The State is still coming back to normalcy from the fallout of a meeting in Mamallapuram, the historic port a short distance from Chennai. While our sympathies are with the families of those who sustained losses, we are also concerned at the probable damage that could have been done to the Shore Temple which, along with several other structures in the vicinity, enjoys World Heritage status. The vandalism that ensued was shocking, but what is even worse is the apathy of officialdom.
The meeting was to ostensibly celebrate the Tamil New Year and the Full Moon night that immediately followed. This was by political leaders who of late have been adopting a green posture and who claim to espouse heritage. But that the event was going to be of a political nature was made clear to everyone seeing the posters and banners that went up all over the city and its environs a few days before the event. Political heavyweights from up north had been invited as well. And when we have a political meeting, we do know the kind of audience it attracts. All this was apparently not evident to those who permitted the event or to the Archaeological Survey of India under whose jurisdiction the Shore Temple falls.
On the day of the event, countless followers of the organisers climbed all over the temple, hoisted flags on the structure and generally behaved in a manner not befitting the venue. The temple is already in a weak condition, having been exposed to salt water and air for several centuries. The ASI refuses permission to anyone wanting to climb on to the structure. That is, anyone other than members of political outfits who simply cock a snook at the authorities and wilfully go ahead. The ASI has now written to the police complaining about the vandalism. A classic instance of shutting the stable door after the horses have bolted.
This is not the first time this has happened. Last year too the same group staged a similar event at the same venue. And its cadres behaved the same way. Given this experience, it is indeed surprising that the police and the ASI chose to grant permission for the event once again. It just goes to show that against the political juggernaut, even if it comprises political leaders not in power, the machinery of the Government is ineffective or is simply unwilling to be firm.
All this makes us wonder as to what exactly has been achieved by obtaining World Heritage status for these monuments. What is the point in getting the world to protect our heritage when those in our own backyard are unable to do so? Those in charge also probably do not realise that the UNESCO, which grants World Heritage status, is extremely quick to revoke its protection. The ruins at Hampi faced that risk when a bridge was built across the river without taking the UNESCO into confidence. What then is likely to happen in the case of Mamallapuram?
Officials need to realise that it is just not enough to put up grille gates, an ornamental lawn and intimidate the general tourist who, in any case, is law-abiding. What we need is the will to protect our heritage from wanton vandalism, as has happened in this case. No amount of laws can ensure this unless those in charge of implementing them feel the necessity to enforce them. Perhaps that will happen once the organisers of this celebration, who claim to be in the vanguard of the green movement and protection of heritage, really begin meaning what they say.