With real estate booming in the city, it is not only property developers who are contributing to the rapid destruction of our built and natural heritage. Religious institutions, along with schools and colleges under their control, have joined the fray. Unfortunately, several of these are in possession of heritage precincts and these are being done away with rapidly. And with a Heritage Conservation Committee that is still coming to grips with its tasks, there is very little protection that is being extended.

All over the city, churches, temples and shrines of other faiths are in a race to either modernise their existing structures or to build new ones of empty tracts of land in their possession. The latest instance is the complete demolition of the Christian Literature Society building that stood next to the Memorial Hall at the intersection of Evening Bazaar Road and Memorial Hall Street. A quaint structure which was a classic example of the art of building in the 1850s, it has been razed to the ground to make way for an eight-storeyed building. That such a high-rise would completely alter the skyline of fine buildings beginning with the Medical College and ending with Victoria Public Hall is not of course a thought that would have occurred to anyone involved in this act. Memorial Hall has also not been spared. Long used as an exhibition and sales venue, it has now been leased to a bank for its Park Town branch. While the positive aspect of it is that the exterior of the building has received a fresh coat of paint, the flip side is that there is no accounting for what changes have been made to the interior to accommodate a commercial institution. In the past issues, Madras Musings has reported on wholly unplanned changes and modifications being made to St Ebbas School buildings. Historic Conway House in St George’s School is still facing an uncertain future as there is a feeling that the building ought to be demolished and a new and modern structure ought to come up in its place. These are but a few examples. A year ago, a century old church in the Egmore area was brought down with the promise of building a brand-new one. This contrasts strangely with the practice in European countries where old churches are maintained as they are and when parishes dwindle down, these buildings are put to imaginative alternative uses. A classic example is Robert Chisholm’s last creation, The Church of Christ, Scientist at Chelsea, London, which was bought by the Cadogan Estate and converted into a concert hall, keeping almost the entire exterior and interior intact.

In the predominantly Hindu areas of Mylapore, Triplicane and Tiruvottriyur, the modernisation of choultries, schools, residences and shops belonging to Mutts and temples continues without check. Several of these new developments are completely tasteless and entirely out of keeping with the surroundings. Madras Musings had recently carried an article on the destruction of an age-old pavilion at the Virupakshiswarar Temple in Mylapore to make way for a new gopuram. A similar exercise is now on at the Kalyana Varadaraja Swami temple in Colletpet, where the old gopuram has been demolished simply to build a new one in its place. And in the last few months, there is talk of a marriage hall being planned on a vast verdant property full of trees near Greenways Road, that belongs to the Kapaliswarar Temple.

All religious institutions have the same story to tell when they are approached with this issue- fear of encroachment, the necessity to enhance the income received from such properties and the inability to maintain old structures. There is also a complete lack of awareness that anything worthwhile can be done with heritage properties. The last point can perhaps best be addressed by an organisation such as INTACH, involved as it is in promoting the awareness of heritage. But for all the earlier reasons cited, the only answer is a Heritage Act.

Such an Act should not only prevent quick decisions to demolish but also ensure that there are avenues available to people who are either wanting compensation for preserving a heritage property or need funding for restoring and maintaining it. There is also the question of transfer of development rights, which is at best inchoate right now. All this indicates that the HCC needs to get its act together and move quickly, failing which we will have only a few Government buildings left to tell the tale of heritage in this city.