The Hindu Explains: From Cyril Ramaphosa to Meenakshi temple fire

Where a temple fire put spotlight on safety measures

A fire at a shop near the 14th century Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai has brought to light the woefully inadequate fire-fighting measures in busy temples. On an average, over 15,000 people visit the temple daily on weekdays and over 25,000 on Friday.

What happened?

On February 2, around 10 p.m., smoke billowed from one of the shops in the Veeravasantharayar Mandapam of the eastern corridor of the Sundareswarar Sannidhi. In 20 minutes, the fire spread to other shops. These shops sell vibuthi, kumkum, sandal paste, toys, pictures, puja articles and decorative items. This mandapam was constructed by Muthuveerappa Nayakkar in 1611 and leads to the East Tower. The corridor is always crowded as people who visit the temple make it a point to stop to buy many items, especially kumkum.

Why is it a worry?

The row of shops is close to the temple museum, Thousand Pillar Hall, that houses outstanding stone sculptures, rare bronzes and artistic paintings. Tourists are attracted to the museum in large numbers by a group of pillars that produces musical notes when struck in an order.

How was the fire put out?

A temple employee, who noticed the fire, got a fire extinguisher, which was not enough to check the spread. The challenge was multi-pronged: to contain the flames from spreading into the temple and the museum, protect sculptures from damage, and prevent the loss of life. The fire happened when almost all devotees had left the temple. Getting fire engines to wind through narrow passages, especially when power supply was cut off, proved difficult. The temple has five points through which devotees enter and exit and four of them are narrow. Though fire incidents have been reported in some of the big temples in Tamil Nadu, this was unprecedented for the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple.

Has there been damage?

As the flames reached the ceiling, gobbling up all plastic materials, the temperature shot up. When water jets reached the ceiling and tall pillars that were already hot, they started to show cracks. Portions of the side wings of the ceiling and a few pillars came crashing down. Twenty one of the 42 shops in the Veeravasantharayar Mandapam were gutted. The side wings suffered the maximum damage but the main roof remained intact. Ten to 12 pillars of the structure, which has 46 in all, will have to be replaced. An area of 15,000 square feet has been damaged, according to Karumuttu T. Kannan, administrator of the temple. The day after, the area was cordoned off and people were not allowed to use the East Tower as there was fear of the stone structures coming down. Props were put in place to support the ceiling and pillars. Pujas were not stopped, and devotees visited the temple through the other towers.

Are fire safety measures in place?

The temple has fire extinguishers but they are of no use when flames hit the ceiling. Longer hoses are required to put out fires in the interiors where vehicles cannot enter. There is no fire safety drill either for employees or devotees. The nearest fire station is a few kilometres away. Fire/emergency exits have not been identified in big temples like the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple. Another constraint is the non-availability of adequate water. The situation becomes difficult owing to the presence of plastic materials, camphor, oil and ghee in a temple. As a first step to ensure safety, the temple administration has decided not to allow shops in the complex.

Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, after an inspection of the site, said the government would form a committee to protect temples from disasters. Construction of special fire stations at places of cultural importance would also be considered. Collector K. Veera Raghava Rao announced a 12-member team, led by Arun Menon, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, to assess the damage and assist in the restoration.

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Printable version | Jul 14, 2020 7:39:05 AM |

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