Temple activist TR Ramesh recently put out a series of posts on X (formerly Twitter) saying that the Arunachaleswarar Temple in Tiruvannamalai should be made into a national monument and its structures brought under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) department which controls the temple has not been respecting the heritage and aesthetics of the temple.
He mentioned that the government had issued G.O. 336 dated 14.09.2023, which stated that a shopping complex would be built at a cost of Rs 6.40 crore using temple funds on land belonging to the temple in front of the eastern Gopuram.
Swarajya spoke to Ramesh to understand why he considers the construction of the shopping complex to be wrong and why does he wish for the temple to be declared a national monument and its structures brought under the control of the ASI.
On 10 November, Ramesh made an urgent mention before the Division Bench of the Madras High Court hearing temple matters. Accepting the request, the Bench fixed the hearing on 17 November and orally instructed the government to stop work. However, the Bench did not sit on the said date and so the hearing has not taken place.
Swarajya spoke to Ramesh before he approached the Madras High Court.
Following are edited excerpts-
Why is the proposed construction of the shopping complex illegal?
There are a number of reasons.
First of all, the main purpose of temple funds is to carry out the dharma of the temple, which would be the Poojas and other rituals in the temple. The second part would be carrying out Dharmic activities associated with the temple or with Sanatana Dharma.
Now if you have a small temple, there will be only Poojas. In a medium or big sized temple, there will be Poojas, there will be festivals, there will be a big compliment of people, musicians, dancers, artisans, craftsmen, etc.
In a large temple like Tiruvannamalai, endowed with lot of properties and lot of income, the Dharmic purposes would be running institutions of Sanatana Dharma such as Gosala, Pathashala, Agama Pathashala etc. If there are more funds, they can run Hindu colleges and schools.
'Shopping complex' is not one of the sanctioned purposes under the HRCE Act. What can you do with the surplus funds of the temple is listed under Section 66 of the HRCE Act.
Second, building a shopping complex right in front of the ancient heritage temple tower, in this case, the Eastern Tower, is a complete violation of the heritage values and aesthetic values of this temple.
Third, if there is something obstructing the view of the Gopuram, the HRCE officials have to remove it under Section 77 of the Act. Here, they themselves are creating it.
Fourth is that they are doing this and saying we have authority because we made an announcement in the Assembly.
It has to be understood that a temple is not a property of the government to make an announcement. A temple is not a Public Works department, it is not the education department or a TASMAC, where they can make announcements in the Assembly saying that this year we are going to do A,B, and C.
They have no authority. The moment you say it is because of the announcement made in the Assembly, immediately the earlier orders of the Supreme Court come into play and this becomes completely illegal.
The Supreme Court has said in many judgments that where a person who does not have jurisdiction makes the decision, the decision becomes completely void.
Please tell us about the UNESCO report you mentioned in your post.
See, the UNESCO has recorded that the Puravi Mandapam in the temple has been converted into Joint Commissioner's Office. This is within the temple. They have built two cottages, toilets and car sheds inside the temple, which is a complete violation of this 1500 year old temple.
The UNESCO has given a recommendation that before undertaking any future conservation works for a temple of this historicity and scale, there should be detailed consultation with the involvement of conservation experts, archaeologists and sthapathis. All this has been violated.
Why did a UNESCO team come to this temple and what was your role in this?
The Madras High Court asked them to inspect. That was the order passed in writ petition 574 of 2015 by the First Bench of the Madras High Court. They visited this temple on 28 May 2017.
I was one of the stakeholders who was consulted by UNESCO. They also quote my name here and say Mr Ramesh pointed out certain things. I was involved in that case. And even when the review petition happened, I was mentioned as a stakeholder by the Madras High Court.
You have stated that this temple must be declared as a national monument. What will change if it becomes a national monument?
If it becomes a national monument, the structures will come under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). No civil works in and around the temple can be taken up without ASI permission and ASI will allow only conservation work. They will not allow new constructions. It will come under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act and all that.
The Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple, Jalakandeswara temple in Vellore and the Dharasuram temple in Kumbakonam are some of the temples in Tamil Nadu which are under the ASI.
We already have examples of thriving temples under ASI, where people come in thousands.
The structures will be protected, the murals will be protected, the inscriptions will be protected, no shops will be allowed in and around the temple. No modern construction will be allowed. The cottages will be removed, the office will be removed.
What is the issue with construction of public conveniences like toilets?
