Young history students have declared themselves foster parents of a rich legacy

At Samanamalai at Keezhakuyilkudi near Madurai, a question from a college girl takes any visitor by surprise. “Hello, we are foster parents for this hillock, what do you want to know about it?”

A group of young girls are enthusiastically deciphering the curves and letters inscribed on the rocks, and their pride in their rich legacy is infectious. Following a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Department of History of Fatima College and DHAN Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, these history students have adopted the hillock and decided to work for its protection.

On April 2012, members of the Heritage Club of Fatima College ventured out to the hillock to learn about this ancient Jain site. Then and there the students decided to engage themselves in various activities and involve local people in protecting the hillock.

“We take the role of foster parents for Samanamalai seriously,” says T. Vijinamary. “There are many hillocks around Madurai which are in need of protection. We have such great gifts, but we are not protecting them purely out of our negligence. These legacies tell us about our past, ancestors, culture and tradition, which we should be proud of.”

As a first step towards preservation, students sensitized the villagers about the antiquity, historicity and importance of the hillock. More and more participation especially from educational institutions is required in protecting these age-old monuments that fall prey to climate, vandalism and human negligence, says Maria Packiam, Head, Department of History, Fatima College.

She says the programme’s focus remains on creating awareness among village youth to abstain from writing on walls. The aim is to motivate and convince youths that these monuments are part of the centuries-old legacy and it is their responsibility to protect them. It is only awareness that will bring a change in the long run.

“We cannot involve ourselves in protecting the monument throughout our student life,” says G. Nagajothi. “So, the sustained maintenance would be possible only when locals are roped in.”

Whoever destroys, defaces and misuses a protected monument should be severely punished, feels Shamili, and we need active participation of youth to protect what remains of our defaced and ill-maintained heritage monuments. That can come only with instilling a sense of belonging.

“When my professors took me to the place and told us about the 2000-year-old monument, a sense of pride engulfed me and I was so determined that I should contribute something for its protection,” says Nagajothi.

“Instead of taking children and students to other places on education tours, educational institutions should bring them to such spots where we can learn and understand history, values and culture nearer to our homes,” says Vijinamary.

The Heritage Club members plan to take school children to the spot on a picnic to give them insight into Jainism and Jain monuments in and around the city.

“My attitude towards history has changed,” says B. Maria Blessiya. “Initially, my friends would wonder why at all I had opted for B.A. History. Many times, I felt ashamed after listening to their criticisms. Now, I feel so proud that I can decipher certain aspects of inscriptions and antiquity which my friends from other discipline could not. Thanks to the Heritage Club and adoption project.”

“We are proud that we can talk about generations gone by some 2000 years ago,” says S. Kayalvizhi. “There are about 16 caves, among which eight are Jain caves, and they need attention on a war footing.” Assistant professor Zubeida Hussaini says, “When we are ready to give the right amount of knowledge at right time and place, students are eager to learn. Students are enthusiastic and good at volunteering.”

“The MoU is aimed at promoting heritage literacy among the students of history,” says K.P. Bharathi, programme leader, DHAN Tourism for Development. During the visits to the village, students had a chance to learn from village elders, who are a great source of information and traditional knowledge.

Heritage walk

On September 15, around 25 student members of the Heritage Club will walk through the streets of Madurai to explore particular heritage spots. Around 6.30 a.m. they will start at Thirumalai Naicker Palace. From there, the walkers will move to Sethupathi Hospital, the first hospital of Madurai, and then to Pathu Thoon, Vilakkuthoon, the temple cars at East Masi Street, Vitta Vaasal, Raya Gopuram, Ezhukadal Street, Pudu Mandapam, and the East Tower, the oldest tower of Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, before ending the walk at Nagara Mandap.