The recent controversy over declaring Sthalasayana Perumal temple in Mahabalipuram a protected monument is an outcome of consistent neglect of heritage structures here

In 1975, the Tamil Nadu government officially renamed Mahabalipuram as Mamallapuram and that was the farthest anyone ever went to restore its historic importance. Despite attracting thousands of visitors everyday and preparing countless plans, Mamallapuram remains one of the most mismanaged World Heritage sites in this country.

The recent controversy about declaring Sthalasayana Perumal temple as a protected monument, which is not the first such attempt directed at the structure, is an outcome of consistent neglect.

It was 50 years ago when the first comprehensive development guidelines were framed to restore the archaeological importance and environmental significance of Mamallapuram. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1972, after studying this historic town, proposed that the State develop this ancient town as a monument area.

To achieve this, it suggested that the town be divided into two zones. The zone comprising 32 monuments and its buffer zone was to be delineated as a historic area. The other zone was the proposed new town to the west of the existing settlement.

The UNDP reasoned that if a new town was created and people slowly moved to this well-planned area, pressure on the monument zone would be reduced. To help achieve this objective, proposals such as building an outer ring road to divert traffic from the historic area and strictly regulating commercial activity within the monument zone, were also proposed.

Following the UNDP recommendation, in 1974, the State announced a grand plan to build an airstrip, ply a hovercraft service from Chennai, and create a new town in Mamallapuram. The existing bus stand near Sthalasayana Perumal Temple in the centre of the monument area was to be shifted and nearby shops rehabilitated.

It was during this time the ASI suggested strict regulation around the Sthalasayana Perumal temple since it was closer to the famous Arjuna Penance sculpture and the other cave temples. K.V. Soundara Rajan, the then superintending archaeologist, ASI (Southern Circle), announced that the aim was to create the “Mahabalipuram of the Pallava days.”

The commercial establishments around the temple and other interest groups opposed the UNDP and ASI proposals. The government and ASI did not pursue what they promised. For six years not much progress was made.

In 1980, the Government of India tried to revive the plans. Construction of the ring road and building a new bus stand outside the monument zone were the top priority. A shopping plaza near the new bus stand was recommended to rehabilitate shops removed from the monument area and a 75-feet-wide vista connecting the Sthalasayana Perumal Temple and the shore temple — an ancient axial pathway — was to be restored. This move, too, hit a dead end.

Meanwhile in 1984, the UNESCO declared the Mamallapuram monuments a World Heritage Site. Even this special status did not improve its condition. Construction and commercialisation within the monument area increased alarmingly.

In 1985, INTACH, a not-for-profit organisation chaired by Rajiv Gandhi, tried to impress upon authorities the need to protect the heritage areas. Fresh proposals were drawn in 1989.

But nothing changed. The bus stand continues to exist where it was in the 1970s and vehicles still ply perilously close to the sculptures. The ASI cannot absolve itself.

It failed to effectively implement the 300-metre regulated zone, sanctioned by an Act, around monuments to control development.

Had this 1992 legal provision been intelligently used, most parts of Mamallapuram would have been better regulated. In 2010, the ASI amended its legislation to implement regulation zones better. Even this has not taken off.

Instead of implementing the existing conservation plans and regulations, ASI has tangled itself into a new controversy by trying to declare the Sthalasayana temple as a monument.

This is bound to further delay the chances of seeing Mamallapuram as a well-developed historic and tourist centre.