See, every major temple has properties in the four streets surrounding the temple. So, within 100 meters of the temple, toilets can be built and people can use them. It's not going to be an inconvenience. This has been done in the case of Brihadeeswara and Dharasuram temples.
The agamas of the temple do not permit toilets inside the temple.
Can they be built using temple funds?
If it is built in temple property away from the temple, it is definitely allowed.
And whatever surplus money that a temple has, what are the purposes they can be utilized for is already laid down under the Act. Even for utilizing for such purposes, there is a detailed process.
The trustees have to send a proposal to the commissioner. They have to say how much surplus funds they have. Then the commissioner has to publish the proposal in a leading newspaper and call for objections and suggestions, giving one month's time. After the end of one month, an inquiry has to be conducted. Only after that can the commissioner give approval based on the objections and the suggestions received.
Have trustees been appointed in this temple?
There are no trustees appointed to this temple. Only a servant of the government is acting as the sole trustee, which is called as 'Fit Person'. The Fit Person is the same person who is also the Executive Officer of the temple. Both are the same. Such a practice has been called as a fraud on the statute by the Madras High Court in a case filed by me.
The writ petition number is 10-9-03 of 2020. The Palani Devasthanam and state government went on appeal against this judgment, seeking to set aside this judgment, but the request was turned down by the Division Bench. They lost the appeal.
So making the Executive Officer of a temple as the Fit Person of the same temple is a fraud on the statute. This is happening in Sri Arunachaleshwar Temple, Tiruvannamalai.
Now the bigger fraud is, there is no order traceable by which an Executive Officer is functioning in the temple, like in the case of many other temples.
From 13-12-1951, an Executive Officer belonging to the HRCE department is functioning here and this is complete fraud because there is no legally valid order ever issued.
So, this is what we call in the legal terms, a 'non-est', which means that there's no such person.
A non-est Executive Officer is also made the sole trustee of the temple and there is a G.O. 223 by which this person has been made the Fit Person of the same temple. But the G.O. gives him only limited powers such as pooja expenses, annadana expenses and salaries of the employees of the temple. He cannot embark on a major expense.
Similarly, by an order given in another case of mine on 15-11-2021, the Division Bench of Madras High Court has said that the Fit Person is only a caretaker. He cannot embark on major utilization of funds. So this is also a violation.
The thing is the Fit Person cannot start these projects. He is only a temporary arrangement. A government servant cannot be a Fit Person, and the Executive Officer himself cannot be the Fit Person of the same temple. There are so many violations, one after another.
Does the Act say what structures are in accordance with the Agamas and what is not with the Agamas?
No, the Act doesn't say that. The Act is primarily to only look after the secular aspects of temple administration. When it comes to religious matters, the Agamas and the Shilpa Shastras take over.
But the Act also says that it can make rules for preservation, maintenance management and improvement of the structures. Improvement would mean only the structural improvement, not adding anything new because the first word is preservation. That means nothing else can be added.
What was the purpose of the Puravi Mandapam, which you stated was removed for the office?
'Puravi' means horse. You have a horse mandapam in Srirangam and likewise, you had a horse mandapam here. This is a medieval period style of building mandapams inside the temple.
In such mandapams, some festival or some rituals will be done and the figurines of horse will be there.
Suppose the HRCE department wants to construct an office in the temple, can they do so?
Office is completely out of the picture. A HRCE servant appointed as an Executive Officer can be there only for a maximum period of five years. He doesn't need an office inside the temple because he has no job inside the temple.
He does not have to look after the festivals or poojas or rituals or anything that goes inside the temple.
Only those powers that are pertaining to the properties of the temple, i.e., the lands, buildings, and sites of the temples, can be given to the Executive Officer. And the properties of the temple are outside the temple.
Section 45 (2) of the Act says this clearly.
You have stated that modern structures have to be carefully removed. Does the HRCE department have the personnel with the required skills?
The UNESCO says that the HRCE department neither has skilled persons nor does it have any knowledge in the conservation and restoration of temples. So they should not do this. This job is best left with ASI.
So if it becomes a national monument under ASI, conservation and restoration is also taken care of.
Even if it is not a monument, conservation and restoration works should be handed over to the ASI.
There is a G.O. 171 passed by the Tamil Nadu government in 2013. According to that G.O. any civil work inside an ancient temple, that is more than a hundred years old, should be carried out as per the Venice Charter. And Venice Charter does not allow any change in the settings, i.e., any modern construction.
If you go through that G.O., your question regarding construction of the office or toilets is answered.
Swarajya has written to the HRCE Commissioner for his response. This copy will be updated when a response is received.
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