This is the part of Tamil Nadu I was most smitten by. Colourful and packed with gods, goddesses, myths and secular life, its gopurams are a peculiar feature unique to the state. True, gopurams or entrance towers are a part of temple architecture across southern India. But in Tamil Nadu, they have a life of their own, larger in design and scale than the overshadowed holy sanctums inside the temple complexes. They are pure art. And I loved them.
I visited scores of temples during my week-long exploration of the southern state’s temple towns. From the incredible Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai celebrating the town’s beautiful and gracious patron goddess to the ancient Pillaiyarpatti Temple in Chettinad, site of an electrifying abhishek ceremony of the god Ganesha.
From the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, the only Hindu temple to worship Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, to Thirukadaiyur Temple on the outskirts of Tranquebar where married couples celebrate their 60th, 70th, and 80th wedding anniversaries for it is renowned to defy death!
From the monumental Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tiruchirappalli, India’s largest functioning temple and a mini-city in itself with a whopping 21 gopurams, to the string of lively temples lining the streets of Kumbakonam where I temple-hopped from one to the other for a different kind of night-life.
Dedicated to various deities, one architectural feature yet bound them all together. Their animated, multi-coloured, towering gopurams.
An ornate Dravidian architectural element guided by Vaastu Shastra, they rose in prominence from the 12th to 16th Centuries, with temples often having gopurams placed in all cardinal directions, and on every enclosing boundary wall. They are typified with multiple tapering floors called talas, topped with a barrel-vaulted roof, and choc-o-bloc with sculpted, brilliantly-painted tableaux and solo divine beings. Though themed around the temple’s primary deity, the entire pantheon is on display on their outer walls. The tallest gopuram in India is at Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tiruchirappalli at a flabbergasting 72 metres height.
For the uninitiated, the Hindu pantheon is centred around the trinity: Shiva the destroyer, Vishnu the preserver and Brahma the creator, along with their various avatars, consorts, children and vehicles. The seemingly polytheistic religion is yet a monotheistic one, for every deity is believed to be a manifestation and point of focus of the single supreme truth—Brahman.
Gopurams can be overwhelming. And at the same time a delight to decode, the stories they contain a visual insight into the complexities of one of the oldest practiced religions in the world.
Here are my favourites images from the various gopurams I got to see and the stories in them. They are made of stucco and brick and painted brightly, as was, and still is, the tradition in Tamil Nadu. Gopurams with stucco work are unique to South India, and in particular Tamil Nadu.
This post would not have been possible if it were not for the inputs towards identifying the stories in the gopurams by a dear blogger friend, a Tamil and fellow Mumbaikar, Sudha Ganapathi who blogs at sudhagee.com. She is an absolute pro at Hindu iconography and her help in enriching this post has been invaluable. Thank you, Sudha.
So, here goes, Tamil Nadu’s temple gopurams: Stories told and untold. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did putting it together. ❤
What better way to start than with the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar [Beautiful Shiva] in Tamil Nadu’s most celebrated temple. Vishnu is seen doing the Kanyadaan ‘Giving away the bride’ rituals in his capacity as her brother, while Brahma is the officiating priest. Note: It is always Shiva and Parvati. Any other goddess appearing as his consort is simply one of Parvati’s avatars. Meenakshi, the patron goddess of Madurai is, likewise, an avatar of Parvati. [Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai]
Left: Makara finial on the gopuram roof filled with guardian deities and Indra, the sky god, on his elephant. Right: Shiva as Virabhadra, his ‘fierce’ avatar, with the glorious south gopuram reaching out to the skies behind him. [Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai]
The stories continue. Left: Kali, one of Hinduism’s most complex goddesses. She is the destroyer of evil forces, embodiment of female power, and goddess of time and death. Kali literally means ‘She who is black’ or ‘She who is death.’ An incarnation of Parvati, she was Shiva’s consort in another life. Right: Sadashiva, Always Shiva. The highest form of Shiva. [Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai]
Shiva as Veenadhara Dakshinamurthy, guru of all knowledge, understanding and awareness, with a veena in his hands, surrounded by his students: sadhus and wise animals. [Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai]
