Resurrection of heritage – Going through the judgment of the High Court of Madras which establishes the roadmap



Considering a recent Madras High Court judgment in which the Court stressed the importance of preserving ancient temples and monuments and gave a series of guidelines to the government of Tamil Nadu to conserve the state’s cultural heritage, N. KAVITHA RAMESHWAR written on the meaning of judgment.


The recent decision of a Madras High Court division bench in a suo motu The public interest dispute (PIL), handed down on June 7, 2021, on the question of the conservation of the architectural heritage, including ancient monuments and temples, seems to have captured in full what the French essayist Joseph Joubert said One day : “Monuments are the grappling hooks that bind one generation to another”.

While emphasizing the need for heritage conservation, The High Court appears to have been particularly guided by the following words from Jamaican political activist and journalist Marcus Garvey: “A people without knowledge of its past history, its origins and its culture is like a tree without roots”.

Decoding the civilizational DNA of our nation

History bequeaths heritage – the heritage of art, culture, tradition, folklore, architecture and various other forms of antiquity, the main purpose of which is to reflect life and ethics of past civilizations.

India is home to several wonders of art and architecture in their kaleidoscopic grandeur. These have withstood the test of time and the calamitous onslaught of nature.

The High Court, in its poignant 225-page judgment, is primarily concerned with the conservation of archaeological monuments in the state of Tamil Nadu. However, what was said in the prelude to the operative part of the judgment could serve as a synecdoche on the issue for the whole of our country. This is because of the universality of its application, emphasizing more than once that the symbols of history act as a protective shell for the civilization of present and future generations.

While considering that “a monument, a sculpture or a writing is not simply a recording of historical facts but is a testimony of the knowledge, the culture, the tradition and the way of life of the people”, the Court has sought to consider the architectural heritage, artistic splendor and sagacious scriptures of yesteryear as a means of decoding our nation’s civilizational DNA. The Court reaffirmed that architecture is the undocumented testament of history.

A thorough reading of the judgment would shed light on the engineering marvels that the Peria Kovil (Brihadeeswarar temple) of Thanjavur, Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and the Shore temple of Mamallapuram, among others, which embody the temperament and scientific knowledge that propelled their construction. These then became not only enduring symbols of heritage, but also structures of monumental artistic and architectural grandeur, showcasing a deep knowledge of the pure sciences of physics and geometry, and demonstrating that art and science have gone hand in hand.

Judgment woven from centuries-old threads of silk

A striking feature that runs through as a vein of connection throughout the judgment is the recognition that architecture and art transcend the narrow and parochial boundaries of religion, region as well as language and cultural traditions. .

The High Court’s use of the doctrine of parens patriae while issuing its various mandates and orientations are further proof of this. The Court decisively dusted off cobwebs and revived the Ancient Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 in its full bloom, applying it to state monuments in order to declare that all temples that are more than a hundred years old should be treated as monuments under the law.

In parts of the judgment, the Court even used the words “temple” and “monument” interchangeably, thus emphasizing the fact that ancient monuments and architectural structures belong to the State and that no individual, group or entity cannot claim the same. This factor is of paramount importance in promoting the guiding principles of state policy enshrined in our Constitution which calls on the state to preserve and protect our rich heritage and our composite culture.

Historical role of the temple as a unifying factor

Since the present judgment mainly concerns the architectural heritage with specific reference to the constitution of a Heritage Commission, as well as the creation of the Mamallapuram World Heritage Zone Management Authority to safeguard monuments and ancient temples of the state, it is important to put in context the role of the temple in southern India during the second half of the first millennium AD.

A reading of historical sources would reveal that the construction, maintenance, administration as well as the expression of art and culture in the form of music and dance merging into the ritual of the temple was a way of life for the people of the period from the 6th century AD.

As historian Romila Thapar explains in her seminal work A History of India: Volume 1, rock-cut temples were introduced in the Pallava period, akin to Buddhist cave sanctuaries, but much smaller and testifying to the preliminary stages of an artistic technique. The monolithic temples of Mammallapuram hewn from granite boulders still bear the barrel vaulted roofs and arched waves typically associated with Deccan Buddhist cave shrines as well as contemporary architectural styles, and exhibit distinctly different architectural features. North.

As many of these temples were built by kings, they bore affirmations of royal authority which could take the form of long inscriptions telling the story of the king.

Temples built with such a deep knowledge of science cannot be treated only as a symbol of religion, but should also be seen as emblems of architecture, sculpture, murals, paintings and others. forms of art that have imbued them with an indelible, centuries-old aesthetic imprint. .

Read also : Heritage Laws: Britain’s Well-Preserved Walls

Far-sighted mandates and orientations-

The most striking feature of the judgment is the way in which it has mapped out the roadmap for assuming the legacy of history by laying down the roadmap for its conservation.

The judgment covers a wide range of subject-specific instructions to central and state authorities and departments, with specific mandates for the Archaeological Survey of India. The constitution of a Heritage Commission of 17 members, the Mammallapuram World Heritage Area Management Authority, a State Committee and District Committees, in addition to existing statutory agencies, emphasizes the clairvoyance of the judgment, thus placing it in a unique way in the corpus. of the law relating to the conservation of historical heritage.

It is sincerely hoped that these directives from the Madras High Court will be observed with the same fervor with which they were issued. This would go a long way towards achieving the High Court’s stated goal of preserving the awe-inspiring legacy of art and architecture for generations to come.

(N. Kavitha Rameshwar is a lawyer at the Madras High Court. The opinions expressed are personal.)

The article originally appeared in The Leaflet.


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