How often have we seen the most wilful damage being inflicted on some of our most ancient temples in the name of restoration and consecration? Towers of doubtful merit being built over Chola gateways, Nayak period paintings being whitewashed, ­polished granite and vitrified tiles being pasted over age-old stones bearing inscriptions, and grilles being riveted on stone pillars are some of the common instances of vandalism that happen in the name of restoration of the shrines. The culprits in most of these cases are the HR & CE department officials who are invariably ignorant of what amounts to sensitive restoration and, more often than not, do not wish to know better. Of late, rich devotees with a mistaken zeal to put up giant statues and tall towers have worked in tandem with these officials. All these may be matters of the past if the High Court (HC) of Madras has its way.

Early in July, the Hon’ble HC ruled that the Tamil Nadu Government needs to involve experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in all temple restoration efforts from now on. It has asked the Government to ensure that UNESCO officials are present on August 23rd at the court to take up matters further. In the interim, the State Government has been barred from taking up any repair works on its own, except for what may be termed as emergency activities, those that are needed to prevent any collapse.

The entire case concerning temple renovation began in June last year when the Court took suo moto cognisance of the matter. It had then appointed a special committee to study in depth the quality of restoration that had been done in temples. A team of four experts then went around visiting recently renovated temples and submitted its report in November last year. Acting upon this, the Court had even earlier suggested that the State Government go slow on repair works that it was undertaking and bring in experts from UNESCO. But with the authorities dragging their feet over contacting the latter, it became necessary for the Court to intervene once again recently. Incidentally, UNESCO has a presence in India dating back to 1948 and it is a mystery as to why the HR&CE took all this while to establish contact.

Of course, the HC’s ruling does not mean all will at once be perfect with temple renovations. Our officials have a considerable knack of interpreting judgements to suit their own methods. This is quite evident in the manner in which the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) of the CMDA, set up on the express orders of the HC, has been functioning for the past six years. It was mandated to study the merits of preserving 460 heritage buildings in Chennai, all of which were listed, documented and graded by a committee of experts. The HCC, however, decided that it needed to carry out the listing activity afresh and has over the last six years completed this for a mere 66 buildings. We are certain that several decades would have gone by, by the time it reaches 460. As it is, at least ten of the original 460 are no longer in existence, most of these being Government owned. When these were demolished, there was not even a comment from the HCC.

It is to be hoped that in matters of temple renovation, which probably will have better ground support as compared to public heritage buildings, the Government will act in the true spirit of the law. The rest is up to the Gods!