The unforgivable destruction of temples
For some years now, the fad in Tamil Nadu is to bulldoze ancient temples and transform them into gaudy-looking, new avatars. In every case of this kind, it is the local people, with no sense of history but with a lot of bhakti, who take it upon themselves to convert ancient temples into snazzy new ones, and this trend is deeply disturbing.
On August 14, 2020, G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Central University, Tiruvarur, went to the Kailasanatha temple in Chennai, which he had visited many times previously, and was stunned and distraught by what he saw. He could not believe the transformation that had taken place in the temple. He lives a few km from Madhavaram, the Chennai suburb where the beautiful, 1200-year old Pallava temple that was built during the time of Dantivarman (regnal years 796 CE - 847 CE) is located. Dedicated to Siva, it had a rich history, with architectural members of the Pallava, the Chola and the Vijayanagara rulers. On the west wall of the central shrine, it had an inscription in Tamil, paleographically dated to the ninth century CE. The inscription talked about how a Tiruvengadadattan of Vangipuram village (coming under the Ekadhira Chaturvedimangalam village of Puliyur Kottam) had donated six sheep for lighting a perpetual lamp in the Kailasanatha temple.
Today, instead of the ancient Kailasanatha temple replete with ancient history, there is a modern, new, gleaming temple. Its rich history has been erased. Several new shrines, built with cement concrete, have come up. A new gopuram has been built over the eastern entrance, with garishly painted figurines of various Hindu deities. Outside the temple architectural members have been lumped together in two different heaps. In one heap is a laterite block of the Pallava period, which has been smoothly dressed with lime mortar and painted. Another architectural member, made of granite and belonging to the Chola period, has a carving of the snake "Rahu." In another heap, lying some distance from the gopuram, there is a granite architectural member with a beautiful carving of the Vijayanagara period. The kumbhabhishekam of this modern temple was performed in June 2018.
Inside the Kailasanatha temple, the only vestiges to show that it was a temple built when the Pallava dynasty ruled the Tondaimandalam in the Tamil country, are the two pillars with sculptures of seated lions.
Dr Thirumoorthy, who was heartbroken at the unwelcome transformation, asked a pertinent question, "Who gave them [that is, the locals at Madhavaram] the right to destroy an ancient temple and build a new temple in its place? They have completely destroyed our cultural heritage here. Why do you destroy an ancient temple and build a new temple instead?" Dr Thirumoorthy, who had earlier worked as an Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Assistant Professor, Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Madras, added, "Knowingly or unknowingly, they have altered the temple without any trace [of its ancient heritage]. The temple has been completely destroyed, leaving no trace of its Pallava style and inscriptions except the two pillars with seated lion sculptures."
Ironically, the Kailasanatha temple at Madhavaram comes under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department of the Tamil Nadu Government. The HR & CE Department is tasked with maintaining and protecting the heritage of about 41,140 temples that are under its control. What it was doing when the locals converted the Pallava-period temple at Madhavaram into a modern edifice is anybody's guess.
Cut to Unjalur, a village about eight km from a small town of Kodumudi, Erode district, Tamil Nadu. It had a beautiful Siva temple, about 500 years old, belonging to the Vijayanagara period. In 2017, pickaxes and machines went into action to pull down the temple, including its shrines and granite -pillared mandapas. The assault was so great that the temple premises looked like a war-zone, with rubble lying everywhere. A granite pillar with an exquisite carving of Murugan with a Vel lay forlorn among the debris. This temple too comes under the "care" of the HR & CE Department.
For some years now, the fad in Tamil Nadu is to bulldoze ancient temples and transform them into gaudy-looking, new avatars. In every case of this kind, it is the local people, with no sense of history but with a lot of bhakti, who take it upon themselves to convert ancient temples into snazzy new ones. This has happened in Chennai suburbs such as Madhavaram, Porur, Singaperumal Kovil, Velachery and so on.
