Yoga evangelist Ravishankar is yet again in the news for the wrong reasons. After his organisation faced heavy criticism and a fine by the courts for the damage to river Yamuna floodplains in 2016, his Art of Living foundation is now at the centre of a controversy for putting up a mammoth structure inside the iconic Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
How the private organisation, which is set to conduct a two-day event absolutely unconnected to the temple, got permission to put up a huge temporary structure inside the magnificent monument is intriguing. The event, titled “Unveiling Infinity”, is scheduled to 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.
On Thursday, it came to light that the Archaeological Survey of India had initially denied permission to the organisers. The foundation then went through the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department of the Tamil Nadu government, which has apparently been instrumental in getting the permission from ASI on behalf of the private organisation.
It is important to put the event in some perspective. The Brihadesvara temple, popularly called the Periya Koil, is a proud feature of the magnificence of ancient Tamil architecture, perhaps even the greatest achievement of Tamil architectural tradition. Built by emperor Raja Raja Chola I sometime in the 11th century, it has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the three great living Chola temples. It is called a living temple because worship has continued almost uninterrupted for over 1000 years, unlike few other heritage sites that remain mere ruins. The temple is under the control of the ASI. There are strict rules on how to conduct oneself when inside the temple.
When this is so, it is astonishing that a private organisation has so casually put up structures inside the temple complex for a so-called spiritual event. Media reports suggest the structure could hold as many as 5,000 people. Such a huge congregation is bound to have its impact on the temple structure, even if all precautions are taken. Further, it also undermined the sanctity of a place of worship.
There are some disturbing questions surrounding the event. Why did a state government department move the ASI to obtain permission on behalf of a private organisation? What were the compulsions behind the move, especially when it is clear that the event has nothing to do with the temple?
Political parties in Tamil Nadu have questioned whether this has to do with the perceived clout of Ravishankar, the admirers of whom are some of the most powerful persons in the country. The events follow the classic trajectory of clout trumping law and rules for the benefit of a private player. The Tamil Nadu government and the ASI have much to answer for going out of their way to help the organisers. The ASI in particular cannot wash its hand off by blaming the state government department as it is the ASI that is entrusted with the protection of the monument.
The event is yet another example of how the state apparatus treats our heritage sites with disdain, especially at a time when the clamour to remove state control of temple administration is gaining voice in Tamil Nadu. It is important that the event is stopped, the temporary structures removed and any damage set right immediately to restore faith in the administration.