In a 224-page judgment, the Madras High Court on Monday (June 7) issued a set of 75 directions to the Tamil Nadu government for the maintenance and protection of historical monuments and ancient temples. The suo motu case was initiated by the then Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan based on a reader’s letter called ‘The Silent Burial’ published in The Hindu newspaper.
The matter came up before a 2-Judge Bench of Justices PD Audikesavalu and R Mahadevan. The Court noted, “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.”
The Bench slammed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments and the Archaeology Department for its failure in safeguarding antique idols, and temples. The Madras High Court observed that 2000-year-old temples in the state are in ruins, which has facilitated miscreants to ‘lay their hands on the idols.’ The Court’s directions can bring about legislative reform Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act (HR&CE Act).
Temple lands must remain under the temple authorities, directs Court
The 2-Judge Bench ruled, “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 Madras High Court directed government officials to compile a list of encroachments over temple lands and recover them immediately from encroachers and defaulters. The Court had set aside a time period of 6 weeks for preparing the list and uploading the details on the website. It noted that the authorities must take necessary steps for the recovery of rent arrears, prevent illegal construction and encroachment of temple lands. The Court warned that appropriate action would be taken against the HR&CE Department officials for failing to remove encroachments within 8 weeks.
Temple funds must first be used for maintenance of temples : HC
The Madras High Court emphasised that temple funds must first be used in the maintenance of temples, conducting festivals, and making payment to the staff. “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 added.
Court directs authorities to form a Special Tribunal for temple disputes
The Judges issued directions to the HR&CE Department for auditing the temple assets. They noted that the Department might permit stakeholders of various religious denominations to participate in meetings conducted by the auditing Committees. The Madras High Court ruled that a Special Tribunal under the HR&CE Act must be constituted to deal with disputes over temple lands, tradition, culture, lease, rent arrears, and illegal encroachment. It added that the tribunal must be formed under the District Judge as Chairman with 2 or more members of retired Subordinate Judicial Officers. The Court has called for the setting up of a High-level committee to review and amend the HR&CE Act once in 3 years.
Courts directs formation of a Heritage Commission to oversee renovation/altercation work
“There is dire need to manage and conserve our ancient cultural heritage and monuments employing better-advanced technology in protecting, preserving and conserving the same”, the Madras High Court emphasised. It directed that the website of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department must include details of idols of historical importance, number of stolen idols, the number of idols retrieved, and the status of probe in theft cases.
The Court added that a 17-member Heritage Commission must be constituted within a period of 2 months and no renovation/alteration of idols, temples and other sculptures can be done without its approval. “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 Bench concluded.
Govt cannot use temple land for any purposes other than religious functions, says Madras HC
In a significant observation, the Madras High Court in November last year had said that the state government could not use temple land for any purpose other than for holding religious functions. The Madras High Court, responding to grievances raised by devotees regarding the alienation of temple land of two temples in Tamil Nadu, emphasised that temple land could be utilised only for the beneficial purposes of the temple.
The High Court also observed that temples in Tamil Nadu were not only a source of identification of the ancient culture but also a testimony of pride and knowledge of the talent in the fields of arts, science and sculpture. The court had also directed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department to identify and protect all temple lands from encroachers with an officer in charge filing periodical reports.