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A Novice Views India, Part I: divergent fates for places of worship

I promised photos, and they should have gone up several days ago, but a regular posting schedule is hard to maintain as the responsibilities of the season cluster, sorry. Nonetheless, I have it together now and will hope to get one or two more into the gaps between trips to see family as well (assuming that they remain possible). And the next photos I have to share with you come from a bit further afield than usual, as at the very end of August and the beginning of September I was in India, for the first and so far only time in my life but I do hope not for the last.

Asoka Pillar at Arichalmunai

A recently-installed Ashoka Pillar at Arichalmunai, in a kind of collision of ancient and modern Indian politics

Now, this was not a medievalist trip, but it was a trip with a medievalist, and so there’s definitely stuff in my camera that qualifies as ‘Medieval tourism pictures’. We could legitimately ask whether imposing a ‘medieval’ chronology on India makes any sense, as people have been doing since the British Empire, and even those who do are not in agreement about what its parameters and dates might be, but I’m going to trip lightly over those concerns and use the baggiest definitions possible, because my primary purpose here is not to attribute certain social characteristics (or even unity) to India during the centuries I study or to colonise its history but simply to have an excuse to show you cool stuff.1 And we’re going to start, as I did, here.

Public entrance to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

Public entrance to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

This is not actually a very good expression of the size and importance of the temple site at Meenakshi. It is an absolutely huge complex, right in the middle of the busy city of Madurai, and to get an adequately expressive picture I’d have needed to levitate and had a much more expensive camera. Happily, others have found ways round this challenge, so you can see from their efforts what I could not on the ground except by wandering around it kind of dumb-struck.

View of the Madurai Meenakshi temple

View of the Madurai Meenakshi temple, by Flickr user fraboof – https://www.flickr.com/photos/fraboof/2199618570/, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

But, you may fairly ask, is it medieval? And if I’m allowed to answer that question only with Common Era dates, which as we’ve said may not really tell you much except that I’m claiming it’s relevant to the blog, then the answer is a firm yes-kinda-mostly. You have to understand that I’m really no expert here and I am going on the say-so of some pretty tertiary authorities without knowing what their evidence is, plus which, a complex this size clearly doesn’t have anything as simple as a single date, but, the accepted view seems to be that while there was possibly a temple here as early as the 7th century, it was destroyed along with the entirety of the city of Madurai in 1310. It was then rebuilt as part of the restoration of the city under the Delhi Sultanate.2 So most of what you can see is notionally 14th-century, except that some parts are known to have been built in the 13th century—but whether those bits are still present in their 13th-century versions rather than rebuildings is not clear—and quite a lot was also changed in rebuilds of the 16th and 17th centuries, and various rulers have added new parts at various times, especially in the 17th century, and the whole thing was restored in 1963 and a lot of it is wood so there is a twelve-year cycle of repair and replacement…

Painted entryway at the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Decorated entryway

If you want a simple answer, therefore, you need to ask that question about somewhere else. A question like, does it look now very much as it would have looked during the period that in Europe we call the Middle Ages, is maybe a fairer one but I have to admit, I can’t answer it. So whether this looks ‘medieval’ in any sense I’m not sure but I am sure that it’s impressive.

Inner side of the gates of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Inner side of the gates, with pillars supporting a platform that is then filled to the peak with superimposed statues

Gopuram of the South Tower at Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

I think this is the gopuram of the South Tower, very much viewed from ground level which, just from the perspective, gives you some idea how high it is

Now, very shortly after getting in, I realised that in fact I wasn’t supposed to be taking photographs. So I stopped, and for anything further about the contents you are, sadly, better off going to Wikimedia Commons than staying here. Instead, I want to contrast it to the next religious building I went inside, which looked like this.

West wall of St Antony's Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu, India

West wall of St Antony’s Dhanushkodi

This is sixteenth-century, in fact, and built as you may have guessed by Europeans who, according to some at least, were finished being medieval by now, so I’m kind of cheating, but I don’t care.

Interior of the west wall of St Antony's Dhanushkodi

Inside of that same wall

The building is in a truly weird location, on a thin spit of mainland that reaches out to the temple and beach settlement of Rameswaram, almost touching Sri Lanka off the east coast of Tamil Nadu. It’s about 150 km from Madurai, because India is big. The spit, however, is so narrow that basically everything on it is beach and this building is slowly failing to the assault of the sands.