Take for instance, the fate that befell the Ramanatheeswara temple at Porur, which belongs to the Pallava period. The Siva temple is about 1300 years old. Its sanctum, housing the lingam, is apsidal in shape. In other words, it is in the Gajaprishta style, like the back of an elephant. The Chola emperors, Raja Raja Chola (regnal years 985 CE - 1014 CE) and his son, Rajendra Chola. (r. 1012 CE - 1044 CE), made additions to the temple and added their inscriptions. There was a mandapa in front of the main temple, built with granite pillars, which had carvings and inscriptions. The pillars supported the ceiling built with granite slabs. The mandapa belonged to the Chola period. (The Hindu, Chennai edition, February 12, 2010).
Porur was a village with paddy fields and groves until the late 1990s when it became a crowded settlement. The settlers' eyes, including those of traders who set up shop in Porur, fell on the pristine Pallava period temple. They decided in 2009 that this "ancient-looking" temple would not do. They wanted to give it a new look and paint it in bright colours.
The Chola-period granite mandapa was, therefore, first pulled down. Its inscriptions were buried fathoms deep in the foundation laid for the new mandapa, built with cement concrete. Other inscriptions were dumped in a corner. The new mandapa dazzled in bright colours. Brand new figurines, made of cement mortar, were installed on the mandapa roof. The outer wall of the sanctum was sand-blasted to remove whitewash and grime. During the process of sandblasting, a machine trains jets of sand at high speed on sculptures and carvings to remove dirt and grime but the sculptures, friezes and inscriptions end up being mutilated. In fact, under the HR & CE rules, sandblasting pillars, inscriptions and sculptures is taboo. Sculptures of Chandikeswara and a Nandi, and a Linga were cast aside. New shrines came up. The HR & CE officials, in charge of the temple, looked the other way when the temple came under this sustained outrage. After its antiquity was destroyed, the consecration ceremony of the new temple was held in February 2010, with several hundreds of devotees taking part in the celebrations.
At Tholur, near Mohanur, in Namakkal district, an earthmover went into action in February 2016 and razed an 800 -year old Kongu Chola temple to the ground. The Siva temple with a Lingam in the sanctum was completely destroyed. It was demolished even though it was a living temple and there was worship every day. The sanctum with its vimana and mandapas were broken into pieces. The shrines were sundered.
At Tholur, the presiding deity is called Choleesswarar. Saint Arunagirinathar had sung in praise of the presiding deity in a hymn. It had separate shrines for Amman, Ganesha and Chandikesa. There was a Nandi mandapa. The temple had an inscription in 16th century Tamil characters on a pillar in the ardha mandapa in front of the sanctum. It recorded the grant of oil and cotton to the temple to light lamps.
Over the years, a lot of vegetation took root in the temple. Thick vegetation obscured the main temple's terrace, with the roots reaching down. Water seeped into the sanctum, the ardha mandapa and the mukha mandapa. The HR & CE Department put together a committee of experts to make recommendations when temples under its control had to be renovated or restored. A member of the committee, after inspecting the Tholur temple, said that since the removal or destruction of the vegetation's roots might not help in the preservation of the structure, she recommended that the Choleeswara temple should be dismantled and rebuilt after proper documentation with photographs.
The committee member said in her report, "The foundation should be checked since the walls are out of plumb and cracked in many places. Reconstruction is inevitable. Dismantling after proper numbering and documentation, providing strong foundation and reconstruction in the same style is a must."
Yet, the temple was demolished. A HR & CE official blamed the Tholur villagers for the demolition. She said, "The village is in the interior and if we had known about the demolition, we could have stopped it."
Again, the question raised earlier comes to the fore if the allegation of the HR & CE official is true. "Who gave the right to the Tholur villagers to demolish the Kongu Chola temple, which has been in their midst for the past 800 years?"
In all these four places, be it at Madhavaram, Unjalur, Porur and Tholour, it was the local community, which had no sense of history, that decided to demolish the ancient temples situated in their midst and build new ones in their places. The HR &CE Department went along. Its officials did nothing to stop the atrocities. The question at the heart of the issue is this, "Who gave the locals the power and the right to demolish ancient temples and build new ones in their place?"
