With people in the country becoming financially capable to boost tourism, the tourists are increasingly looking for ‘new’ sites to visit. Tourists often end up searching for amazing destinations and what better destination to visit than a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Brihadisvara Temple, a Hindu mandir dedicated to Mahadev Shiva located in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur on the southern bank of the Cauvery river too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And while the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation has boosted tourism here, it hasn’t turned out to be a spectacular experience.
What makes Brihadisvara Temple significant?
Locally known as Thanjai Periya Kovil, Brihadisvara temple is one of the largest Hindu temples and is also amongst the oldest surviving temples. It was built by Tamil king Raja Raja Chola I between 1003 and 1010 AD, and is over a thousand years old.
Brihadisvara is made of two words — Brihat (big or vast) and Ishvara (Shiva). This marks the temple’s significance as one of the most important Shiva temples. For nearly ten centuries, the temple kept functioning as a Shiva temple should function. But 1987 was a landmark year, as the temple got designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What does UNSECO Heritage Site designation mean?
It basically means that a monument or a city is a protected site, due to its importance on the basis of any one of ten selection criteria including historical, cultural or architectural significance.
The World Heritage designation commits the home nation to protect the designated location. If the site begins to lose its value due to natural disasters, war, pollution or lack of funds, then nations that have signed the World Heritage Convention must pitch in to help.
So, upkeep is the main factor here. The management body of the heritage site also gets generous funding from the UNESCO, which is the biggest socio-cultural preservation institution in the world.
Also, the Geneva Convention applies and no adverse party can attack a heritage site. So, for example, if India and Pakistan were to go to war, India is bound not to attack Mohenjo-daro, a heritage site. And similarly, Pakistan cannot attack Taj Mahal, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Why is the UNESCO World Heritage designation problematic?
The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur was designated a heritage site by UNESCO in 1987, along with the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. Together, the three temples are called “Great Living Chola Temples”. So, the original identity was blurred and the new identity simply doesn’t retain the Sanskrit origin of the term — ‘Brihadisvara’.
But there is a bigger issue at play. The thing with UNESCO World Heritage designation is that it is centred totally on tourism. What the designation does is protect cultural, archaeological and architectural importance of the location, while also boosting tourism. In fact, one of the unintended consequences of UNESCO protection is extreme tourist development.
But temples in Hinduism are much more than just architectural and archaeological wonders. They represent the living deity and we simply cannot reduce temples into picnic spots.
Once UNESCO designation comes in, the temples are reduced into tourist hubs. In case of the Braj region (Mathura-Vrindavan), Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath recently backed local demand to make the area alcohol-free and non-veg-free. Way back in 2012, meat was banned in holy towns of Kurukshetra (where the Bhagavad Gita was revealed) and Pehowa in Haryana.
But once an area becomes a tourist hub, banning meat or alcohol becomes a difficult task. So, you have restaurants selling non-veg cuisines within a kilometre of the iconic Brihadisvara temple.
And when a temple is reduced into a picnic stop, you have people doing what they like — norms get blurred and people can come in wearing jeans, pyjamas, shorts and other such attire. You are not really left with a dress code. And while some devotees will wear traditional attire out of respect, not everyone will be courteous enough.
In 2019, Trichy police even arrested a 28 year old youth, Mujibur Rahman, for posting obscene pictures he had got clicked with sculptures of women at the Thanjavur Brihadisvara temple complex.
As per an HT report, police sources disclosed that the act of sacrilege came to light after the accused posted the pictures and selfies on Facebook, in which he could be seen kissing, hugging and inappropriately touching some of the female idols and sculptures.
The Brihadisvara temple complex has become famous due to the UNESCO designation. But, we need to remember that a lot has been lost to gain the ‘Heritage status’.