Remains of the nave of St Antony's Dhanushkodi

Remains of the nave

When I first saw this, and found out from the limited signage that it was a Portuguese mission church, a line from a very old song by Pete Atkin came immediately to mind: “A school of Spanish friars built the mission / But left because they couldn’t take the heat.”3 And it’s easy to imagine, especially having come along the road between Madurai and Rameswaram on which there are temples or shrines, of all sizes from that of literally a cupboard to that of a decent-sized school, more or less every quarter of a mile and often more densely, that this building was always doomed to end up like this, just dwarfed by the enormity of the local religion with which it was established, on pretty much a hair of India’s coastal head, to contend.

The altar of St Antony's Dhanushkodi, viewed through the portal of the church

The altar, viewed through the portal

But in the words of another, even older song, “it ain’t necessarily so”. Actually, St Antony’s was an established concern, if not necessarily in the hands of its founding organisation, right up till 1964, at which point, rather unfortunately, a tsunami struck the area and the church did not come through it intact. And since then not a lot has been done about it, because the whole town kind of disappeared at that point. Meenakshi is a centre for the worship of some really popular deities and famous in story and verse, as a result of which it has attracted patronage from the great and powerful alongside the more humble for its whole existence, so its odds of survival and thriving were always better than St Antony’s; but the fact that it’s in the middle of a heaving city while St Antony’s is literally metres from immersion in the ocean is probably also a factor.

View out to sea from within the ruins of St Antony's Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu

A view out to see from the ruins, I think more or less southwards

But the comparison of the two across two days also told me powerfully: the things which you are used to do not hold here, you will have to accept new ones. And as the following posts in the series will show, I made my best attempt to heed that message…


1. For two quite different views, see D. N. Jha, “Editor’s Introduction” in Jha (ed.), The Feudal Order: State, Society, and Ideology in Early Medieval India (New Delhi 2002), pp. 1–58, and Jason D. Hawkes, “Finding the ‘Early Medieval’ in South Asian Archaeology” in Asian Perspectives Vol. 53 (Honolulu 2014), pp. 53–96.

2. I have to admit to having started with the (currently huge) Wikipedia page on the site here, but for my actual grounding I’ve got at least slightly more serious by using Karina Sharma, “This Temple Is Covered in Thousands of Colorful Statues” in National Geographic (2 August 2017), online here and some dipping into Holly Baker Reynolds, “Madurai: Kōyil Nakar” in Bardwell Smith & Reynolds (edd.), The City As a Sacred Center: Essays on Six Asian Contexts (Leiden 1987), pp. 12–44.

3. Pete Atkin, “Tenderfoot” on Secret Drinker (RCA 1974). For the site chronology, however, see R. Velayutham, “Emergence Of Christianity In Rameswaram Island – A Study” in Indian Streams Research Journal Vol. 3 (Solapur 2013), pp. 1–6, online here.

6 responses to “A Novice Views India, Part I: divergent fates for places of worship

  1. At least you know they are places of worship. When I was a boy reading archaeologists for the first time I used to laugh when they explained any old mystery building as a place of worship, or more often a place of “ritual”. How did they know? They didn’t of course. There was even one that I suspected was somewhere fishermen might dry their equipment.

    • Yes, there’s not much doubt in these cases, but the old adage ‘when in doubt, call it cult,’ is preserved by cynical archæologists for a reason…

      • Allan McKinley

        To be fair, the place of worship as a discrete clean space as opposed to a place of everyday activity is not a universal, and is perhaps a more modern tendency. So prehistoric archaeologists probably have more of a case that any (unusual) centre of activity was cultic since there was likely a strong relationship between specialised activity and cult. Attempting to apply the same logic to a post-Roman society or anything I’ve seen from India in the last couple of millennia is a bit of a stretch though, since we know that these areas had separate cultic areas.

        • True, but I suppose what I saw in India was that ‘separation’ can be relative. On the road out to Dhanuskhoda, while there were certainly temples in their own tree-lined precincts, there were also shrines in roadside walls like we’d have letter-boxes, or on traffic islands which were actually where the road had been split around them. If someone wanted to make an offering at one, everyone else walked or even drove round them till they finished. Sacred space is pressed upon in these environments like every other kind of space.

  2. Pingback: A Novice Views India, Part II: Pallava Temples at Mahabalipuram | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: A Novice Views India, Part III: uncertain Christian pasts | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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