Ruins to Resurrection – Madras High Court Made a Benchmark Ruling on Conservation of Architectural Heritage


Author – N.Kavitha Rameshwar

Madras High Court Made a Benchmark Ruling on Conservation of Architectural Heritage
Image by Sreesai

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots -Marcus Garvey

The recent ruling of the Madras High Court in a suo motu PIL, on conservation of architectural heritage including ancient monuments and temples seems to have captured in extenso what Joseph Joubert, the French essayist said –“Monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another”.

Decoding the civilizational DNA-

History bequeaths heritage- the heritage of art, culture, tradition, folklore, architecture and various other forms of antiquity, the primary purpose of which is to mirror the life and ethos of the bygone civilizations. India is home to several marvels of art and architecture in their kaleidoscopic grandeur, and which has stood the test of time and nature’s calamitous upheavals. The history of a nation can simplistically be said to be the sum total of the lives of its people, whether classified politically as rulers and subjects, or governments and their citizens. The High Court in its poignant 224-page judgment was primarily concerned with conservation of archaeological monuments in the State of Tamil Nadu. However what has been said in the prelude to the operative portion of the judgment, would serve as a synecdoche on the issue to the whole of our country, universal in its application and emphasizing more than once that the symbols of history act as a protective carapace for the civilization of the present and the future generations. While holding that “a monument, a sculpture or scripture is not just a record of historical fact but is a testimony to the knowledge, culture, tradition and lifestyle of the people”, the Court has sought to view the architectural heritage, artistic splendour and the sagacious scriptures of the yesteryears as a means to decode the civilizational DNA of our generation. The Court has reaffirmed the thought that architecture is the biggest unwritten document of history. 

A thorough reading of the judgment would bring to light the engineering marvels that the Periakovil (BrihadeeswararTemple) of Thanjavur, Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, Shore Temple of Mamallapuram embody, and the scientific temper and knowledge that have animated their construction. These structures have then become not only monuments of heritage but also structures of monumental artistic and architectural grandeur, showcasing a deep knowledge of the pure sciences of physics and geometry to mention a few. 

Woven with silken secular threads –

A striking feature that runs like a connecting vein through the entire judgment is an acknowledgement of the fact that architecture and art transcend narrow and parochial boundaries of religion, region as well as language and cultural traditions. This is made further prominent by the fact that the Court has employed the doctrine of ‘parens patriae’ while issuing its various mandates and directions acting as ‘the parent of the citizen’. The Madras High Court has decisively dusted off the cobwebs and brought back to life the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (the 1958 Act) in its full bloom and application to the monuments in the State in order to declare that all temples which are more than hundred years old are to be treated as monuments under the 1958 Act. In some portions of the judgment, the Court has even used the words ‘temple’ and ‘monument’ interchangeably, thereby underlining the fact that ancient monuments and architectural structures, and materials classified as ‘antiquity’ belong to the State and its citizens and that no individual, group, entity can lay claim on the same. This factor is of primordial importance in furthering the Directive Principles of State Policy that calls upon the State to preserve our rich heritage and composite culture.

The Court has made a detailed study of all the judgments holding the field including the judgment in the case of Archaeological survey of India versus State of Madhya Pradesh (2014), where the question was whether the Jain temples including the temple of “Bade Baba” could be classified as a monument and whether the ASI would have jurisdiction over it. In the said case, the Court held that in the circumstances of the case that where the State Act had received the assent of the President, the Jain temples in question would not come within the jurisdiction of the ASI as monuments. The said case would stand on a different footing as the legal issue involved was with respect to the repugnancy of the state law vis-à-vis the central law and in which case Article 246 of the Constitution was invoked. This judgment cannot stand in the way of the 1958 Act being brought into play for conservation of monuments (including temples) under the control of the ASI. 

Role of the temple as a unifying factor- 6th century AD onwards-

Since the present judgment is primarily concerned with architectural heritage with specific reference to constituting a Heritage Commission as also to set up the Mamallapuram World Heritage Area Management Authority to safeguard the archaeological monuments in the State of Tamil Nadu, it is important to place in context the role of the temple in South India during the second half of the first millennium A.D. A reading of historical sources would reveal that that the building, maintenance, administration as well as expression of art and culture in the form of music and dance melding into the temple ritual were a way of life for the people of the day during the sixth century A.D. onwards. Established historian Romila Thapar would tell us that the vogue established by the Buddhists for excavating cave temples continued and the patrons vied with each other in having shrines and temples excavated in the Deccan Hills and further south. In the freestanding temples of the South as well as in cave temples, murals were common. Here again it is important to note that in a rock cut temple, sculpture cannot be added on therefore every detail of positioning had to be planned in advance. The cutting of the rock required extremely careful control as a wrong move could win a sculpture or the architectural form. The rock cut temples were introduced in the Pallava period, akin to the Buddhist cave shrines, but much smaller and showing evidence of preliminary stages of an artistic technique. The monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram carved out of granite boulders still carry the barrel vault roofs and arch waves generally associated with the Buddhist cave shrines of the Deccan as well as contemporary architectural styles, and have features distinctively different from other architecture of the North. At this juncture it is important to note that due credence deserves to be placed on record to the stonecutters, masons, inlayers, masons, painters, calligraphers and other workmen who have toiled for decades together, as well as all those who undertook the massive expenditure which could be said to be equivalent to a major military campaign. The freestanding temples at Kancheepuram and Mahabalipuram also provided for the spaces for sculpture. As many of these temples were built by the kings, they carried assertions of royal authority which could take the form of lengthy inscriptions narrating the history of the King or could be sculptured panels, such as ones with his biography or his consecration. It is therefore seen that the temples built with such in-depth knowledge of science cannot be treated only as a symbol of religion but as an emblem of architecture, sculpture, murals, paintings and other forms of art that has embedded within it an indelible aesthetically secular imprint. 

Shouldering the bequest-

All these aspects have been succinctly and yet elaborately encapsulated in the judgment, which has found its unique place in the corpus of the law dealing with the conservation of historical heritage. This iconic judgment further underscores that conserving the past is important not just for an exponent of history but for an entire future civilization while pointing out that though architecture speaks of its time and age, its allure lies in its timelessness. It is fervently hoped that the extensive and detailed directions of the Court will be adhered to with the same fervour with which they have been rendered, in order that the Court’s vision of immortalizing the awe-inspiring creations of architecture, and its avowed mission of preserving their legacy for eons of humanity, is achieved.

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