Storied Stone: A book demystifies the famed ‘mandapam’ installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Stately and mysterious mandapam pillared within the museum’s Asian wing has long been a subject of debate among art historians, the recent book by historian Darielle Mason tries to connect the dots as to how they were shipped to furthest end?  Were they indeed part of a temple?

The pillared temple hall or  mandapam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) is admired worldwide for the unparalleled craftsmanship of the artisan.The only Indian stone temple architecture publicly displayed outside the subcontinent has enthralled the visitors since it was first exhibited in 1920 but, “where did this architectural ensemble originate?” is still a mystery

Darielle Mason in her recent book tries to find clues to the century-old debatable architectural marvel, Storied Stone weaves together memories and scholarship to illuminate the multilayered history of the sole example of historical Indian stone temple architecture publicly displayed outside the subcontinent.

While visiting Madurai, Tamil Nadu, in 1913, the Philadelphian Adeline Pepper Gibson purchased more than 60 huge granite carvings. Given in 1919 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, these architectural elements were arranged to form a temple hall (mandapam) in the museum’s original building in 1920.

The installation was reconfigured in 1940 in the museum’s current building and reimagined in 2016. The tale that unfolds—part detective story, part museum history, part case study—explores a century of debate about exhibition, authenticity, and interpretation within the museum, brought to life by striking new photography and never-before-published archival images.

In 2016, the museum added information for visitors with a descriptive panel, a timeline detailing the fragments’ travel to Philadelphia, a video loop showing a day at Madanagopala Swami temple (produced by the PMA in collaboration with Chennai-based filmmaker and historian, Konbai S. Anwar), and a flip-book telling the stories of the pillar figures.

Offering fresh insights into the original context and meaning of the carvings, this volume also highlights the complexities of presenting the work in, and for, the twenty-first century.Storied Stone is published by the PMA with the idea of offering extraordinary space to readers.

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