Temple architecture

Madurai to Philadelphia: Journey of the Temple Stones. Art historian Darielle Mason compiles her findings in a new book

Darielle Mason searches for clues to the century-old ‘puzzle’ that is the famous ‘mandapam’ installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Darielle Mason searches for clues to the century-old ‘puzzle’ that is the famous ‘mandapam’ installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The pillared temple hall or Mandapam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) is appreciated for its uniqueness as the only example of historic Indian stone temple architecture publicly displayed outside of the subcontinent. It has fascinated visitors since its first exhibition in 1920. Questions abound: where does this architectural ensemble come from? From what time in history do they date? How were they shipped to the other side of the world? Were they really part of a temple? And, if so, which one?

In the recent book Storied Stone: Reframing the South Indian Temple Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of ArtI have collected expert essays in an attempt to explore these questions and provide a behind-the-scenes account of debates over the provenance and interpretation of Mandapam which stands today, majestic and mysterious, in the Asian wing of the museum.

At the height of World War I

The Temple Pillars’ journey began in 1913, when 64 carved stone architectural fragments from Madurai found their way to Philadelphia. Purchased by a Philadelphia heiress, Adeline Pepper Gibson (1883-1919), on her honeymoon, the fragments arrived in the United States in the midst of a raging First World War. World and personal stories quickly changed. The couple’s marriage broke up and Gibson died of pneumonia at the end of the war. His family decided to donate the pillars to the PMA.

In 1920, when the museum first displayed the blocks, director Langdon Warner (1881-1955) invited Ananda Coomaraswamy, then the only specialist in South Asian art in the United States, to seek out these unique carvings. . He immediately links them to the Tamil temples of the Madurai Nayaka dynasty.

Life-size figures of deities projecting from pillars.

Life-size figures of deities projecting from pillars. | Photo credit: Courtesy of PMA

In 1934, W. Norman Brown (1892-1972), professor of Sanskrit and the museum’s first curator of Indian art, together with TG Aravamuthan (1890-1970) of the Madras Government Museum traveled to Madurai to better understand the pillars and a ended up acquiring critical evidence. A former attendant at the Arulmigu Madangopala Swami temple – where the pillars were reportedly spotted and purchased by Gibson – told them that many architectural carvings had been brought from the nearby Sri Kudal Alagar Perumal temple when it was being repaired years ago. Some of these carvings had been sold to an American perhaps 20 years earlier.

In 1938, the Mandapam at the PMA was dismantled and reconfigured on the upper floor of the museum’s current home on Fairmount, and opened to the public in 1940. Art historian Stella Kramrisch became the museum’s curator in 1954 and introduced changes in the lighting of the temple hall.

Demolished and rebuilt

In 1996, I took over as the first Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian Art at the PMA. Even though I had lived in India and went there often, it was not until 2004 that I was able to go to Madurai. When I visited the Madanagopala Swami temple, I found additional fragments of relief from the Ramayana matching those of the PMA. I started to ‘puzzle’ them into a complete story with the museum pieces. In 2007, I showed photographs of the Philadelphia blocks to K. Suresh Battar, a longtime priest at Kudal Alagar, and G. Sundaraja Battar, chief priest at Madanagopala Swami Temple.

The ornate stone pillars of the 'mandapam' installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The ornate stone pillars of the ‘mandapam’ installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. | Photo credit: Courtesy of PMA

All evidence showed that the Goddess shrine at Kudal Alagar had been demolished in 1907, the old blocks thrown into the Madanagopala Swami compound from where they had been purchased by Gibson. In 1923, a new “modern style” shrine to the goddess was completed at Kudal Alagar (he is still worshiped there). All of this work was funded by Muthu KRV Alagappa Chettiar of Devakottai.

Confirmation of this also came from Gibson’s private travel journal, in which the “pillars” were mentioned as the remains of a dilapidated temple which had been removed so that another shrine could be built in its place.

At the very end of writing the book, I discovered that the couple intended to use the large figurative pillars in their country house.

In 2016, the museum added visitor information with a descriptive panel, a timeline detailing the fragments’ journey to Philadelphia, a video loop showing a day at Madanagopala Swami Temple (produced by the PMA in collaboration with the filmmaker and historian based in Chennai, Konbai S. Anwar), and a flip-book telling the stories of the pillars.

stepped stoneedited by the PMA, is the latest offering on this extraordinary space.

The stones are a living culture and religion, and their presence is of particular significance to the growing second and third generations of Indians in the United States.

(As told to Priyadershini S.)