These are religious times, at least judging from the vast numbers that throng all places of worship. Several new shrines are coming up all the time, and those that existed for long are being modernised thanks to the continuous inflow of funds from the faithful. That the donations have not reduced a tithe is evident from the way our temples, churches and mosques are expanding. But, sadly, these restorations, repair works and enlargements are happening with not a thought being spared for the fabric that existed earlier. The result? A well-meaning but misguided set of changes that result in creations that are completely out of place and, what’s more, firmly edge out the older elements that needed to be preserved.
Right across the city, there are several temples whose gopurams are being brought down to build new ones. Sanctum sanctorums are being covered with polished granite or glazed tiles, thereby irretrievably covering the valuable inscriptions. Temples’ interiors are being air-conditioned with walls being pierced to make way for cooling ducts. Liberal usage of sandblasting of sculptures continues regardless of such procedures being banned. In the name of security, collapsible shutters and grille-gates are being put up at any convenient spot with no thought to nearby pillars and sculptures that may suffer permanent damage.
When it comes to churches, it appears that the Sistine Chapel is the ideal for every shrine undergoing renovation, irrespective if what space is available. Thus it has come to pass that a church in Nungambakkam has emerged after its restoration as a completely different structure to what it originally was. If it were not for the steeple, it would be impossible to recognise it as the same church. It now has a few domes, and a tableau that appears wholly inspired by film sets. Interestingly, those in charge of this church were very keen on its demolition in order to make way for a modern shrine. Inclusion in the Heritage Conservation Committee’s list prevented that. But one look at the church will convince anyone that those in favour of demolition might as well have been allowed to do what they wanted. Short of completely razing the church to the ground, everything else has been done to it.
It is not so very long ago that another church, this one on NSC Bose Road, underwent a similar restoration. As for a church in Egmore, the 160-year-old building was demolished because “it leaked during rains and did not have a car park facility.” The new structure, built at a cost of Rs. 10 crore and declared open recently, is all Palladian. But new additions in other churches are gopurams and sthambams.
Even mosques, perhaps the most traditional among all religious structures, have come in for rampant changes. The latest designs of the Middle East appear to be the sole inspiration. Mosques on Moore Street and in Thousand Lights have all come in for reconstruction as per plans that are wholly alien to traditional architecture. If these were to be the yardsticks, it would be difficult to even imagine that there was a local template for mosque design.
Where do we go from here? It is clear that those in charge of temples (the HR&CE), the churches (the CSI and Roman Catholic dioceses) and the mosques (Wakf Board and other such bodies) need to be sensitised about the necessity of preserving the old. The Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has talent that can provide suitable guidance. Perhaps it can help. There can be no immediate change but, in the long run, at least some of the old can be saved.