A model of the Taj Mahal is making waves in Madurai, but at the same time a 250-year-old heritage building faces demolition

For the past few weeks, the CSI grounds in Pudur has been witnessing an unprecedented rush. During the Christmas, New Year and Pongal weekends, vehicles and people jostled for space to get to the grounds. The reason is visible from a distance: it is the great monument of love, the Taj Mahal, that is evoking great curiosity and interest in the Temple Town.

As dusk sets in, the illuminated plywood and flex board replica of the architectural wonder stands like a mirage off the traffic-congested Alagar Koil road.

Squeals and shrieks of visitors, who get in after paying Rs. 25 entrance fee, makes the model seem real. The ‘wow' factor is evident as hundreds queue up to be photographed against the majestic backdrop, paying another fifty bucks.

Majority of the visitors said they had not seen the real Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan's white marble mausoleum in Agra built in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, and that the replica was just as good. This exactly serves the purpose of the organisers, who assert that it is purely a “commercial venture.” “But then,” adds Kovai Murugesan, the Coimbatore man behind the enterprise, “it is also providing so many people with some basic information and idea about this wonder of the world.”

“They don't have the means or can't afford to go all the way to Agra, so we did it for them here,” says the happy businessman, as people come to his office room at the exhibition site to thank him.

“This is like the real Taj Mahal. I have been there,” says a visitor. “Fantastic job,” gushes another. “Keep it for some more time,” pleads a third.

A bus full of villagers off-load and are simply awestruck. Same is with a group of school and college college students. You can see the cash registers ringing at the ticket counter and wonder whether the organizers should be appreciated or criticized.

Afterall, it is not the real Taj. But then people are returning with all the “wah, wahs”, obviously overlooking the at times shaky minarets, peeled off canvass, and fading artwork.

“The model has been painstakingly set up for the benefit of the people,” reiterates Manager Pandian. The group, which organizes the Coimbatore and Erode Trade Fairs every year, is not new to this business. This is the fourth year in a row that they have brought in the novelty of erecting world famous monuments and buildings in small towns like Salem, Erode, Trichy, Ramanathapuram and now Madurai besides Coimbatore and even Chennai.

“It is the public response that drives us. We have brought the White House, Parliament House, Dubai Towers and now the Taj to Madurai,” adds Pandian. The entertainment quotient gets doubled as food stalls and amusement park for children is also set up at the site. Going by their statistics, it took 100-odd people to make the moulds and assemble the Taj Mahal here.

The 80-feet tall and wide structure has been erected over a platform of 1,000 wooden poles and was completed in three weeks time. It feebly tries to match the real Taj Mahal in lay out with the water front and green carpeting. Done at a cost of Rs. 21 lakh, daily between 4 pm and 10 pm, there are at least 1,500 walk-ins, which peaks to 5,000 to 7,500 during weekends. And of these, at least 40 per cent line up for the famous photo-click.

Even as Madurai celebrates the Taj Mahal, just a few kilometres away, on East Masi Street, a local monument more than 250 years old, which withstood the vagaries of weather and changes in rule and has been housing a police station for 100 years, faces demolition.

One is referring to the Vilakkuthoon police station, which is guesstimated to be in existence from the brief Maratha rule during 1740 to 1743 (or even earlier) going by the plaque on its right compound wall that reads “kotwal chavadi”. Recently the custodians of culture and heritage, who have been also trying to resurrect the city's tourism, had Vilakkuthoon included in their heritage map.

“We discussed with the Collector and even decided to have a stopover at the Vilakkuthoon during all our heritage walks, so that people come to know about this remnant of glory,” says Dr.G. Vasudevan, founder member of Travel Club.

Aghast by the proposal of building a new police station at the site by demolishing the old heritage structure, INTACH, Madurai Chapter, is exploring a Public Interest Litigation.

“Definitely we will have to stop this. We don't want to antagonize the police either and we hope the police will also understand and cooperate with us,” says Convener Arvind Shankar.

While the CII, Madurai zone, is also likely to chart out its action plan soon, says the Chairman elect of CII Tamil Nadu, Mr.R.Dinesh, who belongs to the Temple Town: “We will surely work in the interest of Madurai,”

It is learnt that the Collector U. Sahayagam has already dashed off a letter to the City Police Commissioner stating the Vilakkuthoon police station is a heritage building and can not be torn down.

On the other hand, the police chief feels the current building does not provide adequate facility and space and therefore needs to make way for a new one unless an alternate site is identified.

The point is, can we really allow our history and heritage to take such a plunge?

There are, no doubt, inherent challenges unique to the preservation and redevelopment of heritage properties. We should not forget historic buildings are assets that add to the texture and culture of a street and a city and are worth investing in.

A public outrage may spare Vilakkuthoon the wrecking ball. Every citizen now has an opportunity to have a say and speak aloud for the protection of this iconic link from the past.

Facts about the Taj Mahal:

Was constructed over a period of 17 years (1627 to 1643) using materials from all over India and Asia, which were transported by over 1,000 elephants. Built at an estimated cost of Rs.32 million then, the translucent white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan, the Jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China. turquoise from Tibet, sapphire from Sri Lanka, carnelian from Arabia and and Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Twenty eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble mauspleum that attracts four million visitors annually including 200,000 foreigners. More than 20,000 labourers from across north India and a creative team consisting of sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern India, stonecutters from Baluchistan created this finest example of Mughal architecture combining elements from Persian, Turkish and Indian architectural styles. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. -- Source Internet

Facts about Vilakkuthoon Police Station:

Though no city historian is able to provide the exact year of construction, it is guesstimated that it came up sometime in 1740 or even earlier because a plaque still preserved reads the “Kotwal Chavadi” (inscribed in English as Cutwals Choultry, the Main Guard). Since ‘Kotwal’ is a Marathi word, it is presumed the place would have been in existence during the brief Maratha rule between 1740-1743 A.D when Morari Rao of Gooty was the Governor-In Charge for Madurai and Dindigul after the decline of Nayak rule. The Nayaks had established ‘Ushavadis’, where revenue and police officials settelod civil disputes and these later came to be known as ‘chavadi’. Nayak architecture is still visible inside the police station, it houses a stable like space perhaps used for camels and horses those days. The cash locker, lockups and arms and ammunition stack room inside are also intact. The locker is unique as it is inlaid in the wall. It was renovated during British rule. The present police station came into being in 1912. -- Source, Mr.C.Santhalingam (retd.Archaelogical Officer), in The Hindu Metroplus, Sept.2006

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012