Art of Living Faces Ire for Building Pandal at UNESCO Site, Madras HC Stays Event

The 11th century Shiva temple is classified by UNESCO as one of the "Great Living Chola Temples" and is under protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) since 1922.

New Delhi: A temporary structure that has come up at a UNESCO heritage site in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district has irked a section of its residents, political parties as well as heritage enthusiasts, The News Minute (TNM) has reported. Built in the Brihadisvara temple complex, the structure is set to host a two-day event by Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living (AOL) Foundation on December 7 and 8. The event, titled ‘Unveiling Infinity’, is expected to attract 2,000 followers from different parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court on Friday stayed the event.

Photos put up by a journalist, Ar Meyyammai, show a pandal erected on one side of the temple, stretching onto the lawn adjoining it. The 11th century Shiva temple, classified by UNESCO as one of the “Great Living Chola Temples”, has been under protection of  the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) since 1922.

While the ASI said the AOL has received required permission to host the event, temple sources consider a structure disrupting the path taken by devotees to pray to be disrespectful to the place of worship, TNM reported.

The Brihadishvara temple complex in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It is only a temporary pandal for an event to be held from December 7th to 8th. It will be removed on 8th evening. They have got all permissions necessary from the Chennai office,” TNM quoted an ASI official in Thanjavur as saying.

“Thanjavur is apparently the guruji’s native place and so he wanted to hold the event here. If any part of the structure is in contact with the temple we will have it removed. This is not the first time that pandals are being set up at the temple. I don’t see why this has become a controversy,” the official added.

One reason why the issue has triggered controversy is that temple premises are not usually given to private bodies to host functions.

“Giving away temple lands for a private event is unprecedented in my 20 years of service here. It is very wrong and we don’t know how they got permission,” a temple priest told TNM.

The AOL, however, claimed they have received all necessary permissions for the event.

“We received permission to conduct the event two weeks back. Both the HR&CE and ASI approved our request. The only conditions we were given is to not cause any damage to the temple or set up any permanent structures,” Raji Swaminathan, AOL media coordinator for Tamil Nadu, told TNM.

Also read: Green Tribunal Orders Art of Living to Pay Fine, Sri Sri Vows to Fight Back

The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Tamil Nadu-based political party, condemned the ASI’s decision to allow the Art of Living Foundation to conduct the event at Thanjavur temple, alleging the BJP had a role to play in giving the permit.

“Godmen such as Sri Sri Ravishankar enjoy close ties with the BJP. This is why ASI, which is a central body, is giving in to their demands. Irrespective of who is asking, a heritage site cannot be used as a venue for private events. The state is already struggling to maintain its temples and idols. If they give permission in such an iconic temple, such events will start mushrooming across the state,” VCK leader D. Ravikumar warned, as quoted by TNM.

Historian V. Sriram asked why permission was given for events at a recognised heritage sight.

“It is a place of worship and does not have to be used for such an event,” he said, according to TNM. “I remember when I took a group of 40 people to Hampi and when one of them began singing classical songs, ASI officials said that he can’t sing there. When they thought that could cause damage, what about this?”

A temporary structure built by the Art of living on Yamuna floodplains in 2016. Credit: PTI

This is not the first time the AOL has courted controversy for building a temporary structure in a sensitive zone. In 2016, the National Green Tribunal held the organisation responsible for causing environmental damages on Yamuna floodplains in Delhi by building temporary structures on the banks of the Yamuna. The AOL was directed to pay a Rs 5-crore fine in restoring the affected premises.

This story was updated at 5:45 PM on Friday to include the Madras high court’s order staying the AOL event.

Join The Discussion