Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whitewashing 4000 years of history ?!?

I was both outraged and upset when I read the article in “The Hindu” about how 4000 years of history and art are treated in India especially after seeing all the efforts the western world puts into preserving its history, which are most of the times only a few hundred years old.

An excerpt from the article (if the link becomes obsolete in a few days) - “There are more than 50 temples in Tamil Nadu, which have exquisite murals of the Pallava, the Chola, the Nayak and the Maratha periods. A couple of palaces - the Ramalinga Vilas at Ramanathapuram and the Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kanyakumari district too have murals.

At the centre of destruction of murals in temples are the HR and CE officials**. They have not only whitewashed murals in many temples but continue to sandblast sculptures and inscriptions, disfiguring them. In the name of renovation and kumbabhishekam, the HR and CE officials have fully or partially whitewashed, out of existence, beautiful murals in the Pundarikaksha Perumal temple, Tiruvellarai, near Tiruchi, the ‘Tiruvilayadal Puranam' murals in the Meenakshi temple at Madurai, the Kallazhagar temple at Azhagarkoil, near Madurai”.

When I looked at the whitewashed walls, I died a little! How can anyone in their right minds do this?? I can understand the lack of funds for doing a full-fledged renovation of the murals but painting over them with low cost lime paints is nothing short of defacing them on purpose.

The only reason I always hear is that preserving art and history takes a backseat in a country where people are struggling for the basic amenities of life like food and shelter. Agreed. It is a huge problem but does that mean that future generations learn and see nothing of our past and our rich cultural heritage? Do we just want to be a country of skyscrapers and people in the next century?

Any time I see a historical artifact from India in a museum elsewhere (say in the UK or Germany), I would reflect for a moment in how and when it was acquired and in most cases it was not a gift from an Indian emperor but just the result of Colonialization and shameless plundering. When I now compare how such artifacts are treated within and outside India, it makes me wonder whether they are better off away from home…..

I understand there is no point in just grumbling without doing something about it. I jotted down my thoughts here
  • Choose temples in their historical order of importance (targeting those that have not yet been affected by this mindless renovation) and issue a ban on implementing renovation without a 90 day notice period and an explicit approval from historians who specialize in that era
  • Task students studying art and history to research the restoration techniques and if possible, the costs involved and create a report for each of the categories like pallava murals, chola frescoes etc.
  • The reports can be used to approach the Govt. or organizations that work towards restoring temples and/or other monuments and can also be used in contacting UNESCO heritage programme to see if any funds could be allocated for these purposes
  • If there is an NPO that people can rely on, it will definitely bring in funds from within India and outside. I would gladly give 1% of my salary every year to this cause.
  • Above all, it is of extreme importance to make sure that this is not projected as a religious issue because it isn’t. I would not have been any less concerned about the destruction of such historical sites if I had been a Christian or a Muslim and I am sure plenty of Indians would agree with me
I understand fully that it might take decades before any of the above are implemented with a big “if” in the front but it hurts a lot more to not even try ! I have sent this blog post to “The Hindu” as well hoping that I am one among many who feel the same way and our combined efforts will take us a little bit forward.

I would appreciate any comments or suggestions from the readers for eg: information on such organizations if they already exist.

Copyright: Photo is from the article in "The Hindu"
**HR and CE officials = Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department officials


  1. India still is centuries backward when it comes to preserving artifacts and other things. The Archeological Survey of India does not play its role where it is intended to do.

  2. I have heard of people in the US studying Tamil eg: at Wisconsin Madison and I am sure there are probably enough people interested in south Indian art as well. Not sure if they can actually help.

    I actually feel that the change of govt. now might also help. We all know how the prev govt felt about religious stuff.

  3. If they are not restoring, why cant they preserve them in any conservation laboratories. Looks like they have many Archaeological Conservation Program http://asi.nic.in/asi_cons_prev.asp.
    But how effective are they ? clueless......

  4. I feel the problem is theresn't many people willing or interested to study about art and history in India. The reason behind is very obvious, when all my friends are studying engineering/medicine and getting nice pay, why should I study about art, preserving the history and get less attractive pay? or no job at all?? How many people do you know in your school have ended up in studying art and history?
    I remember Egypt now, if you see all the 1000 year old mummies and tombs being discovered, it is not the local people who are taking the initiative or doing research about their history, majority of them are the western people who are taking the effort. Whoever takes the effort/Initiative, Egypt is earning lots of money by attracting world wide tourists, and they are investing the money again in preserving their history and its like a cycle.
    Imagine if we are doing nice Tourism marketing about our beautiful temples in Tamil Nadu (as well as all over India) we would definitely get enough tourist like Goa, Kerala or Taj Mahal is getting. I bet we people would understand the value of our 4000 year old history only when someone from outside India or the western people says WOW !!
    As you mentioned many people are struggling to get basic food and education and our government has got to do a lot for this. So spending money without return/profit on preserving the art & history is little bit harder for a developing nation like India. That's why I would say we should attract world wide tourist and invest the money from tourism on preserving the art and history.

  5. It is nothing new !The people who work in the governing departments and the employees of the temple are either ignorant or they don't simply care! The State Govt. do not provide the temple employees good salary even to pull on with their monthly expenses ! Do you know the salary of Raman in Thiruppunnavasal temple? It is just Rs.250/- a month - can you believe it? Then who will be interested when your own family is starving? The Govt. neither protects the temples nor the statues of their own mentors viz. Periyar, Anna and MGR! One flower vendor, out of love and affection, in Teynamept is garlanding the statute of MGR in Mount Road (Anna Salai)daily at his own expense ! That is how it is! They also do not allow other people to maintain the temples at their own cost !



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