Monday, August 14, 2017

Meenakshi Amman Temple Renovation

A First in Indian Temple History
UNESCO halts Construction of New Pillars around the Potramarai Tank at Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

Raising New Raja Gopuram at Thiru Vellarai and Thiru Kolur not legally tenable - Temple Activist Ramesh
Probably for the first time in the history of Indian temples, an overseas organisation has stopped work at an ancient Indian temple. Paris, France headquartered UNESCO has directed halting the construction of New Pillars around the Potramarai Tank at the ancient and historical HR & CE administered Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai following their inspection recently. 

Issues relating to renovation had arisen at the Meenakshi Amman Temple specifically relating to the replacement of pillars around the Potramarai Kulam. This along with issues relating to replacement of stone slabs and the new flooring at the 1000 pillared mandapa have been a bone of contention for temple activist and former Citi-Bank staffer TR Ramesh, who has been taking up the issue of alterations to temple structures with great vigour in recent years.

Ramesh, who is also the President of the Temple Worshippers' Society, has filed several petitions in the High Court against modifications at temple sites and raising new structures like Raja Gopurams at ancient temples. He questions the construction of the new mosaic flooring at the 1000 pillared mandapam. Ramesh also poses the question as to why the same stones could not be used for the reconstruction, even if there was a dire need to reconstruct the pillars. He is also not convinced about the quality of the material used in the reconstruction and if it conforms to the requirement of 'not altering' the structure.
Wrongful appointment of JCs/EOs
Ramesh has also recently sent a notice to the Commissioner of HR & CE relating to the wrongful appointment of Joint Commissioner at the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam and the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, among several other temples. 

He says that the term of the JC/EO in all these temples had expired way back in 1966 and hence the appointment of a JC/EO does not have a legal standing and is untenable (

Ramesh is yet to receive a reply from the Commissioner. He says that he would take the case of wrongful appointment in the court if he does not receive a response from the HR & CE within a reasonable period.

A Two Decade Exercise
The Current Joint Commissioner of the Meenakshi Amman temple N Natarajan, who is seen as a straight forward human being and is generally well respected by the devotees at large says that the replacement of the pillars or the stone slabs was not a sudden decision taken by him or his team ‘It is an 18 year old issue. Way back in 1999, cracks were observed at the Eastern entrance of the Ashtasakthi Mandapam and Veera Vasantha Rayar Mandapam, on the roof of stone slabs in Amman Sannadhi in the 2nd Prakaram and in the stone pillars around the Potramarai Kulam.’ 
The Tamil Nadu Government in its order No.385 TDC&RE department dated 16 June 1999 formed an 8 member expert committee to inspect the reason for the formation of cracks in the above said structures and to propose a solution to repair those structures. This committee also included Muthiah Sthapathy.

In 2006, Muthiah Sthapathy came up with a report stating that the Pillars had weakened and that new Pillars had to be built and that it will have to be a ‘Comprehensive Renovation’.

PIL in 2006
However, following a PIL in the Madurai High Court in 2006, the court directed appointed of an expert committee to review and provide their recommendations. An 18 member expert panel was constituted and they came up with their recommendation a year later on carrying out of rectification works relating to the cracks on the ceiling stone slabs and pillars in the 2nd Prakaram of Amman Sannathi and at the Veera Vasantha Rayar mandapam. They also suggested the replacement and renovation of the pillars around the Potramarai Kulam.

High Court Appointed Panel
In December 2016, another expert panel this time as recommended by the Madras High Court was appointed and they looked into the issues relating to the renovation at the Meenakshi Amman Temple.

In the meeting of Panel Experts,  the Archaeological Expert enquired as to 'why the same stones cannot be used in the reconstruction.' 

Natarajan told that Panel that ‘they had ‘multi cracked’ and damaged in the centre. Works in the cracks on the ceiling stone slabs and pillars in the second prakaram of Amman Sannathi were undertaken with new stone slabs replacing the old ones. Similarly action was taken to carry out repair works on Veeravasantha Rayar Mandapam. 
Natarajan says that every reconstruction activity undertaken at the Meenakshi Amman Temple is in line with the stringent processes that they follow and that the relevant approvals had been received from the expert committee on multiple occasions before any work had been undertaken.

However, soon after the entry of UNESCO at the temple, they asked the temple authorities to stop the Pillar construction work on the Eastern side of the Potramarai Kulam. Thus, one finds that the series of pillars on the Eastern side remains dismantled and is partly complete (as seen in the photo below). 
The temple authorities claim that this had already been a long drawn process and that it had gone through several rounds of inspection by the experts. And that the work had been undertaken only after the experts found that the renovation and reconstruction activity had become a necessity. 

