On Friday night, a major fire broke out in the famed Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, destroying 36 shops located in the 400-year-old Veera Vasantharayar Mandapam, a hall in the temple’s East Wing. The 7,000 sq ft mandapam, which housed more than 100 shops selling everything from puja items like flowers and coconuts to plastic toys, was badly damaged. Parts of the hall’s roof and a few intricately-carved pillars have collapsed, reported The Hindu. There were no casualties.

The fire is suspected to have been caused by a short-circuit in a shop. The district administration has reportedly sought the help of experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, to ascertain the extent of the damage caused to the structures in the complex.

From Friday night to Saturday morning, over 60 fire service personnel fought to douse the fire. On Sunday morning, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services were still engaged in pouring water to cool the temple’s heated stones even as municipal corporation workers started clearing away the debris.

“Now, there is no fire or smoke,” said P Saravanakumar, deputy director of Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services, Southern Region, on Monday. “Everything is under control. From our side, the work is completed. The district administration has to decide what further work needs to be done.”

(Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Sparks and embers

Madurai architect and heritage conservationist Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan said that the density of shops in the mandapam was very high. He surmised that the fire was probably caused by a short circuit due to electrical overload. “The electricity connections of some of the shops were cut since they had not been paying their bills,” he said. “They were drawing wires [supply] from other connections, usually the next shop...I have seen such illegal connections for quite some time, at least for the last 10 to 12 years...These are illegal connections and were not being done with any kind of caution. So very high load of current was being passed, sparking the fire.” He added that pigeons that nest in the crevices of the mandapam pillars had also caught fire, and flew upwards, setting fire to the roof.

Pigeons that caught fire, took the fire to the roof. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

The architect explained that stone pillars were not impervious to fire. “Stone also can take heat only to an extent,” said Madhusudhanan. “When that limit is crossed, stone sculptures can be defaced or the entire structure can be weakened.” He added that the stones used to construct the temple were affixed with lime mortar, which weakens and collapses when charred. “That is exactly what has happened with the roof of the hall,” he said.

(Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Eviction of shops?

A February 5 report in The Times of India quoted an unidentified senior official of the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services as saying that the department had warned temple authorities several times to take fire safety precautions, such as streamlining electrical wires and avoiding storing plastic items in shops. But these warnings went unheeded. When asked to confirm this, Saravanakumar said: “We have to verify the records.” He added that for the last five years, the fire services had kept a fire engine on standby in the temple complex.

The fire sparked an agitation among several devotees, who accused temple authorities of negligence. Members of right-wing groups, including the Bharatiya Janata Dal, Hindu Youth Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad also joined in, demanding that all shops be cleared from the temple premises. Slogans were shouted against the state government, the district collector and the temple administration, reported The Hindu.

But some heritage conservationists said that the temple authorities were not entirely to blame for the fire. “It has technically happened beyond the inner boundary of the temple,” said Arvind Kumar Sankar, the convener of the Madurai chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage or INTACH.

The heritage conservationist said that in an emotionally-charged environment, a decision should not be taken to evict all shopkeepers from the temple complex. “It may be good for the built heritage but maybe not for cultural heritage,” he said. “Shops selling flowers, kumkum and coconuts should remain since people usually buy puja items from here before entering the inner shrine,” he said. “Irrelevant shops like toy shops, artificial jewellery shops should be removed.”

(Photo credit: Special arrangement).
The North Tower of the Meenakshi Amman temple.
One of the stone corridors at the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, as taken in October. (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan).