Close on the heels of the Corporation conducting a training programme on heritage conservation for its engineers, the State Government has decided to conduct a six-week training programme on conservation and restoration of monuments and temples. This is mainly for the engineers of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Board which controls all the State-run temples, but it is open to other Government engineers wishing to attend. This is a most welcome move, but it is to be hoped that the training is put to good use in practice.

It cannot be denied that in the past few years, the Governments, both at the Centre and the State, have been allocating handsome budgets for temple restoration. The 13th Finance Commission had allocated Rs. 90 crore for the renovation of over 200 temples in the State with the rider that the restoration could not tamper with the heritage value of the shrines. Thus far the State has utilised Rs.67.5 crore of this for work on 183 temples. The balance will be spent this year on 46 temples.

While the Government spending on temple restoration is heartening, for these are most often the only surviving symbols of our rich heritage, what is not so laudatory is the manner in which it is done. We keep reading news reports of age-old murals being whitewashed, ancient edicts and inscriptions being sandblasted and, worse, being covered with vitrified tiles. Stones bearing valuable historic records are thrown away and the craze for building gopurams at times ensures that ancient pavilions are destroyed with no hesitation. The necessity to provide air circulation in sanctum sanctorums has seen ugly metal ducts making their appearance, often by gouging stonework. Tube lights, ugly wall paintings, and plenty of protective grillework complete the picture. All this often causes irreversible damage which could be avoided if those in charge are sensitised. And this is what is hoped this workshop will achieve.

Said to be the first of its kind in the country, the programme is to be conducted by the State Archaeology Department with the course curriculum having been drawn up in consultation with IIT Madras, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Museums Department and the Madras University. A notable absentee is the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) which should have ideally been roped in given its track record. In recent years, INTACH has been responsible for some brilliant restoration work across the country. In the city, we have the Senate House completed in 2007 and, as for the rest of the State, the restoration of the Muchukunda murals in the Tiruvarur temple in 2011 is another splendid example. Why then this hesitation in consulting INTACH? It is time that the Government wakes up and realises that some private participation in its laudable exercises will do no harm.

Apart from getting INTACH involved, we feel that attendance at the training programmes should have also been made compulsory for the Public Works Department (PWD) too, given that it is the department that is going to be working on the restoration of two important city landmarks – the Chepauk Palace and the National Art Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial Hall). The funds for these projects are to come from Finance Commission grants and so the same rider of “restoration without tampering with heritage value” will hold good. The current methods adopted by the PWD are in no way sympathetic to heritage restoration and need to be overhauled completely. For this to be done, its engineers need to be sensitised to heritage restoration the same way as those of theCorporation and the HR&CE. Will that miracle happen soon?