Meenakshi temple

Heritage in peril

Print edition : March 16, 2018

The Veera Vasantha Rayar Mandapam after the fire was put out on February 3. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Fire engulfs the Veera Vasantha Rayar Mandap in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple in Madurai on February 2. Photo: G. Moorthy

An inside view of the Aayiram Kaal Mandap. Photo: G. Moorthy

Shopkeepers at the Puthu Mandap clear the piles of garbage that had accumulated over the years, on February 5. Photo: R. Ashok

The Golden Lotus pond in the Meenakshi temple complex. Photo: S. James

Shops at the Puthu Mandap inside the temple. Photo: S. James

Shop owners vacating the temple premises. Photo: S. Krishnamoorthy

The destruction of an iconic mandap in the Meenakshi temple in Madurai highlights the shoddy efforts of the temple administration in preserving the heritage structure in Tamil Nadu.

IT was a tragedy waiting to happen. On the night of February 2, at around 10 p.m., the four-century-old Veera Vasantha Rayar Mandap (hall) in the Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple complex in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, was devastated in a fire.

About 70 fire and rescue personnel in scores of fire tenders battled the blaze for three hours, but a major portion of the iconic mandap and its ornamental stone pillars, located not very far from the sanctum sanctorum of Sundareswarar, the presiding deity, were reduced to rubble. Those who inspected the ruins said that at least 15 of the 46 pillars had developed cracks and a portion of the high ceiling made of stone slabs had caved in.

Two-thirds of the about 19,200-square-foot mandap is said to have suffered damage. The fire is suspected to have been caused by an electrical short circuit at one of the many shops that functioned from there. Twenty-five of the 60 shops, which sell pooja materials, framed images of gods and goddesses and plastic toys, were destroyed. No loss of human life was reported, but droves of blue-rock pigeons that roost on the mandap perished. Experts think the granite slabs and pillars could have developed cracks and disintegrated if the temperature inside the burning mandap had risen to 600° Celsius.

Arun Menon, an associate professor at the Department of Structural Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and a technical member of the high-level committee comprising engineers, archaeologists and conservationists constituted by the Tamil Nadu government to assess the damage, said: “Had a part of the roof not caved in or had the fire persisted for a few more hours, the combustion that would have remained bottled up inside the stone edifice could have destroyed heritage structures such as the Aayiram Kaal Mandap [Hall of Thousand Pillars] located just 10 feet away. The temple would have suffered structural damage had the fire not been contained in time.”

Following an inspection of the site, he said:

“Large areas of the roof slab in the northern and southern aisles, on either side of the east-west oriented central corridor, collapsed owing to the cracking of the stone slabs, which could no longer carry the weight of the heavy weathering course of brick jelly and lime concrete. “A few pillars in this area have shown severe structural damage, such as spalling, cracking and what appears to be melting. Beams show a similar state. In other areas the damage is limited to the cracking of beams at mid span, surface damage in pillars, with spalling and defacing of sculptural details and deposition of soot.”

The Meenakshi Amman temple, as the complex is more popularly known, is an architectural marvel built in the Dravidian style. The temple, situated on about 45 acres (18 hectares) of land in the heart of Madurai, and the Thirumalai Nayak Palace are part of the Government of India’s heritage group of structures. Stringent norms are laid down for the maintenance and preservation of the structures listed in the group.

Arun Menon said the Aayiram Kaal Mandap remained unscathed. Also safe is the 176-foot-tall, nine-storeyed East Tower, which has hundreds of coloured stucco figures and sculptures. Opposite the East Tower is the Puthu Mandap (new hall) with its breathtaking works of art. Constructed during the rule of Thirumalai Nayak (A.D. 1623 to 1659), it too was occupied by traders. Devotees and visitors hardly get to see the sculptures. History has recorded that Muthu Veerappa Nayak, brother of Thirumalai Nayak, built the Vasantha Rayar Mandap in A.D. 1611. Experience Madurai in Time and Space, authored by Visalakshi, P.S. Alagarsamy, Dr K. Kannan and Maria Sargunam, notes that the hall has 46 tall and slender pillars with floral motifs, besides a few intricately carved sculptures.

