complex is also shown below followed by a roughly representative model of the complex in a glass enclosure displayed inside:

The rest of the pictures here were all taken by me during my visit on a hot and humid forenoon on 31st May 2005, one of the most uncomfortable times of the year for such a visit; but the bright sunny weather and the beautiful blue skies made my task greatly bearable and wonderfully satisfying.
Most of the upper part of the southern tower is seen in the following picture against a clear blue sky.  The sculptured and painted figurines at different levels of the terraced structure can be seen in all their intricate detail, richness and glory if the photo is magnified to its full size.  I urge the reader to do so right now.

For good measure, I am presenting a zoomed-in angular view of the top left portion of the tower to show the rich detail that is embedded in the previous picture.  It is absolutely breathtaking if blown up to its full size.

Even more staggering is the next picture presenting a head-on view of the upper part of the last picture.

The next picture shows the top portion of one of the other, smaller towers with basically the same type of architecture.  I could not avoid the ugly electricity cables here and elsewhere which could so easily have been concealed underground with some imaginative and decent planning considering how close the complex came to being accepted as one of the great modern wonders of the world.  Notice that it has only five kalashas as against the nine seen in the south tower.

Here is a picture of the fabled 'lotus pool' against the back drop of three of the great towers. Notice how the view of one of them is obstructed by an electric pole. A close-up of the golden lotus itself is shown zoomed in the next picture.

The picture below shows a massive statue of the dancing figure of Lord Nataraja in a long courtyard symmetrically lined on both sides with closely spaced sculptured stone pillars and an intricately painted ceiling with large circular segments.  It is one of the most spectacular sights in the temple complex which is full of such great sights.

The picture below is a close-up view of one of the pillars seen in the previous picture.

Here is a portion of the 'hall of thousand pillars', with the glass caged model of the temple complex shown in full  in an earlier photograph, located at the centre.

Let me end this small photo album of the Meenakshi temple complex with one of the many beautifully symmetric sculptures on top of one of the towers.

The Meenakshi temple complex located in the heart of Madurai was evocative of the same feelings of awe and wonder that I experienced four years later when I visited the famous Forbidden City complex in the heart of Beijing in distant China.  Though both were equally strong candidates for the "Wonders of the Word" accolade, there are hardly any points of similarity between them.  I understand that the great Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, with strong links to Dravidian culture and history, is in the same league as these two, and bears much greater comparison to the Madurai complex than to the one in Beijing.  In fact it did even better on the 'Wonders' list, finishing within the semifinal shortlist of 21. However, unlike Angkor Wat, the Madurai complex is very much alive and vibrant and in a vastly greater state of preservation.

Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal

The Meenakshi temple certainly takes the center stage in Madurai, but the city has another heritage building dating back to the same period as the former.  It is the palace designed by an Italian architect and built by King Thirumalai Nayakkar around 1636. Only a portion of it has survived to this day, but maintained in excellent condition. It is a superb example of Indosaracenic architecture found in several places in India, one of its most visible (and visited) examples being the great palace in my own city of Mysore [See my blog post titled," On my home turf – Mysore, the City of Palaces - Personal Photo Album Part 6 (Feb 11) "].

The entry to the palace is through a rather ordinary looking gate, but once inside, the visitor is greeted by a large building dominated by a huge number of massive circular columns supporting the superstructure. The following two pictures emphasize this aspect, the first one highlighting both the columns and the superstructure while the second one focuses more on the superstructure of just part of the building. The massive size of the interior of the palace can be made out from how puny the two people look in the first picture.  The pictures need to be blown up to their full size to see the incredibly impressive sculpture and carvings in minute detail.

The next two pictures show the ornate ceiling of the palace in two different directions, as already accentuated in the previous two pictures.

My last picture of the palace shows the interior of the central dome and parts of the superstructure.  A zoomed-in view of it at full size shows not only the intricate sculpture and carvings all around, but also some tell tale signs of damage to the ceiling apparently caused by water seepage over the long period of time the palace has been in existence.

The following picture shows the upper part of an ancient and picturesque clock tower adjoining the palace and presumable part of the palace as well.  My digital photo database tells me that the picture was taken at 12:58 PM that afternoon and therefore the ancient clock was obviously and completely out of sync with the actual time! I am not sure if it is one of those ancient clock towers which shows perfectly accurate time just twice a day!


As I was hurriedly leaving Madurai for another destination a little while later, my attention was frozen by the spectacular sight of the facade of a church visible through the front pane of the car I was travelling in on a busy street.  The dense traffic allowed the car to move only at snail's pace and I had enough time to take out my camera and capture a view of the church's facade instinctively through the pane itself.  Presented here suitably cropped and with the ugly cables spoiling the view in no small measure, I came to know that the structure was the St Mary's Church, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.  Ever since that memorable afternoon I have regretted not stopping by and exploring the church the same way I had explored the Thirumalai Nayakkar palace barely an hour earlier.  I am determined to make up for my lost opportunity during my next visit to the historic city.

1 comment:

A V G Rao said...

Made me recall my experiences during my (5-6) visits to this place during 70s & 80s