However, the multi national agency from France has taken a different call over ruling all the Indian experts including the Archaeological expert and the Sthapathy who had earlier recommended a 'Comprehensive Renovation' thus leaving the temple authorities in a state of flux on the next action.

One will have to wait and see as to how this unfolds but for the moment work has come to a grinding halt and a number of new stone pillars are lying on the the Eastern side of the sacred tank.

Renovation in temples had taken off in a big way since the 1990s with the overall size of renovation activity running into several hundreds of thousands of crores. Prior to that, maintenance of temples was an ongoing concept and temples (especially Vaishnavite temples) were kept in order every year.  In the decades gone by, it was seen as a routine exercise to maintain the temple in good shape as against a mega renovation exercise as has become the trend now in the last couple of decades.

A typical renovation of a reasonable sized temple with multiple Sannidhis now runs into a few crores with additional budget for specific new construction such as a Chariot, a Golden Vimana or ‘Golden’ Vahanas.

Huge Financial Exercise
The renovation exercise at the Ranganatha Swamy temple in Srirangam is believed to have cost around Rs.40crores. Added to the huge financial aspects of the renovation is the sudden new found need over the last two decades to build new Sannidhis and take up new construction work at these temples. Most of the renovation work is outsourced to ‘donors’. Interestingly in case of large projects, these are taken up by ‘single’ donors.

The Golden Vimana (100kgs gold) alone at the Sowmya Narayana Perumal temple in Thiru Koshtiyur Divya Desam undertaken by ‘Thiru Koshtiyur’ Madhavan will run up to over Rs.25crores.
For example, the preliminary work relating to the construction of a new multi tier Raja Gopuram is currently on in full swing at the Pundarikakshan temple in Thiru Vellarai Divya Desam ( This work taken up by a single donor from Coimbatore is believed to cost around Rs. 10crores.

Last week, inspection was on at the Thiru Kolur Vaitha Maa Nithi Perumal Divya Desam ( in the presence of Muthiah Sthapathy as part of the preliminary work to construct a new Raja Gopuram there.

Renovation and Demolition
As part of the renovation exercise, one has also witnessed demolitions and replacements aplenty across temples in Tamil Nadu. In 2004, the Shiva Sannidhi in Thiru Kurungudi Divya Desam was brought down and moved to another location within the temple complex. Outcome of a ‘Prasannam’ is believed to have been the reason for the shifting of Sannidhi there (

Last year, there were similar issues at the Thiru Koshtiyur Divya Desam with the Shiva and Pillayar Sannidhi (

During the renovation of the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam in 2015, a previously non existent wall was erected in the course of a night between the Desikar idol and the Hayagriva idol that left many shocked. The Lakshmi Narasimha idol, which was previously beside the Hayagriva idol, was removed and moved to a separate location within the Desikar Sannidhi complex.  The Desikar Prabhandham inscribed on a stone was removed during the renovation and hasn’t been brought back since.  

Abnormal Delay
In Thiru Kurungudi and Thiru Koshtiyur temples and many others such as these, renovation work had been announced long ago but the work has been pending for several years due to ‘issues’ surrounding the renovation leaving the devotees in a sad state. It is also well over five years since the renovation work was announced at the Thothadri Nathan Divya Desam in Nanguneri.

At the Chitra Ratha Vallabha Perumal temple in Kuruvi Thurai (, near Madurai renovation was delayed by many years after a politician took up the work as a single donor.

The renovation exercise at the Narasimha Divya Desam in Sholingur was delayed by many years following the taking up of ‘Gold ornamentation’ by a single donor.

In many of these temples, the renovation work takes place under the supervision of the ‘Donor’ and the workers undertake work inside the temple as directed by the ‘Donor/Donors’.

No new Raja Gopurams in Ancient Temples
On construction of new Raja Gopuram atop Mottai Gopuram, Ramesh is confident that both in Thiru Vellarai and Thiru Kolur ‘no Raja Gopuram can and will come up.’  

He says that there is a clear ruling against such new constructions altering the existing structures of ancient heritage temples.’

Pon Jayaraman, JC at the Srirangam temple that also administers the Thiru Vellarai temple says that one will be surprised at the commitment shown by the Donor at Thiru Vellarai ‘The technology and quality of material used in the strengthening of the structure is of the highest order. The donor is physically present to monitor and oversee every minute detail of the work undertaken. The work there will match the best of renovation work undertaken in temples in Tamil Nadu, such is the effort put into the strengthening of the structure there at Thiru Vellarai.’

At Singaperumal Koil, about 50kms from Madras, the outer wall had been brought down to facilitate the construction of a new Raja Gopuram.

While the strengthening of the existing structure is nearing completion at Thiru Vellarai, Ramesh says that construction of a new Raja Gopuram will be in violation of the act and that he will fight tooth and nail against this and any such constructions in other Divya Desams in the appropriate courts.

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