A devotee walks past the entrance to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • The devilish disfiguring and gross mismanagement of temples in Tamil Nadu continues. A people’s movement has the potential to end this disaster.

“It is startling to find that the HR & CE department with all its income from major temples, has not been able to maintain historical temples and safeguard the Idols, which in market, have antique value based on their age. Some temples in the State have also been recognised by the UNESCO as heritage sites. Many temples constructed at least 1,500 years ago or much before....are in ruins. Even the daily rituals are not performed. Some temples remain closed throughout the day with no one to even lighten the lamps.”

These words are part of a recent judgment by Madras High Court that sharply criticised the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Board, the government body, in charge of the management and control of temples and the administration of their endowments.

Starting from the emergence of Dravidian parties that made Tamil heritage their political capital, Tamil Nadu has been witnessing a rapid erosion of its cultural capital. Here is an extract from a report in India Today, dated 31 May, 1984:

“During DMK rule in 1968, a party functionary in Thanjavur quietly converted some 20 acres of agricultural land belonging to the Thirumangalakkudi Siva temple run by the Thiruvavaduthurai mutt into house sites. The temple got a mandatory injunction from the court to restore the land to agricultural use. But the decree was never executed because of political pressure on the mutt head. The housing colony remains to this day. Earlier, in 1967, another powerful district office-bearer of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) persuaded the Thiruvavaduthurai mutt head to lease him almost an entire village in Pattukottai taluk owned by the mutt. This man regularly defaulted on his rent payments to the mutt, though he was collecting high rents for the portions of the village he subleased to others. He lost control of the land only when the AIADMK came to power in 1977 and the sub-lessees were made leaseholders.”

The gross mismanagement and nurtured deterioration of temples under Dravidian movement may not be ineptitude on the part of the state. The situation was no different when All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was in power. The report further states:

“AIADMK, in its turn, has used the infrastructure of HR&CE for its own political ends. Most temple trustees are AIADMK members and many of the paid temple servants are also ruling party men.”

It may have an ideological basis. During the heydays of Dravidian propaganda, some of the popular slogans, which were used to drive both the leadership and the cadre hysterical, were:

Why the gods who have no hunger, should be endowed with land grants?

When shall the day come when we can blast with cannon both the Nataraja of Chidambaram and Sri Ranga of Thiruvarangam?

When political parties with such attitude gained control of the temples, it was only natural they systematically started destroying the sanctity, and started stripping the temples of the age-old grants bequeathed to them by kings and patrons. Rampant corruption also saw some gruesome killings, when honest officials challenged the political mafia. In 1980, C Subramania Pillai, a jewel verification officer at the Tiruchendur Muruga temple, was killed at the holy town of Tiruchendur. In 1983, an audit inspector-trainee, P Venkatachalam, attached to the Srirangam temple, died mysteriously at Srirangam town. Such deaths showed, to what extent, the politicians, in collusion with the state machinery, would go to continue their institutionalised plundering of Hindu temples.

The Dravidian parties — Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and AIADMK — invented new ways to misguide people by performing grand kumbhabishekams at the temples, which often involved renovation of the temples. Most of the time, the renovation process included drenching the entire temple with chemical paints or employing highly-detrimental techniques, such as sand blasting. Apart from such shoddy handling of temples, the stealing of idols had also become a big business, with officials colluding with antique smugglers. The recent Madras High Court judgement has come down heavily on this mafia network.

Combine with this the incredible cultural illiteracy that permeates the powerful and gigantic bureaucracy of HRCE. The result — we are losing, at a very fast rate, our cultural wealth, that is enshrined in the invaluable network of traditional Hindu temples and aligned institutions, like nandavanams and temple tanks. We are losing our cultural heritage as fast as we are losing the species to global warming.

In Sri Rangam, perhaps South India’s most famous temple town, there is a tower dedicated to Vellai Ammal, the dancer who saved the temple from being looted by Islamist invaders by sacrificing her own life. Last time I went there was a few years ago. I saw desecration of every kind in the temple premises. There was no regard for its sculptural grandeur. Constructions disfigure the sculptures. Inside the temple mandapam meant for the deity, stood the car of one of the local officials, who ran the place like their fiefdom. Centuries-old paintings were slowly fading away into extinction. Some grand grain storage facilities, centuries old, which anywhere else in the world would have been conserved and shown proudly as heritage building, were left to the mercy of growing shrubs.

This year, the dismal and disastrous track record of both HRCE and Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department in conserving the temples, at last, resulted in a 1,000-years-old temple being demolished — in a way that made even Malik Kafur, the notorious temple demolisher from Delhi Sultanate, look like an amateur.

Manampadi temple, near the temple town of Kumbhakonam, bears the features of Chola architecture. It displays some exquisite sculptures of deities — aesthetic, inspiring a sense of the sacred, and devotion. Local Tamil scholars believe that the temple also has depictions of Rajendra Chola, the son of great Raja Raja Chola. Some scholars differ, but, they all agree when it comes to its antiquity and the importance of these sculptures. The temple has inscriptions. It is important from the point of view of religion, culture and history. Today, the temple, considered by UNESCO a valuable heritage monument, lies as a heap of stones, thanks to HRCE. That it is not capable of conserving the heritage monuments, leave alone conducting rituals properly, is an established fact in Tamil Nadu. Temples with invaluable bronze idols, acres of lands and exquisite sculptures, have become a mine of wealth for unscrupulous elements, which have become institutionalised in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, there is a model, of what can happen to Hindu temples when they are totally subjected to a state with unlimited powers and an ideology hostile to a dharmic way of life.

Every single village temple in Tamil Nadu has a great potential to educate us on our culture, history and spiritual traditions. Thenkarai, a small, quasi rural part of Chozhavandan, a dusty town near Madurai, has a Shiva temple. Nagaraja Gurukal, the young priest who looks after the puja in this temple, points out some marks and engraved words in the inner corridor. He then produces a display that a local academic had given him. Those markings were actually measures for different kinds of lands — household, agricultural and mountain lands. The display is a striking example of the possibilities we have in using the local academics, temple priests and student communities to make them aware of the locally-available cultural wealth. Gurukal says, “In this temple alone, there are a hundred inscriptions.” Most of them have been whitewashed. “Perhaps, the Hindu endowment board thought they were doing the temple a favour by removing ancient graffiti,” he remarks.

The sadness is of our fall, our collective fall. Our ancestors had these treasures saved for us through untold hardships, and here we are, the present generation, allowing them to be destroyed, this time not by invaders, but by our own people.

World over, scholars and governments converge to take steps to preserve what is called a ‘cultural capital’ (in the context of cultural economics). Cultural capital is the sum total of the tangible and intangible cultural assets of particular community or region. Economist and one of the pioneers of cultural economics, David Throsby points out that “a neglect of cultural capital by allowing heritage to deteriorate,” can have “consequent loss of welfare and economic output.”

Unfortunately, and shamefully, for us, particularly Tamils, the way our temples are managed by HRCE, provides a classic textbook case study on this matter. The continuous smuggling of idols, surfacing of the official-politician-idol smuggler nexus, illegal occupation of temple land, and the way in which temple sculptures are being destroyed and disfigured by HRCE —all these point to one solution — the need for a people’s movement to force HRCE out of Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu, and a takeover, by either a competent Hindu body, or, as a second choice, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

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