Rajat Sharma

Centre must open up all ASI-protected temples for prayers

rajat-sir As controversies continue to rage over the Kashi Gyanvapi mosque, Krishna Janmashtami Eidgah in Mathura and the existence of temples around Delhi’s Qutub Minar, came news on Tuesday that the Centre is contemplating amendment to a 1958 law, to allow prayers in more than one thousand Hindu temples protected by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), located at different heritage sites across India.

At present, no prayers are allowed in any religious shrine located in ASI-protected monuments under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The Act clearly bars offering of prayers by devotees in religious shrines located inside these ASI-protected monuments. This was done 64 years ago to preserve and protect ancient monuments which were of national importance.

The amendment to this law, for which a Bill may be brought in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, may allow access of devotees to these ancient religious shrines. Prayers may now be allowed in these ancient temples. There are nearly 3,800 ASI-protected monuments in India, most of them in dilapidated conditions. Out of them, there are more than 1,000 ancient Hindu temples. These temples many now be opened up for prayers and ‘aarti’ by devotees. The Centre feels that the objective behind framing the 1958 law was not fulfilled, and many such old shrines and monuments are now in dilapidated condition.

Since the ASI had banned entry of devotees and offering of prayers, there have been fewer visitors and these shrines were not being properly maintained. If devotees are allowed to perform prayers in these old temples, the benefits will be two-fold: One, large number of devotees will come to these temples and two, people can help in ensuring maintenance of these shrines. Sources in the Culture Ministry say that many Hindu temples located inside forts and historic monuments are disintegrating, and the only way to preserve them can be by allowing prayers in these temples. Local residents can pitch in with their efforts in ensuring that regular maintenance is done, since the ASI is short of staff. Most of these temples are in desperate need of restoration.

The shining example of such a situation is the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, which came into headlines in 2011, when the Supreme Court appointed observers to open the secret vaults of the temple to prepare an inventory of assets kept inside. It was then claimed that more than Rs 2 lakh crore worth gold and other costly items were inside the vaults, but in 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the Kerala High Court verdict and ruled that the administration and control of the temple shall vest with the erstwhile Travancore royal family. Every year lakhs of devotees now visit this temple and the earnings of the temples have increased.

There is another example of the famous Shiva temple Jageshwar Dham in Uttarakhand. Thousands of devotees visit this ancient temple, and the shrine is now well maintained. In view of this, the Centre has decided that many such ancient temples, protected by ASI, should be opened up for prayers by devotees. This will help their maintenance. Temples under ASI protection are now being categorized, where the structures are intact but the idols of gods and goddesses are broken. Some temples have the main idol missing. The Centre will renovate these temples and open them up for devotees. New idols will be installed in these temples.

In the third category are those shrines, where the structure is dilapidated, there are no idols and the temples are in ruins. Such temples will remain under ASI protection, and can be developed as tourist places. Temples inside forts built by Hindu rulers, which have proper idols, can be opened up immediately for prayers. Work has already begun in this direction, and after the law is amended, prayers in these old temples can be resumed.

In Kashmir, the J&K Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha had offered prayers at the 8th century ASIS protected Martand Surya temple in South Kashmir. He took part in the Navagraha Ashtamangala Pooja at the ancient sun temple. The Lt. Gov. described this event as a “divine experience”, but the ASI said no permission was issued for this event. The Martand Surya temple was destroyed by Sikandar Shah Miri, the 6th Sultan of the Shah Miri dynasty of Kashmir. Later, several earthquakes caused more ruins to the remains of this temple. This temple will also be renovated and may be opened up for prayers and devotees.

Similarly, in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, is an ancient Mahabharata period temple on the shores of the sea. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and there is no permission for prayers at this temple. In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had visited this temple. In Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu stands the Vijaya Choleswaram Temple, where the ‘shivling’ is considered highly sacred. This temple is also now in ruins. There is the Rudra Mahalaya temple in Gujarat, which is an ASI-protected monument, and is in dilapidated condition.

