Travels Through India with David Berry

2: The Temples of Madurai

Madurai was where my quest into India’s past got underway. Early on the second day in that scruffy south Indian town, I found my way to the Meenakshi Temple, entering by the massive south gopuram, a gateway tower the shape of a wedge of cheddar and the size of a city apartment block. This, the largest of ten gateways, had nine stories and was decorated with fifteen hundred vividly painted sculptures leering over the high temple precinct’s walls at the throbbing life in the streets beyond. It was in that mass of traders, pilgrims, beggars and townspeople that I began the fifth day in India.

A pedicab equipped with candy-striped canopy and family planning poster brought me to the temple gateway. The driver demanded a few cents for his ten minutes’ pedalling and an attendant of the temple insisted upon taking away my shoes and charging five paisa (about half a cent) for tending them. That and a prohibition against entering the holiest of the sanctuaries were the sole restrictions imposed upon non-Hindus who entered this very sacred place.

I concentrated upon photographing hundreds of figures covering the great gopurams. How grotesque but also horribly intriguing. I knew next to nothing of who they were or what their significance to the pilgrims might be. At first acquaintance, the gopurams of Madurai were a chaotic overdose of gods and creatures unknown to us on earth. This was a heaven in itself of fierce and glaring masters of another realm who brandished bloodied swords whilst voluptuous consorts looked on and sacred cows paid no attention at all. Monsters of a madman’s imagination fought along the upper stories and from the roof grinned freaks with the heads of lions and the tusks of elephants. Below them musicians and nymphs of plaster and paint played and danced.