Namma Madurai: Where is the Vasantha Mandap?

A view of Madanagopalaswamy Temple in Madurai. Photo: S. James   | Photo Credit: S_James

The Madanagopalaswamy Temple that stands right in the heart of the city has a foreign connection. A part of the temple lives in Philadelphia. Sounds incongruous? Not if you have been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art Gallery. Exquisitely carved pillars that once formed the Vasantha Mandap of Sri Madanagopalaswamy Temple now stand at the museum in Philadelphia.

Not many were aware of the pillars that were transported a century ago, until a foreign tourist gave away the details.

According to records (sent by the tourist to the temple), most of the pillars, carved during the 16th century, were once part of a hall dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi in the Koodal Alagar Perumal and Sri Madanagopalaswamy Temples.

In the 19th century, the halls in both temples were renovated and some of the discarded pillars were sold at an auction held at the Madanagopalaswamy Temple in 1912.

Adeline Pepper Gibson of Philadelphia, who was travelling in India at the time, purchased the pillars and meticulously transported these weighty memorabilia to her country.

When Mrs. Gibson died in 1919 her family members – Susan Pepper Gibson, Mary Gibson Henry and Henry C. Gibson – donated the pillars to the museum. Between 1935 and 1940 the pillars were installed at the museum to resemble the temple's entry hall (artha mandap).

According to the museum's pamphlet, the hall consists of 12 monolithic composite pillars with large sculpted figures, 16 square-based pillars carved with 10 lion brackets, 10 drop brackets, two non-figural cluster pillars and eight slabs carved with scenes from the Ramayana.

The pamphlet also states that this is the only example of Indian stone architecture to be found in an American museum. It is also the only place outside of South Asia where visitors can experience, from original pre-modern elements, the monumental synthesis of sculpture, structure, symbolism and story that make Hindu temple architecture one of the world's greatest artistic legacies.

The temple here, more than five centuries old, has evolved with time. Recently pasted red granite slabs in the interior give it a colourful modern and neat look, but certainly at the cost of its ancient majesty. At present, the temple stands as an amalgamation of old and new.

The form of the main deity Sri Madanagopalaswamy is a combination of Lord Krishna and Vishnu. He stands holding a flute in two hands and a conch and a chakra in the other two.

It is believed that Lord Krishna gave darshan to Andal of Srivilliputhur in this form at the temple. According to legend, when Lord Shiva performed penance at the nearby Inmaiyil Nanmaitharuvar Temple, the flames reached the heavens. On the request of the Devas, Vishnu took the form of Venugopalan and played his flute to pacify Lord Shiva, says history enthusiast T. Vadamalaiappan,

The temple with its five mandaps – sanctum sactorum, artha mandap, maha mandap, garuda mandap and front mandap – houses the shrines of Mahalakshmi alias Madhana Mathuravalli Thayar and Andal. Harihara Sarbaraja, Sanjeevi Anjaneya, Panchamuga Anjaneya and Sri Lakshmi Narasimhar are also enshrined here. Besides, the temple has a five-storey Rajagopuram and Veshara (round-shaped) Vimana.

Nature has eroded some inscriptions in the temple and archaeologists find it difficult to fix its exact date.

“Going by its structure, it can be dated to Nayak period especially with the presence of composite pillars with yazhi, corbels and naga banda designs - significant features of Nayak architecture,” says C. Santhalingam, retired Archaeological Officer. But the presence of a slightly mutilated inscription that mentions the year 1598 indicates that the temple might have been present even in the early centuries. Similarly, the dwarapalaka sculptures found at the doorsteps of sanctum sanctorum designate that the temple might belong to the later Pandya period, the 13th century.

Though it is hard to spot inscriptions in the temple, the temple's history book refers to inscriptions containing details about cattle donations made to the temple for lighting a perpetual lamp and maintaining a garden. Now the temple has a small green space that is supposed to be the garden.

A unique feature that deserves mention is the Ramayana panel on the side walls of the Madanagopalaswamy shrine. The elusive deer, 10-headed Ravana, the liberation of Ahalya, Lord Rama and his bow are depicted, though not in a sequence.

If the Sanjeevi Anjaneya in the temple brought the Sanjeevi hill with a purpose, perhaps Adeline Pepper Gibson also had a purpose when she transported the pillars to the US, disseminating South India's architectural beauty to the world. And who can be a better representative of that beauty than Lord Krishna?

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 6:41:14 PM |

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