This is Murugan or Kartikeya, the War God, seated on his peacock. He is Shiva and Parvati’s elder son, as per South Indian traditions [North Indians believe he is the younger son], and the chief deity of Tamils since ancient times. [Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai]
Moving on to the ancient rock-cut Ganesha temple in Chettinad. Left: Guardian angels and holy cows guard the sanctum depicted on the gopuram. Right: Detail, Ravana shaking Mount Kailash. The epic Ramayana recounts how Ravana once tried to lift Mount Kailash in a fit of misplaced pride but Shiva pushed the mountain into place with his mere toe. Trapped under the mountain, Ravana shrieked out in pain and that’s where he got his name from: Ravana, ‘the one who cried.’ [Pillaiyarpatti Temple, Chettinad]
Another guardian angel. Figures like these often dot the entire boundary walls of Shiva temples. [Pillaiyarpatti Temple, Chettinad]
Chidambaram’s Nataraja Temple has Tamil Nadu’s most beautiful tableaux on its gopurams. Life-like in their facial expressions, they depict entire scenes in Hindu mythology. Here, Shiva is seen marrying Uma. In South India, Parvati, Shiva’s consort is always Uma, except in Madurai. Lakshmi and Saraswati, the consorts of Vishnu and Brahma, stand next to her as her bridesmaids. 🙂
Ganesha, Shiva’s elephant-headed son, with his wives Riddhi and Siddhi to the left, in varada mudra, granting boons to the faithful. The tableau is a little unusual as in the South, Ganesha is considered to be a bachelor. Also seen are Brahma and Lakshmi joining in the dispersal of blessings. [Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram]
Did this one take you by surprise? Historical India was intrinsically emancipated, with nudity and sex simply accepted. The naked male figure is Shiva in his avatar as Bhikshatana-murti or the Supreme Beggar and the half-naked women are rishipatnis, wives of the rishis, who have fallen for Shiva. [Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram]
Virabhadra, the ‘distinguished hero’ and fierceness personified avatar of Shiva, killing a demon. Also seen is Yama, god of death and king of ancestors, on the extreme left seated on his buffalo and with a noose in his hand to catch souls. [Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram]
Left: Scene from Kiratarjuniya [Arjuna and the Mountain Man], a 6th Century Classical Sanskrit epic poem with Arjuna, the bearded guy praying on one foot [notice the bow against the tree] and Uma/ Parvati disguised as a huntress. The dead boar which is barely visible confirms the story. Right: Just a pair of pretty human ladies dancing in one corner, amidst the bevy of gods and goddesses. [Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram]
Brahma, the three-headed god of creation, first god of the Hindu trinity, and patriarch of human beings. [Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram]
I loved this collection of Shiva as Dakshinamurthy or Shiva as the Supreme Guru or Teacher lined up vertically, one above the other along the gopuram’s entire height. Once again, a form of Shiva that is almost exclusive to South India. The one with the Veena [left] is called Veenadhara Dakshinamurthy, the other three are Jnana or Vyakhyana Dakshinamurthys. [Thirukadaiyur Temple, Tranquebar]
Twenty-one gopurams of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli. Of which one, and only one, is in white in honour of a devadasi’s [a hereditary female dancer in a Hindu temple] sacrifice. Her name was Vellaiammal. She threw a robber off the top, followed by jumping down to her own death.
Another makara finial atop a gopuram. No stories here. Just pure unadulterated decoration made up of rows of teeny-meeny musicians, elephants, horses and a medley of creatures welcoming the pilgrims. [Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli]
Blue-skinned Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and one of his most popular avatars now globally. To his right is Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda, a mythical creature half eagle-half human, highlighting Krishna’s Vishnu connect, lest one forgets. [Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli]
From the grotesque to the serene! Left: Krishna suckling the demoness Putana. The story goes, Putana was sent by Krishna’s evil uncle Kansa to kill him by breast-feeding him poisoned milk. Krishna, being god, knew what she was up to. He squeezed her breasts and killed her instead. Right: Suryanarayana, the Hindu Sun God with a lotus in each hand and a crown. [Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli]
Varaha, the boar-headed third avatar in Vishnu’s 10 avatars, and his consort Bhudevi, the earth goddess, who he saved from the demon Hiranyakashyap. With her seated on his lap, the couple are referred to as Bhuvaraha. An apt end for this post in COVID-19 times. A prayer for our earth. Don’t you agree? [Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli]
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to the temple towns of Tamil Nadu over 7 days in the first week of March 2020. To read more posts on my temple town series and on Tamil Nadu, click here.]