Does the recent removal of trilingual boards in the city suggest that Madurai is losing its tourist-friendly face?

Madurai is known for its hospitality and culture and has been an active tourist spot for centuries. The floating population of the town has increased manifold over the years. The civic body and district administration have also taken novel efforts, such as the recent mega festival, to promote and improve tourism. So why have trilingual boards been removed from the streets near the temple? While Madurai still continues to be tourist-friendly, wouldn’t the boards help direct tourists? Does this indicate a drop in the degree of friendliness towards North Indian tourists? Or is it a drive to uphold Tamil pride? Or is it simply an act of linguistic chauvinism?

The District Collector, Anshul Mishra, says that it was a policy decision and not a pro-Tamil or anti-Hindi move. “The project was initiated in the interest of public. But, as some groups protested, we as the administrative body suggested doing away with the boards. It may cause difficulty for the tourists and we will soon find an alternative solution for the issue.”

Some officials suggest that trilingual boards should be retained at least in the areas surrounding the temple, while some others point out that placing information boards in all 16 scheduled languages can be a better idea.

Tourist officer Dharmaraj says, “The boards wouldn’t make much difference to the tourists as most people come in groups and are not dependent on the signage. And these days, many know English and there is really not a need for boards in Hindi.” However, many private tour operators feel the boards were useful.

B.S.G. Musthafa, President of Travel Club, says, “Naturally, the boards benefit any outsider. In fact, the signage matters more to a tourist than a local and the information matters more than the language. Any tourist would feel happy to see names mentioned in their language. Like the way we Tamilians feel happy that even the airport signage in Singapore and Malaysia carries Tamil.” He adds, “To tell the way is not wrong. And removal of Hindi from boards wouldn’t spur the growth of Tamil in any way.”

According to Travel Club records, the influx of North Indian tourists has doubled in the last five years. Says Musthafa, “On an average, nearly 200 North Indian tourists visit the city daily and the number goes up during holidays and in winter months.” Senthil Kumar of Travel Mate says, “Majority of them come from Maharashtra, Gujarat and West Bengal. Madurai is the hub for pilgrimage tours in the south. Most of the North Indian tourists take the regular package of Madurai city, Kodaikanal, Kanyakumari and Rameswaram.”

Senthil says that the removal of boards would increase the burden of tour operators and guides. “Tourists come in large groups and our guides take the responsibility of explaining and bringing them back safe. In case of any tourist getting misled, the boards would guide them back to the place. But now, we guides need to be more vigilant.” He adds, “Anyone dealing with tourism industry should fluently converse in Hindi. We encourage our employees to learn Hindi. Language is the first essential skill a guide should have.”

Saravana, who owns Madurai Tourism Taxi Services, says that the trilingual boards are a feel-good factor for the tourists. “Though tourists are not entirely dependent on signage, the removal may cause a little inconvenience. But that’s where we taxiwallahs step in. Eighty per cent of our customers are North Indians and all our drivers understand and speak Hindi.”

Agitations and protests in the name of language have become synonymous with Tamil Nadu. Educationist Raja, who runs a distance education studies centre, says, “People of Tamil Nadu don’t have an anti-Hindi attitude. It’s just the play of politicians. Learning Hindi or having it on the boards is after all not a crime.”