A scholar pointed out that these pristine temples had a great heritage, with their gopuras, vimanas, pillared mandapas, inscriptions, murals, copper plate charters, palm leaf manuscripts, sculptures, carvings, friezes, stucco figures, bronzes, variety of jewellery, vahanas, chariots with wood carvings etc. "These temples are a treasure-house, bearing the burden of history. Their lithic inscriptions are documents of Tamil Nadu's history. They shine a light on the Tamil country's irrigation and taxation systems, administration, elections to the village assemblies, qualifications prescribed for the candidates, appointment of judges and battles fought," the scholar added.
The same scholar alleged that a Siva temple, belonging to the Chola period, at Pazhaiyanur in Madurantakkam taluq, was destroyed. When it fell into ruins, all its architectural members were carted away. "Only the Sivalingam is there under a shed now," he said. He blamed the "fast urbanisation and expanding agriculture" as the reasons behind the destruction of this priceless heritage.
Dr Thirumoorthy suggested that the Central legislation named The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010, should be made applicable to any temple which is more than 100 years old. This should apply to all unprotected temples and archaeological sites, he said. The legislation applies now only to the "protected" monuments and archaeological sites. It says that anybody who defaces, alters or destroys a protected monument will have to pay a fine or undergo imprisonment or both. An amendment to the existing Act should clearly state that "any unprotected temple, which is more than 100 years old, cannot be altered or rebuilt after being pulled down", he said.
In the famed Aruchaleswarar temple at Tiruvannamallai, if a portion of its murals of the Nayaka period were whitewashed and scores of panels were allowed to fade away without being restored, what happened about a year ago was shocking. Machines were used to drill holes into pillars with carvings to insert metal grilles in mandapas. A video of this went viral. Already, a few hundreds of grilles, which are an eyesore, have been installed everywhere in this massive temple complex. What is shocking is the ubiquitous presence of these metal grilles on the mandapas, preventing the devotees' entry into these mandapas to admire the sculptures there.
Dr R. Nagaswamy, then Director of the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, began his brilliant, full page article titled, "Renovation - at what cost?" published in The Hindu on July 29, 1979, thus. "There is an ancient saying, "Between the new gift and the preservation of the ancient gift, the latter is far superior. By the new gift, one attains heavenly pleasure, but by the preservation of the ancient, he reaches the very abode of God.
Danna Paalanayoh Madhye
Daanaat Svargam avaapnoti
Paalanaat Achyutam Padam"
Dr Nagaswamy said, "But what is happening today (particularly in monumental temples) is not the preservation of what has been handed down over the centuries, but "renovations" which have ultimately led to the destruction of the valuable heritage of our nation. In the garb of renovation, an enormous money is utilised to destroy the very ancient character of the structure, so much so that a discerning observer wrote a few decades ago,
"When compared to what was destroyed by followers of alien religions, the havoc caused to our temples by pious Hindus in the name of renovation is incalculable."
Dr. Nagaswamy, who is now 91 years old, made several sharp observations in his article in 1979. He said, "The wave of renovation has, however, been not an honest endeavour, [but] involving boosted cost figures, bad planning which has invariably resulted in the destruction of the structural heritage.”
"Several hundred ancient records [inscriptions], giving insight into the history of the temples were mutilated or completely destroyed. What was available 30 years ago is no longer there. While the temple authorities are ready to spend several lakhs on renovations, they plead a lack of funds for writing a history of their own temples, which would hardly cost a few thousand rupees. The unfortunate renovation that took place in Madurai about two decades ago shook the Indologists all over the world. The Madurai renovation involved pulling down the valuable stucco figures on the gopuras, piously contributed by Thirumalai Nayak and other nobles, and redoing them with cement and painting. Today, within 20 years, the paintings are gone and with it the lakhs of rupees spent on it."
To borrow a phrase from Ananda Coomaraswamy, "with commerce settling on every tree" or rather several granite mandapas of the Meenakshi Sundareswar Temple complex, Madurai, metamorphosing into sprawling shopping centres, it was a standing invitation for a conflagration to break out. It did happen. A devastating fire swept through the Veera Vasantharayar mandapam on the night of February 2, 2018. This mandapam had many shops, which were supposed to sell only pooja material such as garlands, coconuts, betel leaves and areca nut but sold inflammable materials such as camphor, plastic toys made in China and wax dolls. The fire that raged for several hours was so intense that the Veera Vasantharayar mandapa, built with sturdy granite, collapsed. The ceiling made of granite slabs caved in. The pillars with beautiful sculptures melted.
