It was only in the last issue of Madras Musings that we had written about religious institutions paying scant attention to conservation of heritage monuments under their care, though they ought to be leading the way in this matter, for tradition, culture and heritage ought to be the some of the concerns of those involved in the faiths. Of late, there has been a spate of repair and renovation work undertaken at several shrines. While such activities are very important, what is not good is the manner in which they are being done with no thought being given to sound heritage restoration and conservation principles.
A recent visit to the historic Anderson’s Church on NSC Bose Road shocked me. The rear of the altar has been completely covered with tiles. The roof has been dismantled and the interior of the church is open to the elements. And on that particular day it was raining quite heavily. Nothing remains of the richly carved wooden pews which once filled the church. It is quite likely that these have been stored carefully somewhere else, but the sight of one solitary pew lying in the front verandah does not give such confidence. The Church also used to have a few memorial tablets but except one which is on the rear wall, all the others have been removed and a few were lying in the compound. What used to be the central aisle is filled with debris. There is no information anywhere as to who is doing the restoration and what is the timeframe for the work. It was early in the morning when this correspondent visited the Church and the edifice was open to just about anyone who wanted to walk in. This is of course a primary requirement for a house of God but when restoration work is in progress such carelessness is not desirable. What was amazing that even amidst such chaos a few people had come to pray and were kneeling wherever space permitted. It is not clear if the Anderson Church is a lime mortar structure but its present restoration makes liberal use of cement. This again is not an advisable route to follow and it is clear that the Church authorities in their zeal for renovation have not chosen to consult any technically qualified person who is well-versed in conservation also.
This historic church was built as an adjunct to the Madras Christian College which was housed in a series of buildings fronting the Esplanade before the institution shifted its school to Chetpet and the college to Tambaram in the 1930s. Since then the buildings that housed the MCC have been brought down one by one and the Anderson’s Church is the only reminder of that educational institution’s tenure at George Town.
The story does not end with Anderson’s Church. Right across the city, there are several temples whose gopurams are being brought down to build new ones. Sanctum sanctorums are being covered with polished granite or glazed tiles, thereby irretrievably covering up valuable inscriptions. Temples interiors are being air-conditioned with walls being pierced to make way for cooling ducts. Liberal usage of sand-blasting of sculptures continues regardless of such procedures being banned. In the name of security, collapsible shutters and grille-gates are being put up at any convenient spot with no thought to nearby pillars and sculptures that may suffer permanent damage.
It is high time that the Heritage Conservation Committee appointed by the Government of Tamil Nadu makes an effort to include religious precincts in its list and sends them letters asking for complete cessation of all such work unless they are overseen and supervised by those qualified to restore heritage structures. This needs to be done quickly failing which our temples, churches and mosques will lose whatever antiquity they possess. Without that vital element, all claims that these locations can make to represent our traditions will sound hollow.