Emphasizing the need to preserve cultural heritage, the Madras High Court has issued a set of 75 directions to the State of Tamil Nadu to ensure that antique temples and ancient monouments in the state are properly maintained.
"...the custodians of grand and antique temples and ancient monuments are least bothered and the conservation of our valuable heritage is deteriorating not due to any natural calamity or catastrophe, but due to reckless administration and maintenance under the guise of renovation", observed a division bench comprising Justices R Mahadevan and PD Audikesavalu in its 224-page judgment.
The Court criticized the departments of HR&CE and the Archeology for not doing enough for the upkeep of ancient temples and idols.
"It is startling to find that the HR&CE department with all its income from major temples has not been able to maintain historical temples and safeguard the Idols, which in market, have antique value based on their age. Some temples in the state have also been recognised by the UNESCO as heritage sites. Many temples constructed at least 2000 years ago or much before, recognised by UNESCO, are in ruins. Neither the Archaeology Department nor the HR&CE Department has shown interest to identify and protect them.This has also come to the advantage of the miscreants, who have laid their hands on the Idols", the Court remarked.
The Court passed elaborate directions which can lead to sweeping reforms in the administration of temples under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act (HR&CE Act).
Temple lands must always remain with temples
The Court emphasized that temple lands must always remain with temples and the State Government or HR&CE Department should not alienate or give away such lands contrary to the wish of the donors.
The Court also observed that the 'public purpose theory' should not be invoked over temple lands for acquisitions as the community interests generally rests with such lands.
"The state Government or the Commissioner of the HR&CE department, who are the Trustee/administrator of the temple lands,shall not alienate or give away the lands contrary to the wish of the donor. The lands shall always remain with the temples. The public purpose theory shall not be invoked in cases of temple lands over which the interest of the community people of the religious denomination generally rests", the Court directed.
The Court also directed the authorities to take stock of the list of leaseholds and encroachments over temple lands, and take immediate steps for recovery of rent arrears, eviction of defaulters and encroachers. A list of defaulters with the arrears due from them must be prepared within a period of six (6) weeks and the same must be published in the website. Appropriate steps must be taken to evict them and recover the arrears as per the provisions of the HR&CE Act and the rules there under.
The encroachment and illegal constructions in the protected area, archaeological sites, temple lands, etc., must immediately be removed.
Appropriate action must be taken against the errant Government officials of the central as well as state department and officers under the HR&CEdepartment for not removing the encroachments in the protected and regulated area, within a period of eight (8) weeks on expiry of the time given.
Temple funds must be first used for those temples
The funds of individual temples should first be utilised for the maintenance of those temples.
"The funds of the temples shall first be utilized for the maintenance of temples, conducting temple festivals, payment to its staff including the archakas, oduvars, musicians, folklore and drama artiste. In case of surplus funds, the same shall be utilized for attending the repair and maintenance of other temples in the state as specified under the HR&CE Act and the Rules framed there under and for propaganda of the tenets of all or any of the religious institutions under the HR&CE Act", the Court observed.
The Court also passed directions to the HR&CE Department for the proper audit of temple assets.
It observed that the HR&CE Department may permit the stakeholders of the various religious denominations to participate in the meetings conducted by the Committees as and when required.
Special Tribunal under HR&CE Act
Significantly, the Court directed the formation of a Special Tribunal under the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Cultural Endowments (HR&CE Act) to exclusively deal with matters relating to temple such as, disputes on religious affairs,culture, tradition, heritage, inams and recovery of pending rent, validity of lease, illegal encroachment and other temple and mutts land issues.
"A Special Tribunal shall be formed to exclusively deal with the matters relating to the religious institutions come under the provisions of the HR&CE Act, such as, disputes on religious affairs, culture, tradition, heritage, inams and recovery of pending rent,validity of lease, illegal encroachment and other temple and mutts land issues"
"Such Tribunal shall be constituted under the Head of the Working or Retired District Judge as Chairman with two or more Members from the rank of the retired Subordinate Judicial Officers with the jurisdiction to decide all the matters related to the nature and status of the Religious Institutions, privileges and performances of rituals and poojas in all the religious institutions and their properties and the right of the worshippers by conducting the cases like a Civil Court of summary nature within the maximum period of six (6) months"Constitute Committee to review HR & CE Act
The bench further directed that a High level committee has to be formed to review the HR&CE Act once in three years to make necessary amendments, however, subject to judicial review.
The HR&CE Act must be suitably amended by strict incorporation of penal provisions as per IPC and the procedures laid down under the Cr.P.C to cover all the illegal acts done in respect of the temples for proper action.
Steps must be taken to amend the HR&CE Rules by incorporating various provisions on the line of National Conservation Policy and International Charters regarding conservation of monuments.
Constitute Heritage Commission
The bench directed that the state should constitute a 17-member heritage commission within two months, and declared that no structural alteration or repair of any monument, temple, idol, sculpture or murais notified either under the Central Act or the State Act should take place without the sanction of the commission.
"The Heritage Commission shall identify all the structures, monuments, temples, antiques with historical/archaeological importance within the State of Tamil Nadu, formulate a list with age of such monuments by categorising them within their period group, issue appropriate notification, render periodical advice to the State, supervise the restoration, repair works etc., and maintain the same," the court order read.
The Court also passed directions on protecting historical monuments, sites, ancient temples, idols, safeguarding temple funds, conducting audits, retrieving temple properties, appointing temple staff, paying salaries to them, filling up vacancies in the post of trustee, maintaining the animals owned by the temples and safeguarding their waterbodies.
The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department website must display the number of idols of historical importance, the number stolen, the number retrieved and the status of investigation with regard to stolen cases, the court ordered.
"There is dire need to manage and conserve our ancient cultural heritage and monouments employing better advanced technology in protecting, preserving and conserving the same", the bench observed.
Declare all structures aged more than 100 years as national monouments
The Court directed that the Central Government shall implement the Ancient Monuments Act in letter and spirit, by declaring all religious structures more than 100 years old including temples, temples' tanks, mutts, temple chariots, jewels, art, artefacts, and sacred groves etc., including private denomination temples, as 'national monuments' with immediate effect.
The orders were passed on a suo motu public interest litigation petition taken up by the court on the basis of a reader's letter titled 'The Silent burial' published in The Hindu on January 8, 2015. The suo moto case was initiated by the then Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul(now Supreme Court judge). The bench also considered a batch of other PILs which were filed after the suo moto case was taken.