Tamil Nadu's ancient architectural marvels have been at the mercy of the state for far too long.
Tamil Nadu can be best described as the “The land of temples”. This state is blessed to have numerous majestic living abodes of god, built by great kings, as per Agama Shastra, with a lot of them being over a 1000 years old. An instant sense of gratitude to the ancestors emerges from within when we visit them, leaving us completely humbled. The temples have played a pivotal role in the culture of Bharata Desha, holding the entire Hindu civilization together as one unit. While being lost in admiration, we tend to miss the danger faced by these ancient places of worship by external forces. Temples of Tamil Nadu are a storehouse of exquisite sculptures, inscriptions, paintings and bronzes. Reckless and unprofessional conservation by the secular government that controls these temples now are leading to their decay. Padma Bhushan Dr. R. Nagaswamy, one of the most distinguished and celebrated Historians, Archeologist, Bronze Expert, Epigraphist shares some insights into the Temples of Tamil Nadu, its administrative structure in ancient times and the impact of changes during the course of history.
KS: Can you give us some insight into how over thirty-eight thousand temples came into being in Tamil Nadu?
Dr. Nagaswamy: To begin with, historically, right from Tirupati to Kanyakumari, wherever the Tamil language is spoken, we call it Tamil Nadu. Various regions in our country are culturally similar and geographically different. A village, which you can call an abode of community living, has temples, one or multiple. It is specifically planned and developed or spontaneous. In every direction of the village, dedicated temples were built for prescribed deities, including structures for heroes who protected the villages. The Temples gave shape to the layout of the villages, the planned streets, were also profession specific. People assembled under the Mantapas, or under the Vriksha (tree). All this together functioned as a single unit. This was the case with all villages and most of them go back in time to the Sangam age. Next came the period under the Pallavas in the northern part and Pandyas in the southern part and finally brought under a single rule by the Cholas. From this, you have an idea of how so many temples came into being. It includes independent ones, ones that are part of the villages, and in addition, those which were built by the kings as a mark of their prayer. Such numerous temples reflect the prosperity of the region and the integrity of the people of ancient Tamil Nadu.
KS: What was the structure of the administration under the monarchs in ancient times, the role of patrons and Bhaktas in temple affairs?
Dr. Nagaswamy: In ancient times, the whole village was a representation of a particular expression of the group of people living there. It was more like a democracy than a monarchy. Even though the power was under the king, as a unitary rule, the villages maintained their independence, by periodically electing administrators and purpose-specific committees (called as Sabha in Sanskrit and Vaariyam in Tamil). They were dynamic, with rigorous regulations in place based on Dharma Shastras. They had maximum freedom and very little interference from the central power, the king. The laws were known to the villagers and they did not need external lawyers like in current times. One of the committees was to look after the Temples. It had the freedom to function based on the ritualistic requirements. The village assembly also had a say in it. It was changed every year with the appointed person rendering written accounts before leaving. The king’s role was to protect these independent village units from external invasions and interfere in this functioning only on serious matters, not otherwise. Every Individual was sure that his contribution to the temple would be put to proper use, the administration maintained well and not squandered and looted.
KS: After the decline of the major dynasties of Tamil Nadu, post-1300s, what was the state of these temples and how did the manage to protect them from Islamic invasions, right until Independence, with Hindu rule in between for a brief period?
Dr. Nagaswamy: Till the 18th century, temples here were continued to be maintained by people who had faith in them. Example, the well-read Gurukkal (priest) took care of the rituals, honest agriculture cultivators looked after the temple lands and contributed a part of their cultivation individually. Until the rule of the alien faith, the devotees had to contribute only a fixed amount as tax to the kings for nearly 2000 years. But under the nawabs and Nizams, who did not have any interest in this entire ecosystem and the local beliefs, the quantum of tax started varying. By brutal power, the existing system got loosened but the temples still continued to survive due to the individual effort of the people. The British from the 18th century brought in the missionaries. Together, the administrative and religious units were breaking down into our village systems that were controlling the temples. The propriety rights were taken away making the villagers fall into an economic breakdown. By now the properties of the temples were exposed. The hold was getting away from the locals to the courts and collectors decided on internal affairs of our temples.
