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Uproar over a temple

Print edition : Dec 06, 2002 T+T-

The Archaeological Survey of India's move to declare a temple in Tamil Nadu a monument of national importance gives rise to a wave of protests.

A CONTROVERSY has erupted in Tamil Nadu over an apparently well-intentioned move of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to declare the Arunachaleswara temple at Tiruvannamalai, 200 km from Chennai, "a monument of national importance'' and thereby conserve and preserve it. While the traders and real estate developers in the town, especially those around the temple, fear that the ASI's move will cut into the flow of pilgrims and affect their business, the State government is piqued that the Central government-run ASI did not consult it before making the "unilateral move". There also seems to be a misunderstanding of the ASI's use of the word "monument" on the part of the traders and the State government: they fear that the ASI will interfere with the temple's daily pujas and rituals, collect entry fee from pilgrims, and convert the shrine into "a site of mere archaeological importance".

The explanations of K.T. Narasimhan, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI Chennai Circle, that the ASI will not take over the temple but will only declare it a monument of national importance in order to restore it to its original grandeur have not convinced the traders and the State government. Narasimhan asserted that the ASI will not interfere with the pujas and rituals, or ask for a share in the offerings. In short, the ASI would have nothing to do with the temple administration, he said. He listed the temples, churches, mosques and gurdwaras that are "living" but declared monuments of national importance by the ASI. Many churches in Goa and the Nizamuddin mosque in New Delhi were declared monuments of national importance. However, services and prayers were held there every day, he pointed out.

The Arunachaleswara temple is about 1,000 years old. The huge Siva temple complex was built during the period of the Cholas, at the foothills of the Tiruvannamalai range. One of the biggest temple complexes in Tamil Nadu, it is situated on a campus of 24.35 acres. There are about 300 shrines in the complex. It has four rajagopurams in four directions, a 1,000-pillared mantapa, two huge tanks, the Sivaganga Punniya Theertham and the Brahma Theertham. The temple is under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department, Tamil Nadu. A mahakumbhabhishekam was performed there on June 27, 2002, and the temple complex received a face-lift. The Karthigai deepam festival held in the temple every year attracts devotees from various parts of the country. The Ramana Maharshi Ashram and Yogi Ram Suratkumar Ashram attract devotees from all over.

The fact remains that the temple campus is poorly maintained. The four Mada streets around the temple are dirty. There is a parking lot opposite a rajagopuram, with vehicles parked pell-mell. There is a stinking toilet near that. There are encroachments all around. Rubbish is heaped here and there. To borrow a quote from Ananda Coomaraswamy, "commerce has settled on every tree" around the temple.

On September 20, the Union Department of Culture issued a preliminary notification under Sub-Section(i) of Section 4 of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, expressing its intention to declare the Arunachaleswara temple a "monument of national importance''. The preliminary notification said that any objection to this declaration could be made before November 20 and it would be considered by the Director-General, ASI. If a final notification were to come through, an area with a radius of up to 300 metres from the temple would be declared "prohibited and regulated". No mining or construction could take place within the first 100-metre radius. Any such activity in the next 200-metre radius would have to receive the approval of the ASI. The preliminary notification was issued after Union Minister for Culture and Tourism Jagmohan visited Tiruvannamalai in April and was reportedly impressed by the temple complex.

From the first week of November, an orchestrated chorus of protests went up in the town, led by traders who branded the preliminary notification "a move to take over the temple administration". They argued that the temple was a living one and not a monument and that it was unconstitutional for the ASI to take it over. A "temple protection committee" was set up, led by R. Muthukumaraswamy. According to him, the committee had members from all sections of society in the town and from political parties.

He claimed that that just as there was a Wakf Board for Muslims, Hindus had a "right" over the Arunachaleswara temple. "For Hindus, it is a living temple. Pujas take place every day. So we should protect the temple," he said.

Muthukumaraswamy used the word tholporul (ancient monuments, in Tamil) to claim that the ASI could only take over temples in ruins or where no pujas were conducted. He said: "The ASI has not maintained properly the temples it has taken over. For instance, it is not maintaining properly the Amman temple on top of the Gingee Fort. The temple is gathering dust and no festivals are conducted. If the ASI takes over the Tiruvannamalai temple, it cannot administer it well." On the poor upkeep of the temple complex, he asked: "Which temple is not dirty? Which temple does not suffer from encroachments? Where crowds gather, there will be trade (and consequently dirty environs)."

On November 6, traders observed a bandh in the town, protesting against the ASI move. About 5,000 residents took out a procession and raised slogans condemning the preliminary notification. The fear of the traders and real estate developers, which is not expressed openly, is that a prohibition-and-regulation rule will come into force in a 300-metre radius from the complex if the final notification comes through. No construction activity can take place within the first 100-metre radius. Activity will be highly curtailed in the next 200-metre radius. This will hit construction activity and trade. They also fear that the ASI would interfere with the pujas and start collecting entry fee from devotees, which would lead to a decline in their number. The H.R. and C.E. Department was worried that the ASI would ask for a share in the hundi collection.

The Tamil Nadu government was annoyed that it was cold-shouldered when the ASI issued the notification. It was not impressed with the Rs.2 crores that the ASI would make available for the initial restoration of the temple. The H.R. and C.E. Department could mobilise more funds, it said. Besides, the temple had now grown into "a religious centre of international importance, more as an abode of faith than as a site of mere archaeological importance," it claimed.

Several political parties, including the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress(I) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), and the Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, jumped on to the protest bandwagon. DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wrote to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee requesting him to direct the ASI to give up its move "to safeguard the interests of lakhs of devotees and thousands of merchants".

On November 13, Justice R. Balasubramanian of the Madras High Court granted a stay on the September 20 preliminary notification declaring the temple a monument of national importance. This was consequent to the H.R. and C.E. Commissioner M.A. Gowrishankar and Tiruvannamalai Devasthanam executive officer K. Sriraman challenging the notification.

Narasimhan asserted that the ASI had "no religion". Under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, any structure that was more than 100 years old could be declared a monument of national importance. He explained that the intention was "to conserve the monument for future generations. That is the main motive".

Monuments declared to be of national importance by the ASI fell under two categories: living monuments and monuments where no religious activity is under way. Narasimhan said: "In living monuments, where religious activity is going on at the time of declaration, the status quo will continue. It means that all pujas and rituals that are being performed [as in the Arunachaleswara temple] will continue. There will be no curb on religious activities. We declare structures where no religious activity is current as dead monuments. But we conserve both types."

Narasimhan pointed out that in Tamil Nadu itself the ASI had under its control several "living temples'' such as the Vaikuntha Perumal temple, the Iravatheneswara temple and the Kailasanatha temple, all at Kachipuram, the Brihadeewarar temple at Thanjavur, the Jalakanteswara temple at Vellore, and the St. Mary's Church on the Fort St. George campus in Chennai. Although they were declared to be of national importance, pujas and services were under way in all of them. Besides, the ASI had restored to their original splendour the gopurams of Sri Kailasanatha, Vaikunthaperumal, Iravatheneswara and Brihadeeswarar temples, and laid out lawns too, he said. Narasimhan, a conservationist, led the restoration and conservation work on these temples. The ASI's Chennai Circle has preserved 410 ancient structures and sites in Tamil Nadu.

About the declaration on the Arunachaleswara temple, Narasimhan said the structures extant now within a radius of 100 metres would not be disturbed. New constructions would be taboo within that radius.

He repeated that the ASI would not interfere with the religious administration or charge any fee from the devotees.