The last month saw print and social media report on a city-based think tank demanding that Mylapore be given world heritage status. While this is not a tag that is given out for the asking and, so, is not likely to happen any time soon, the question is does Mylapore deserve such a status and, more importantly, can it live up to the discipline that such an accreditation demands?
If, indeed, it is the dominant presence of the temple at the heart of the locality that has spurred this suggestion, then there are several others that can compete for this even within Tamil Nadu. Take for instance the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. Would that not qualify better? Or, for that matter, Srirangam? Both of these shrines have created an ecosystem around them that depend on the central attractions for survival. There is, consequently, a lot of effort on maintaining tradition. Even the commercial establishments around have realised this and are doing what little they can to participate, something that cannot be said of Mylapore. True, the temple does form a focus here as well. But there is lot more to the place than just that. There are multiple religions that claim a share in its antiquity. That again is an attribute that towns such as Nagapattinam and Trichy can lay claim to. Can Mylapore stand up to be counted?
The next question is, what exactly of its heritage has Mylapore retained? In terms of its antiquity, there is not much. Not even the present Kapaliswarar shrine or for that matter the San Thomé basilica, can claim a physical connect to a very ancient past. This is partly due to historical reasons but also in part due to rampant modernisation that has taken place within the shrines.
Among the older but less-known spots, it is perhaps Luz Church that is really a survivor from the past in terms of its structure. There is, of course, much that is intangible in Mylapore that forms a link to the past, but that alone cannot make for world heritage status.
The recent experience of making out a case for Fort St George to be declared a world heritage monument, and one that was unsuccessful, throws some light on what exactly is needed for a favourable hearing. The spot so chosen needs to have some tradition or an architectural feature or some impact on the world by way of history or culture to merit preservation in its entirety. Mylapore would not stand up to much scrutiny. Yes, it does have temple processions, a live shrine in worship and is perceived as the home of South Indian culture but, then, so do others. As for its architecture, there is not much of it that is left. Most of the four Mada Streets are now filled with the ugliest possible commercial structures. What world heritage status are we talking about?
Lastly, even if such a status is bestowed on Mylapore, it will be accompanied by stringent guidelines that will have to be adhered to. Failing this, the accreditation can be withdrawn. Mylapore is now an example of urban chaos. The four Mada Streets do not even have regulated traffic or parking arrangements. The shops and commercial establishments have so far thwarted all attempts at enforcing discipline. When even such basic aspects of discipline are resisted, what price such UN stipulations as uniform signage, cleanliness and, above all, removal of all visual elements that distract from the heritage to be preserved? Can any property owner in Mylapore countenance that?
It is best that Mylapore and the rest of Chennai focus on preserving what little of heritage that is left, and work towards improving the quality of life. World heritage status is a wild goose chase at this point of time and at our levels of appreciation of our past.