The Madurai temple hall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. | Photo Credit: Courtesy PMA
The pillared temple hall or  mandapam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) is valued for its uniqueness as the only example of historical Indian stone temple architecture publicly displayed outside the subcontinent. It has fascinated visitors since it was first exhibited in 1920. Questions abound: where did this architectural ensemble originate? How far back in history do they date? How were they shipped halfway around the world? Were they indeed part of a temple? And, if so, which one?
In the recent book  Storied Stone: Reframing the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s South Indian Temple Hall, I have put together essays by experts in an attempt to explore these questions and render a behind-the-scenes account of the debates on the provenance and interpretation of the  mandapam that today stands, stately and mysterious, within the museum’s Asian wing. 
The journey of the temple pillars began in 1913, when 64 carved stone architectural fragments from Madurai found their way to Philadelphia. Purchased by a Philadelphian heiress, Adeline Pepper Gibson (1883-1919), on her honeymoon, the fragments arrived in the U.S. amid a raging World War I. Global and personal histories altered quickly. The couple’s marriage came apart and Gibson died of pneumonia at the end of the war. Her family decided to donate the pillars to the PMA.
In 1920, when the museum showcased the blocks for the first time, director Langdon Warner (1881-1955) invited Ananda Coomaraswamy, then the only specialist on South Asian art in the U.S., to research these unique carvings. He immediately related them to the Tamil temples of the Madurai Nayaka dynasty. 
In 1934, W. Norman Brown (1892-1972), a Sanskrit professor and the museum’s first curator of Indian art, along with T.G. Aravamuthan (1890-1970) of the Madras Government Museum went to Madurai to gain a better understanding of the pillars and ended up acquiring critical pieces of evidence. An old attendant at the Arulmigu Madangopala Swami temple — where the pillars were thought to have been spotted and bought by Gibson — told them that many architectural carvings had been brought over from the nearby Sri Kudal Alagar Perumal temple when it was repaired years ago. Some of these carvings had been sold to an American maybe 20 years earlier.
In 1938, the  mandapam at the PMA was dismantled and reconfigured in the upper storey 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 to the lighting in the temple hall.
In 1996, I took over as the first Stella Kramrisch curator of Indian art at the PMA. Although I had lived in India and visit often, it wasn’t until 2004 that I was able to go to Madurai. When I visited the Madanagopala Swami temple, I found additional fragments of Ramayana relief matching those at the PMA. I started to ‘jigsaw puzzle’ them into a complete story with the museum’s pieces. In 2007, I showed photographs of the Philadelphia blocks to K. Suresh Battar, long-time priest at Kudal Alagar, and G. Sundaraja Battar, head priest of the Madanagopala Swami temple.
All evidences showed that the goddess shrine at the Kudal Alagar had been torn down in 1907, the old blocks dumped in the Madanagopala Swami compound from where they were purchased by Gibson. In 1923, a new goddess shrine in “modern style” was completed at the Kudal Alagar (it is still in worship there). All this work was funded by Muthu K.R.V. Alagappa Chettiar of Devakottai.
Confirmation of this also came from Gibson’s private travel diary, in which the “pillars” were mentioned as the remains of a dilapidated temple that had been removed so another shrine could be built in its place.
At the very end of writing the book, I discovered that the couple had plans to use the big figural pillars in their countryside home. 
In 2016, the museum added information for visitors with a descriptive panel, a timeline detailing the fragments’ travel to Philadelphia, a video loop showing a day at Madanagopala Swami temple (produced by the PMA in collaboration with Chennai-based filmmaker and historian, Konbai S. Anwar), and a flip-book telling the stories of the pillar figures. 
Storied Stone, published by the PMA, is the latest offering on this extraordinary space.
The stones are living culture and religion, and their presence is of particular significance to the growing second and third generations of Indians in the U.S.
(As told to Priyadershini S.)

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Printable version | Sep 10, 2022 2:36:07 pm |


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