The more than sixty carved granite elements that comprise this monumental space were collected by Philadelphian Adeline Pepper Gibson during a visit in 1912 to Madurai, a city in the south of India known for its spectacular Hindu temples. She found them in piles of rubble within the compound of a sixteenth-century Krishna temple called the Madanagopalaswamy, which remains active today, and purchased them from the temple authorities. Recent curatorial research indicates that the majority of the pieces were most likely parts of a festival hall (mandapam) located in front of the main shrine that had been pulled down long before Adeline’s arrival. In such halls, community members gather to participate in a variety of celebratory rituals and other activities.
Figures on Pillars
Emerging from the pillars lining the hall’s central aisle are extraordinary oversize figures of deities and heroes related to the dramatic stories of the Hindu god Vishnu. Between delightfully fierce lion capitals, eight slabs installed at cornice level feature carved reliefs of scenes from the Ramayana story cycle, which tells of the hero Rama, one of Vishnu’s avatars. Many more slabs from this cycle were incorporated into repairs to the temple in Madurai in the 1930s. When the Ramayana slabs in Madurai are put together with those in Philadelphia, it becomes clear that they come from a hall interior that boasted a rare, complete visual retelling of the tale. Smaller images adorn the pillars, including a depiction of the temple’s architect-priest with his measuring stick.
Installation at the Museum
Debuting to the public in the museum’s original home at Memorial Hall in 1920, the mandapam opened at its current location in 1940. Although a reconstruction, it incorporates many original architectural elements and provides visitors with a unique opportunity to experience the extraordinary synthesis of sculpture, architecture, and symbol that characterizes South India’s elaborate temple form.