“The mandap has suffered damage, especially on its southern and northern sides,” said the industrialist Karumuttu T. Kannan, the temple’s State-nominated thakkar, who coordinates its administration. Kannan told Frontline that while the mandap’s southern and northern portions suffered extensive damage, its vital central portion remained untouched. “We are greatly relieved that the Aayiram Kaal Mandap is safe,” he said.

Soon after the fire was extinguished, the temple administration cordoned off the area. Iron scaffolding was erected to prevent the remaining soot-covered pillars and ceiling from collapsing. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department of the State government, which maintains temples, has constituted an expert team to “study, analyse and recommend” steps for the repair and restoration of the damaged structure. The team visited the temple twice within 15 days of the accident and prepared a dossier.

The HR & CE Minister, Sevvoor S. Ramachandran, visited the temple on February 4. He said the government had sought the help of experts from IIT Madras. The committee, he said, would check the stability of the Aayiram Kaal Mandap and other adjoining structures. One fact that has emerged from the fire is the flagrant violation of regulations by shopkeepers, who have virtually converted the temple into a warehouse. The place looks like a big market.

“The fire could have been prevented had the traders adhered to security norms,” said a retired temple official.

The shops use high-voltage halogen lamps, which are unsafe. “Three lorry loads of plastic waste and other flammable goods were removed from the fire-ravaged mandap,” said an officer who supervised the operation of removing the debris. While round-the-clock surveillance with metal detectors and frisking booths had been instituted in the temple after the explosion of crude bombs in the 1990s, shopkeepers seemed to have been exempt from the rules, said a regular visitor to the temple.

The Hindu reported on February 16 that a team from the Fire and Rescue Services Department conducted a fire audit after the incident. According to the audit, all the shops in the temple complex and the Puthu Mandap posed a safety hazard. The audit report, an official said, would contain suggestions such as the need to set up a permanent fire station outside the temple. The Tirukkalyana Mandap inside the temple, which has a teak wood roof, needs to be insulated. Other measures that need to be taken include the use of liquefied petroleum gas stoves in the temple kitchen, shifting of the storage area for the ghee used in daily rituals, and formation of a round-the-clock emergency response team to deal with disaster situations.

Before the fire, there were about 420 shops on the temple premises and in the Puthu Mandap. “They have been here for generations. But over a period of time, many shop owners sublet their shops to outsiders. The temple authorities could neither exercise control over them nor discipline them. A few attempts to evict them failed. Even the M.G. Ramachandran government [1977-87] could not evict and relocate these traders. Politicians decide the allotment of shops,” the retired temple employee said. It is said that under the Central government’s Mega Tourism scheme, Rs.10 crore was sanctioned in 2010 for a shopping complex at Kunnathur Chatram near the temple for these traders. They, however, refused to move. The project executor, the Madurai Corporation, has been sitting on the plan.

“If this project is executed and alternative space is allotted to shops, the temple and the structures within the complex can be freed from the clutches of these traders,” said a heritage enthusiast.

The Madurai temple historian Ambai Manivannan pointed out that the Puthu Mandap “is a mine of arts and architecture of the Nayak era”. “We do not value our arts and culture. Here is a mandap that symbolises the rich heritage of our past. But it is being allowed to decline,” he said. Manivannan said that some of the stunning sculptures in the Puthu Mandap had already suffered damage and that they should be saved before it was too late. Karumuttu T. Kannan concurred with his observations. He said the shops “are choking the life out of the Puthu Mandap”. “The sculptures are facing a serious threat. Even the pathway has been reduced to a mere two or three feet in breadth,” he said.