Of the many mandapams in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple complex, the Pudhu mandapam, the Ashta Sakti mandapam, the Veera Vasantharayar mandapam and Meenakshi Nayakar mandapam are swarming with hundreds of shops that sell highly inflammable products. The mandapams have virtually become busy bazaars. The shops sell wooden toys, camphor, readymade dresses for children and women, plastic mugs, glass and plastic bangles, bamboo baskets, books etc. All these easily catch fire. The Pudhu mandapam has become a big tailoring complex, with tailors with sewing machines rustling up kurtas, jubbas and salwar kameez for visiting foreigners and the locals.
Despite the devastating fire in the Veera Vasantharaya mandapam which erupted when a shopkeeper lit camphor in his shop, hundreds of shops in other mandapas have stayed put because there is a symbiotic relationship between these shop owners and the politicians.
On the pillars of the Pudhu mandapam are incredibly beautiful sculptures of Siva as Ravana Anugrahamurti, Gaja Samharamurti, Bhikshatana, Tripurantaka and Ekapadamurti, Siva feeding the baby boars of a dead mother boar, Siva feeding infant deer with the milk of a tiger, Kalyanasundarar, Ardhanari, a big Kali and so on.
However, devotees cannot relish the sheer beauty of these sculptures for they are hidden from view by jubbas, kurtas, salwars and saris hanging from the pillars. The shops have encroached so much of corridor space too in the mandapams that there is only a narrow pathway of about four feet to reach the sanctum.
In her book, "Madurai Through the Ages", Dr. D. Devakunjari says, "Veera Vasantharaya mandapa has a long central nave and an aisle on each side of it, and its tall, slender compound pillars, which are variously patterned, support a high ceiling which is roofed with long slabs. At the entrance to the mandapa on the eastern side are the figures of Rudra, Rudra-Kali and Kalaharamurti sculptured on pillars. On the ceiling is a large carved panel with dancing figures and lotus medallions." (The book was first published in 1979 by the Society for Archaeological, Historical and Epigraphical Research, Chennai). In the middle of the mandapa, there was a tub with a Nandi of the late Pandya period. Muthu Veerappa, brother of Tirumalai Nayaka, built the mandapam in 1611 CE.
A committee set up by the HR & CE Department to "study, analyse and recommend" steps for the restoration of the Veera Vasantharaya mandapam has already submitted its report to the State Government. A committee member said that closed circuit cameras installed there revealed that a shopkeeper, while closing his shop after 10 pm in the mandapam, lit camphor in front of his shop. Some burning camphor perhaps fell into his shop but he shuttered his shop and went away. (Shopkeepers light camphor in front of their shops as a ritual when they close them for the day.) The neighbouring shop owner saw smoke coming out of the shop, but he ignored it and left. The fire spread quickly and was aided by the combustible goods sold in the shops.
What converted the fire, the committee member said, into an uncontrollable blaze were a few hundred casuarina poles stacked in the mandapam which caught fire. A contractor who had erected a pandal using these casuarina poles in connection with a temple festival had stored the logs there. A fire-tender stationed near the temple did not have enough water. It was difficult for the hoses to reach the Golden Lotus tank situated inside the temple.
The fire was so intense that the mandapam collapsed. With the blaze temperature exceeding 600 degrees Celsius, the granite pillars melted. Exquisite sculptures on them disintegrated. The roof slabs caved in. Only a few of the 48 pillars survived.
Fortunately, valiant fire-fighters saved the iconic 1000-pillared mandapam which is located adjacent to the Veera Vasantharaya mandapam. The two mandapams were inter-linked. They shared the same ceiling. Most of the mandapams in the temple are interconnected, the committee member said. He said the 1000-pillared mandapam was saved by cutting off its link in the ceiling with the Veera Vasantharayar mandapam. "When the debris was removed, care was taken to seclude the 1000-pilared mandapam. It is safe. It has not been affected," he added.
Three places had been identified - one each in Madurai, Pudukkottai and Vellore districts - where granite would be quarried for sculpting 48 new pillars and roof slabs for a new mandapam, he said.