Rapid demolition and rampant unauthorised construction have endangered the temple island

Rapid demolition of historic structures and rampant unauthorised construction — combined with utter chaos in property transactions — have endangered the historic city of Srirangam. Even the many fortified walls that encircle this island town are under imminent threat of collapse.

Srirangam is in the centre of an 18-km fertile island, formed by the two rivers Cauvery and Kollidam. This unique seven-enclosure temple town has been continuously inhabited for more than 1,300 years. Not only the temples, the houses too bear witness to its past. Some of them even carry century-old inscriptions.

Realising the significance of this place, the State government, as early as 1993, declared it a heritage town. A consultant was appointed to work out proposals to conserve the heritage and plan the future growth of the town.

The only productive outcome during this period was the restriction placed on the height of buildings. A government order was issued directing all new constructions located within a distance of one kilometre from the temple not to exceed nine metres in height. Even this one-off measure has not been complied with.

Tall buildings with glass facade exceeding the height limit have started to replace traditional buildings.

In recent years, buildings have encroached upon the municipal service lane and literally lean on the prakara walls [temple circumambulatory walls]. The temple officials complain that their proposal to repair these ancient fortifying walls, running to a total length of about 7 km in length, is severely impeded because of the encroachments. As a result, the walls have been further damaged. So far only about 1.75 km of the wall has been repaired, they said.

“Unless the encroachments are removed and repair works are completed, the walls would crumble,” cautioned the officials.

“Heritage is no more valued. Important old buildings have been systematically destroyed and apartments have sprung in their place and in gross violations of rules,” lamented B. Hemanathan, a long-time resident.

To Ramaswamy, a retired bank employee, “it is no more solai soozh Arangam [a garden encircled Srirangam], but concrete Arangam.“ The exasperation is visible, and so is the resignation.

The new master plan for Tiruchirappalli of which Srirangam is a part has also belied expectations. Formulated three years ago, the new plan does not recognise Srirangam as a special area though the town planning Act makes provisions for it.

Instead, the plan paints the entire region with the same modern brush.

Ironically, situation has gotten worse in the post-Master Plan phase.

New constructions have been put up right inside the Kollidam river-bed.

Areas around the temple designated for residential use by the local planning authority is now home to commercial ventures. Apartments have sprung up on narrow lanes without approval.

When contacted, Corporation officials said they are monitoring the situation, and are taking action against violations. However they are unable to provide details about the number of notices issued to the violators.

The Srirangam temple officials said they have legally challenged three cases of new construction for not taking proper permission. But this has more do with ongoing dispute between the temple and residents regarding the ownership of properties and not as apart of any concrete effort to save the heritage.

“There is utter chaos in Srirangam,” said K.Prabhakar an advocate living in Srirangam for many generations.

“On the one hand, no property transaction is being registered because of the ongoing dispute between the residents and the temple. On the other, buildings are constructed without approval and sold without proper registration. Unmindful buyers are picking up these properties. At this rate, in another ten years, we will not know have any legal record of actual property owners in Srirangam, and it is going to lead to a bigger crisis,” he explained.

V.Suresh, a social activist is frustrated. “There is no collective forum to raise these issues. All we can do is to inform the authorities, and this has not yielded any effective response.”

“What is happening is tragic,” Dr S. Suresh, Tamil Nadu State Convenor, INTACH lamented.

“It is imperative that the State Government takes up not just Srirangam, but also other old towns in Tamil Nadu and conserve them. Without a comprehensive plan, many of these places would lose their heritage value. This would severely affect tourism and other economic benefits that are associated with it,” he concluded.