The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s redesigned South Asian galleries

New look at an ancient place

For nearly a century, one of the world’s greatest collections of South Asian art has been hidden in a dimly-lit area of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now it’s expanded, re-lit, and has turned into an enthralling destination.

The newly lit Temple Hall. (Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The centerpiece is a Hindu temple from the Indian city of Madurai, which was acquired in 1919 and put on display at the museum’s first home in Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. Sixty carved granite pieces dating from around 1560 came from a temple complex that had fallen down, its pieces piled up as rubble. 

The temple's history

When the museum moved to its present home in 1928, the collection was put in a darkened area on the top floor which came to be called the “Oriental Wing.”

Darielle Mason, the Museum’s curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, as well as a historian of temple architecture, traveled to Madurai and realized the temple had been a freestanding outdoor celebration hall devoted to worship of the Hindu god Vishnu. Therefore it is now shown as the airy, light-filled space it once was.

The 1,975 square foot Temple Hall is remarkable for its massive columns as well as its intricately carved capitals. Beyond the hall, a greatly enlarged collection occupies a total of 7,600 square feet. This is the only place outside India where visitors can experience the monumental synthesis of structure, sculpture, and symbolism in Hindu worship.

Tapestries, wood panels, sculptures of stone and of metal from Thailand, Persia, Tibet, and other regions of South Asia are all part of the collection. The Buddhist and Hindu religions are comprehensively represented. Some sculptures appear to be erotic, but it’s more accurate to view them as celebrations of fertility. Sexual coupling was exalted as the means for procreating and preserving the future of the people.  

Some personal favorites

As with any exhibition, individuals will have different favorites. I was especially impressed by a massive altar that once occupied a wall inside a Tibetan home. Approximately seven feet tall and 10 feet wide, painted in an orange-red vermillion with gilding, it held sculptures of Buddhist deities who were the focus of daily family worship. A bottom row of niches and a shelf held offerings such as food and beverages.

Stylized lotus flowers decorate the lower panels, surrounded by curling tendrils. The lotus is one of the most significant motifs in Buddhist art. Growing in water, it rises from the mud to produce a pristine flower. 

New art has been commissioned for the re-opening, such as a contemporary video animation by Pakistan-born Shahzia Sikander, with a sound-scape by Shanghai-born Du Yun. Sikander's animation is inspired by the museum's illustrated 1743 manuscript, Rose Garden of Love. It is projected in a niche framed by a 300-year-old coffered ceiling and vaulted archway from Isfahan in Iran.

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