Sacred Surfaces: guest post by Ross Hayes

“Sacred Surfaces” reflects Ross’s enthusiasm as an architect and urban designer.  The drawings and photographs you see below are also his.

We leave the swerving, braking and horn-honking traffic of downtown Maduri inTamil Nadu get out of the car and walk along a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard leading to the 17th century Hindu Meenakshi Amman Temple. We enjoy the sudden quiet. No cars, busses or trucks. But jammed with pilgrims.

Our shoes and socks are stored outside the temple and we proceed barefoot through one of the gateway (gopurams) towers.  Fifty meters in height, the tower is a tiered structure decorated level after level with figures of people meditating, praying and dancing. There are warlords and statesmen, gods, demons and beasts. They are painted in pastel hues- corals, grey-blues, yellows and pale greens. Originally they were monochromatic, but we are told that colour was added to make the place friendlier.

I think back to Greek temples, which are today appreciated for their simplicity and the natural colour of the materials. It wasn’t always like that. In many cases the stone, brick and even marble was covered with a carefully prepared cement to pick up coloured decoration. The cement stucco was capable of such a high polish that it would reflect like a mirror. In the bright sunlight, I speculate that Greek temples must also have dazzled the visitor.

While the Meenakshi Temple is enormous and covers 45 acres, it does not overwhelm. The heartbeat of the place takes its cadence from the personal gestures of many individuals. They at times jar with one another. But they provide the pulse of the place.

I anticipate a more contemplative atmosphere as we approach the inner part of the temple. And am surprised to find that the entry, which is flanked on either side by richly carved columns, has been transformed into a bazaar.  Merchants call out. Gold and silver coloured trinkets, bright packages of pigmented powder and small statues – all glitter under the glare of bare fluorescent light.

I pass a black granite ox, head tilted up slightly, with elongated eyes and a broad blunt nose. He sits in a golden cage. Yellow and red garlands are slung around his neck and a white one is perched, slightly off centre, on the top his head. Just behind, musicians leaning against the temple walls, fill the space with sound. The nasal resonance of a reed instrument, like that of a soprano saxophone, rises and falls in long sustained notes reverberating off the hard surfaces. The percussion intricately follows his lead. I try to count out the timing, but it is more of a flow than a count.

I turn the corner and go by an elegant gold flagpole with what appears to be three layers of horizontal clouds streaming out from the top. Then I pass a group of enormous wooden wheels from a chariot used to convey deities around the temple grounds. I continue on with the crowd (there are 15000 people a day that visit the temple.) As the melancholy sounds of  music slowly fade, we enter a vast, dimly-lit hall. I try to make sense of what I see but cannot get my bearings. The flow of people dissipates into separate channels and countless eddies. I am disoriented. My eyes adjust and shapes begin to emerge from the dark surfaces, but their haphazard sequence does little to guide me. Small offerings, a grain or two of rice, personalize the hard surfaces. In some places, the placing of thousands of hands has deepened the sheen on the rock. In others, oils highlight  a shape. Some stone figures are enhanced by bright silks draped over parts of it giving it a human quality.

A group entering the hall, kneels in front of one of the figures. The crowd instinctively shifts to make space. Others, individually or in small groups moving through the space in diverse directions, pause in reflection. They touch the figures, light candles and at times dust them with brightly coloured pigments.

These deities are not alone and aloof. They are dressed up and decorated by the pilgrims, like members of their family.

Three figures that appear to grow out of the black granite of a wall are partially coated with yellow pigment. Why yellow, I wonder? And why just part of the figure?  Nearby, feet extending from base of an enormous sculpture are dusted with red powder. The rounded shapes of a pregnant woman, draped in silks, glisten with fresh oil. A small garland has been carefully placed on her head and smudges of red highlight the edges. Not far away, a small face with a large turban has been draped in blue and yellow fabric. The surrounding wall has been dabbed with rough trident shapes. In places, the markings have been applied over each other and have blended into a rich orange- red.

Each surface has come alive. From the diverse offerings of many hands a story is told, one which is understood at a personal level by those paying their respects. Perhaps the decoration of surfaces in the temple is a way of expressing gratitude. A way of making something that is otherwise hard and cold, part of oneself. Is this an Indian tradition?

Our visit coincides with Pongol, the great Hindu harvest festival. On one of the days, farm animals are decorated.  We see two magnificent bullocks, pulling an enormous load, decorated with banners flying in the breeze from a chord between their elegant curved horns. Flowers are draped along the side of their faces and down across their chests. They appear to be proud. And certainly their owners are grateful. We are told that the harvest has been good.

Sidewalks are often decorated with kolam designs, which in some cases include coloured depictions of natural objects, in others, curvilinear designs are set out around a series of points. In India, decorative surfaces and colour are everywhere. We talked to a group of women with their children in the courtyard outside one of the temples. Strong features contrast with bright saris; an orange, yellow and green shawl on one women, magenta, orange and gold on another. Flowers embellish their jet-black hair.

It is not surprising that the instinct to embellish a spiritual place is so strong. It personalizes an object, brings it into focus, providing a platform from which you can reach out to a larger spirit. It creates a complex, and at times seemingly discordant environment. But one which combines the unique expressions of many individuals, creating a place that is very rich.

Please click below on “leave a comment”  and share your experience and insight. I’d love to hear your stories. Ross