The Brihadisvara temple in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district will host a two-day event of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation starting Friday. This has triggered a controversy because the temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where private events are prohibited.

It has given rise to questions about why the Archaeological Survey of India – which maintains this 11th-century “Big Temple” dedicated to Shiva, built by King Raja Raja Chola around 1010 CE and declared one of the “Great Living Chola Temples” by UNESCO – granted permission to the foundation.

The role of the commissioner of the Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department in helping the private organisation receive permission for its event on the temple’s premises has also been debated.

Denied, then approved

The Art of Living Foundation first approached the Archaeological Survey of India directly for permission but was denied approval on the grounds that they do not permit “private organisations” to conduct events on the premises of a World Heritage Site. Asked when they received the letter seeking permission from the foundation, a senior official of the Archaeological Survey of India refused to comment.

However, an official in the office of the assistant commissioner of the Tanjavur Palace Devasthanam, the trustee of the temple, said they had received a letter from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department’s commissioner two months ago directing them to arrange for permission for the programme. “No private organisation has ever got permission to organise programmes in the temple premises till date,” the staff member, who did not want to be identified, said. “Since the letter was sent to us from the commissioner’s office, we forwarded it to the ASI, requesting them to grant permission. We got the permission letter a month ago.”

The News Minute quoted Raji Swaminathan, the state’s media coordinator, as saying that the permission had come through “two weeks back”. Swaminathan said, “Both the HR&CE [Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department] and ASI approved our request. The only conditions we were given is to not cause any damage to the temple or set up any permanent structures. It is a meditation programme and there will be no noise or music in the premises.”

Swaminathan added that “private events have been allowed in the temple in the past”.

The Brihadisvara temple is one of the "Great Living Chola Temples" according to UNESCO. (Credit: Drkris21 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

The Archaeological Survey of India official, on his part, said they had eventually granted permission because the request had come through a government body. “It is indirectly the event of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department,” he said. “They are the ones responsible for the event. We have granted permission since it will be an event related to the temple. We have the authority to permit events organised by the government body.”

However, a Bengaluru-based member of the foundation insisted it was exclusively an Art of Living event. “It is a discourse by Guruji, where he will tell the story of Siva and Parvati,” the member said. The event, titled “Unveiling Infinity”, will be held between 5 pm and 7 pm on Friday, and from 6 am to 7.30 am and 5 pm to 8 pm on Saturday.

TK Ramachandran, commissioner, Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, was not available for comment.

Tents on temple premises

A space on the left of the temple’s entrance, between the fortified outer wall and the main temple structure housing the sanctum sanctorum, has been earmarked for the event, according to a report in Frontline magazine. A temporary structure reportedly capable of accommodating nearly 5,000 people has been erected in that space.

The event first received attention on social media on Wednesday when Madurai-based independent journalist Ar Meyyammai tweeted following a visit to the temple: “When Ravi Shankar, Art of Living Founder, wishes to conduct a spiritual discourse/yoga, the Great Living Chola Temple belonging to the 11th Century, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an exemplary example of Dravidian architecture maintained by the Archeaological Survey of India, can be disturbed.”

Many raised concern over the protection of the World Heritage Site, pointing out that the event was being organised at a time the temple’s paintings were being restored. A Natraj, a writer, said he had visited the shrine recently and found the CCTVs were not functioning.

In 2016, the Art of Living Foundation was fined Rs 5 crore for the damage done to the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi by temporary structures set up for its World Cultural Festival. (Credit: Saumya Khandelwal / HT)

The event at the Brihadisvara temple also prompted talk of the Art of Living’s World Cultural Festival 2016 in Delhi for which the National Green Tribunal had fined the foundation Rs 5 crore for the damage it had caused to the Yamuna floodplains.