KS: Coming to recent history, post-independence, what are the changes that you see?
Dr. Nagaswamy: The villages have lost their independence and their expression, with the panchayat system not functioning properly. The ability to solve issues among people have gone. The elected system does not have the larger interest in the upkeep of the ancient temple structures. The power to control temples has moved away from the local villages to somewhere else, at every level the participation of people has been destroyed. People’s faith is no more in sync with the ancient and traditional culture. The faith in God was more in ancient times, the temple property, jewelry, idols, etc. would not be touched. Individuals gave to the temple, not take away from it. It was managed by the people who had faith in it. Temple is a place of worship, not where someone proves one’s right and power.
KS: Can you explain how the HRCE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments) department functions?
Dr. Nagaswamy: Why should the government maintain temples? Isn’t it basically on behalf of the people who have faith in these institutions? The fundamental law states that the govt will administer through the trustees. The job of HRCE is to only see if the rules and regulations are followed properly. But the administration has shifted to the Executive officer over time in most of the temples here due to political interference.
KS: With respect to conservation work, it is appalling to see the destruction of inscriptions, removal of paintings, and poor restoration carried out. Is there any appointed expert panel by the government?
Dr. Nagaswamy: Inscriptions are more in Tamil Nadu which are records of property rights, registered as per law and in the case of dispute, they act as proof. The ancients knew stone and copper plate inscriptions will stay eternally. But now, the contractors appointed do not understand the importance of these inscriptions, as a result, they remove it. The power lies with the government appointed officer to use his discretion to call upon Agama experts for preservation work. If there is a demand for such experts, It can be created. People who know the techniques and subject should be appointed for such preservation activities, not conventional contractors. End of the day, it is more to do with the willingness of the elected government.
KS: With respect to the exquisite bronze Murtis, we have seen some focus on bringing them back from museums across the globe. But what can be done to prevent the loot in the first place?
Dr. Nagaswamy: It is difficult to prevent it. The loot is from abandoned and dilapidated old temples. The Murtis which are 1000-year-old beauties are easily stolen from such places which probably have one or two persons to take care of the entire temple. I can say, it is unfortunate that we don’t know our own heritage’s worth, that we let it off for a few bucks to outside countries which pay millions to buy them.
KS: We know that a lot of bronzes are stored in icon centers and not protected properly. Don’t you think that the Murtis should be placed back in the temples and not displayed as a museum piece.? But as discussed above, we have a problem of loot.
Dr. Nagaswamy: Unfortunately the in-charge of the icon centers do not know the value of these Bronzes. The purpose of the idols is for worship, an embodiment of Godhood, not a mere art piece. The return of a Murti means, return of rituals, music, dance, worship and spiritual activity in the surrounding area, rhythmically every year. This has been the practice in the temples for thousands of years. During invasions and other natural disasters, people buried the idols underneath based on Agamic prescription with utmost care. It is our responsibility to take them back to where they belong. Of course, I will not deny the dilemma we have with respect to placing them back in the temples with little protection.
KS: Finally, what do you think is the solution?
Dr. Nagaswamy: Today the village remains separated from the temple. We need a change in the attitude of the elected representative with regard to temple management. They should know that their locus lies with upkeeping the HRCE law and not with the daily functioning. It has to be reinstated to the trustees. We have to create the responsibility back in the people and the community surrounding the temple, giving them full freedom as they had earlier so that they have more of a connect with an ancient place of worship. Inculcating respect towards our heritage, especially with the next generation, is a very important step. Today many don’t have the eye to see the details and appreciate the beauty of our temple architecture. At the end of it, “who cares” attitude must go before we embark on actual conservation efforts of our heritage structures.