I think, opening up of ancient ASI-protected temples for devotees and prayers, is a welcome step. It is a serious step in preserving our rich religious and cultural heritage. The conditions of nearly 3,800 ancient monuments, protected by ASI, are there for all to see. In Delhi, you will find boards proclaiming old structures as ASI protected monuments, but nothing is being done for their maintenance. Take the example of Tughlaqabad Fort, or the ancient monuments at Begumpur village in South Delhi. Old heritage sites in Hauz Khas, Delhi, are also in ruins.

ASI officials say, taking proper care of old monuments is a costly affair. Support from experts is required, and the ASI is always short of funds and staff. I think, the first step must be taken to open up the old temples to devotees, so that local residents can pitch in and carry out regular maintenance. This can bring more earnings for the ASI. Thousands of people visit Agra Fort and Taj Mahal daily. There are reports of the Centre thinking of setting up a Museum for old, ancient weapons inside the historic Red Fort in Delhi. This can raise the daily footfall of tourists. Opening up of the Kartarpur route has helped both countries. This will surely not compromise the sanctity of shrines. There are people who can try to rake up Hindu-Muslim issues, but the Centre should go ahead and open up these ancient temples. Courts are fully competent if disputes arise.

In a simultaneous development, the Saket court in Delhi on Tuesday reserved its order for June 9 on a petition filed by advocate Hari Shankar Jain on behalf of Jain deity Tirthankar Lord Rishabh Dev, claiming that 27 Hindu and Jain temples were partly demolished by Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak, and Quwwatul Islam mosque was raised by re-using the material for Hindu and Jain temples. The ASI opposed the suit, saying Qutub Minar “is not a plce of worship and the existing status of the monument cannot be altered”. The lawyer for ASI told the court that the “fundamental rights cannot be availed of in violation of any status of the land.” ASI said, “any such move will be contrary to the provisions” of the 1958 Act.

The Additional district judge Nikhil Chopra asked the plaintiff how can legal remedy for offering prayers be sought for an act that was committed 800 years ago. He asked, “What is the legal right? Question is if the right to worship is an established right and if there is any denial of right, under what legal remedy can the petitioners claim a legal right of restoration “for something that happened 800 years ago?”

In another move, Delhi Waqf Board on Tuesday wrote to the ASI demanding that Friday prayers at the Quwwatul mosque be restored because the mosque is a waqf property and five times namaaz were being offered there since “time immemorial”.

The advocate Hari Shankar Jain told the court about the ASI plaque put outside the Qutub Minar which says, Quwwatul mosque was built after demolishing 27 Hindu and Jain temples, and reusing the material. There can be no doubt about this claim. But the ASI’s stand is that when it got control over Qutub Minar in 1914, no pooja was being offered at the complex, and hence the status and character cannot be changed. The ASI advocate said that the right to perform prayers could be a fundamental right, but not an absolute right.

On the contrary, the fact remains that namaaz was being offered even 11 days ago, till May 13, at the Mughal masjid, and when ASI realized that the dispute could escalate, it stopped offering of namaaz at this mosque too. Sher Mohammad, the imam of Mughal masjid, claims that for the last 46 years namaaz was being offered at the mosque, and he did not know why it have been prohibited now. Asked why material from 27 demolished Hindu and Jain temples were used to build the Quwwatul mosque, the imam gave an interesting reply. He said, that those who built the mosque did not demolish the temples, “they purchased the debris (malba) and built the mosque. Since idol worship is not permitted in Islam, many of the broken idols or artwork were brushed off while using them for the mosque”.

Whatever the imam may say, it is a historical fact that 27 Hindu and Jain temples were demolished before Quwwatul mosque was built. Already a Delhi civil court had quashed an earlier petition seeking permission for prayer in Qutub Minar complex, and now, judging from the observations made by Additional district judge, and the stand taken by ASI, it is certain that this fresh petition may also be rejected. But this does not mean that it will put a full stop to the controversy. And this is not the final dispute. Gyanvapi mosque and Mathura Janmashtami Eidgah disputes are also before the courts.

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