The fire mishap forced the State government to initiate a series of measures. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami despatched Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to carry out an inspection. He convened a meeting with officials and Ministers on February 13 in Chennai. A government press release issued after the meeting said that the Chief Minister had ordered the removal of shops located inside temple complexes and also those abutting them with immediate effect. Accordingly, the temple authorities have started removing the shops and other encroachments from inside and near the temple and the Puthu Mandap.

Architectural marvel

The Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple has two main components: swami sannathi (Siva shrine) and amman sannathi (Meenakshi shrine). Around these two main shrines, corridors, long and short; halls, big and small; shrines for other deities; and towers, tall and short were added in the course of time. Today, the Meenakshi temple complex boasts four nine-tier towers (facing four directions), one seven-tier tower, five five-tier towers, two three-tier and two gold-plated vimanas atop the sanctum sanctorums, besides an unfinished Rayar tower at the outer edge of Puthu Mandap. These towers together have 4,100 sculptures and stucco (sculpting medium of lime and mortar for ornamentation) figures on them. The complex also houses many large mandaps, including the Vasantha Rayar hall, besides many long and broad passageways. The temple is said to have a collection of around 8,000 works of art, which include sculptures, sculptured pillars, motifs and stucco figures.

The archaeologist C. Santhalingam from Madurai said the mandaps had been categorised as most sacred and less sacred for the sake of convenience. While temple rituals and ceremonies that happen round the year take place in the “sacred” mandaps, the less sacred mandaps are meant for devotees to “rest and relax”. The Vasantha Rayar hall, he said, falling under the latter category, had carved pillars standing in straight columns on both sides of the nave leading into the main portion inside the temple.

“The hall cannot be matched for its massiveness with other halls in the temple,” said Santhalingam. “The pillars are brown-hued and 20 to 22 feet tall, peaking at a high-rise ceiling of stone slabs, which again were interconnected through the socket method, similar to the ball-and-socket bone joint in a human body. Though no detailed binding is necessary for a stone ceiling, lime-and-mortar paste was found to have been injected into the crevices to prevent water seepage.”

The hall, he said, was built some 400 years after the construction of the East Tower by King Jatavarma Sundarapandian (A.D. 1250), suggesting that the space between the tower and the sanctum would have remained vacant then. Temple historians wonder whether a detailed profiling of the Vasantha Rayar Mandap had been undertaken. They point out that the mandap has remained out of bounds for heritage profilers because of the presence of shops there.

Visalakshi et al. record in their book that notable among the carved sculptures are those of Kaala Samharamurthy, the depiction of the gypsy princess and her abduction, a Siva statue, a statue of Kali, and statues of entrance guards. A Nandi statue facing the sanctum is placed in a stone tub. Water is poured on the Nandi by way of worship during times of drought. Ambai Manivannan, who has authored some scholarly works on the temple, told Frontline that the mandap housed many small and big sculptured pillars, but many of the sculptures could not be viewed clearly because of the presence of shops. It is not known whether these sculptured pillars were damaged.

Santhalingam suggested that the temple could have been a brick structure at its formative stage in the pre-Christian period and was transformed during the later period into a stone edifice—in phases over nine centuries from the 12th century onwards. The temple can be traced to the period of King Jatavarman Kulasekara Pandian (A.D. 1190-1216) of the Pandya dynasty and its subsequent growth to the Nayaks of Vijayanagara, said the historian R. Kasirajan. The temple is today seen as a blend of the traditional and the modern. “The changing styles of the Pandya, the Vijayanagara and also the modern age can be seen in the walls of the temple complex,” Kasirajan said. Even the influence of Renaissance Art can be seen in the Puthu Mandap.

The fact that the temple is ageing cannot be brushed aside. The damaged structure, conservationists said, can be rebuilt and restored without disturbing the structural stability of the main complex. Santhalingam said geologists would know where granite stones similar to the ones used in the complex could be sourced for replacement. In the past, stones for the temple were sourced from hills that possessed quality granite by burning loads of straw and wooden logs over them. The granite would develop cracks owing to the heat generated by the burning. Workers would then mine and cut the stones. “Experts, along with archaeologists and government agencies, can restore the mandap to its pristine glory,” he said.

