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A mandapam in an unlikely place

The extraordinary story of how a sixteenth-century South Indian temple hall ended up in Philadelphia Museum of Art

A mandapam in an unlikely place

A partial view of the ‘Mandapam gallery’ in the Philadelphia Museum.

BN Goswamy

Is nothing sacred? Is everything sacred? Distinct from scholarly critiques of colonialism and the discourse on heritage is the voice of faith. During my years at the Museum, I have encountered a range of attitudes both in visitors and in myself. — Darielle Mason, curator at Philadelphia

In my heart I lit the lamp of ecstasy,
went towards him, caught him
locked him within,
the mysterious Lord who stands, sits, sleeps
has entered my heart. — Pey Alvar, Mundram Tiruvantati

I KNOW what I am going to write about in this piece — it is the remarkable mandapam from a South Indian temple, reconstructed and installed inside an American museum — but I am not sure what path to tread, what route to follow. Should I approach it against the background of the current discussion about the whole question of how museums collect — questions like ‘how objects get to a museum? Who collects and why? How are objects presented and displayed? What do we know about the objects and what we do not know? What determines an object’s value? Or the prickly question of repatriating works of art to the country to which they originally belonged? Or should I simply tell — at least here — an exciting, almost unbelievable, story (that not many know about): how an extraordinary number of stone pillar and posts and figures from Madurai ended up in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the United States and were set up as a temple mandapam inside an enormous gallery space? I know that Darielle Mason, currently Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the museum, has, like Janus — that two-faced Roman ‘god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames and endings’ — looked in both directions, together with other contributors, in the very impressive recent publication, ‘Storied Stone’. In that she has worked on untangling ‘three intertwined narratives’, but I am unable to do that, both for want of space and competence. I am, therefore, taking the softer — or perhaps the more difficult — option. I have decided to write on both themes, but in two separate pieces. This piece deals only with telling the story of how that mandapam ended up in that museum.

Dr Stella Kramrisch of the Philadelphia Museum receiving the Padma Bhushan award.

It happened in the year 1919, although the beginnings of it were a few years before that. In that year, as Mason’s work states, “sixty-four blocks of sculpted granite were offloaded onto the lawns in front of an enormous glass-and-iron-domed structure in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. That structure used to house the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art which ultimately changed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art a quarter of a century later”. These granite blocks had been purchased six years earlier during a visit to India by Adeline Pepper Gibson, a young lady belonging to a prominent Philadelphia-based family, from a nearly abandoned 16th century temple courtyard in Madurai, and had been shipped by land and sea to the United States. They took their time in reaching the US. Meanwhile, Adeline had gone over to France to help in the war effort — one recalls that these were the years of the First World War — where she suddenly died of pneumonia in 1919. Back in Philadelphia, the Gibson family was now left to decide what to do with the granite blocks. Loan the pieces to the museum? Give them as a gift to the city of Philadelphia? Donate them directly to the museum? At this point, an important role on behalf of the museum was played by Langdon Warner who — described sometimes as the ‘Indiana Jones’ of the profession — had been appointed its director. He, through argument and contact, was able to convince the family to donate these disorganised and scattered pillars and posts to the museum. When it was finally done, local newspapers were able to boldly flash news of the donation — ‘Hindu Temple, now in America’ — and Warner was able to record that “the most important gift that has come to us during the year, or in fact during any year, is that of the Hindu colonnade from Madurai in South India, which was presented by the family of Mrs Adeline Pepper Gibson in her memory”.

An earlier view of the Mandapam gallery.

The stone slabs were now the museum’s. But from this point onwards, it was all inquiries, questions, speculations, which went on being asked and entertained over the years. Darielle Mason draws attention to all these, of course, though not necessarily in this order. How to make sense of this great gift? What date do the massive pieces belong to? Were these slabs part of a temple in India that should not have been disturbed? Was their being brought from India legitimate? What part of a temple were these once? And which temple? Is there an order in which they should be arranged and raised? Is there a theme to them? Is the viewer entitled to an authentic experience? Trying to find answers was not easy and we have names — celebrated, iconic — which became associated with the decisions that needed to be taken and are carefully tracked here: Norman Brown, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, among them. These names may not mean too much to everyone, but to those who know something about the history of Indian art, and of museums, they do.

A pillar with the figure of Rama

One is, I realise, getting into areas here that are best left to the next piece that I have promised (threatened?) to write. Meanwhile, however, I recall the sense of awe and wonder I personally experienced when I — having just joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania long years ago — saw the ‘mandapam galleries’ in the museum for the first time. Here was something like a whole temple inside a museum. Much has changed since then, as this volume emphasizes, but I recall the distinct sense of discomfort I felt when I, like many others, did not take my shoes off before entering and moving about in that space. There was, and still remains, the feel of the sacred out there.

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