Union Minister of State Pon. Radhakrishnan, who met the media in Madurai after the fire, urged the State government to remove the shops from the temple premises. “Officials must not convert the temple into a marketplace,” he said. The Minister recalled an incident that happened at the Subramania Swamy temple in Tiruchendur in Thoothukudi district on December 14, 2017.

A woman devotee was killed and two others sustained injuries when the roof of the Giri Prahara mandap there, constructed in 1974, collapsed. Trying to exploit the situation in the Madurai temple, a few Hindu outfits and their leaders have demanded that temples be “liberated” from the State government and restored to the local people. Social activists have objected to this demand by saying that such a move would revive social evils such as untouchability. Instead, the HR & CE Department should maintain the temples properly, they insisted.

Mired in controversies

The Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple has faced several adversities, both natural and man-made. It is also a fact that the temple has not been maintained as per conservation rules and norms of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), though it has not been declared a monument so far. The cracks and sink-in exhibited the ageing of the structure, but the intervention by the temple administration in the form of renovation was not appreciated by a UNESCO team.

In its report in August 2017, the UNESCO fact-finding mission on the works undertaken at the eastern and southern corridors of the Golden Lotus pond, where pillars had developed cracks, said: “[R]econstruction of the south and east corridors of ‘Potramarai kulam’ (Golden Lotus pond) is against the principles of Agama Sastras where it is clearly recommended that old stone material needs to be used and reused until it has lived its life.” It said: “All works are being carried out in an ad hoc manner, leading to serious concerns for the stability and authenticity of the historic temple structures.”

The temple, it said, had not documented the work and had no comprehensive conservation management plan. The report added: “Works are to be strictly carried out under experts in the field only and not by contractors without experience of conservation. Strict adherence to recommendations by the ASI and adherence to conservation policies, charters and acts as required by government orders is essential.”

The pillars and ceilings of the eastern and southern corridors surrounding the Golden Lotus pond had suffered damage in 2012, forcing the temple administration to undertake renovation works with a tentative deadline for completion by 2015. The old structure was pulled down and a new one, replacing 72 pillars and stone slabs for roofing, was undertaken. But the work was stopped midway at the intervention of the Madras High Court, which expressed concern over the lack of preservation. Experts such as Arun Menon, however, said that any ancient structure could not be restored to its original condition. “Sometimes we need to preserve them with today’s available materials, of course, closer to the old ones,” he said. The work in the southern corridor, however, has been completed. Kannan said that the stones that had been used in the mandap in the past were of poor quality. “The old stone pillars and ceiling slabs had developed major cracks and could not be reused. We chose the best granite stones and completed the structure, restoring them as close to their original condition as possible,” he said.

On May 18, 1996, two crude bombs exploded in the second prahara (circumbulatory passage) of the temple, damaging the stone walls and pillars. One person was arrested in connection with the attack. In 1999, a few stone slabs in the ceiling of the second prahara around the sanctum sanctorum of Meenakshi developed cracks up to 10 centimetres long. In the same period, cracks were noticed in pillars and slabs near the east entrance of the Vasantha Rayar Mandap.

The committee formed then claimed that the cracks could have been due to the “load over factor” and a “general settlement” of soil on the southern side of the temple because of heavy commercial exploitation of groundwater. The temple authorities were taken to court over the issue of its structural stability, and after a delay of six years, restoration measures were permitted to be taken up. But the most irresponsible act of the temple administration took place when the “kumbhabhishekam” (consecration) was performed in 1995. An entire stretch of 36 panels of rich and exquisite Nayak mural paintings on the “64 Thiruvilaiyadal” (divine acts of Siva), adorning the walls of Golden Lotus pond, were whitewashed.

A feeble attempt was made to recreate them but in vain. Barring three panels, others could not be redrawn. The work remains unfinished to this day.

The temple is an aesthetic composition in stone, a throbbing convergence of various hues of culture. It needs to be zealously conserved.

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