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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Court orders eviction of encroachments around Sangam era temple tank

A temple tank in the Temple City of Madurai is set to see the light of the day as encroachments around it barring access for the float festival are ordered to be evicted by the Madras High Court branch. Koodal Azhagar temple is a majestic abode of Sri Vishnu and one of the 108 Divya Desams that was sanctified by the Vaishnavite saints known as Azhwars.

It dates back to the Sangam era and the reference to it can be found in Sangam literature as well. Finding mention in Paripaadal, Madurai Kanchi, and even Silapathikaram the temple and it’s presiding deity were sanctified by 4 Azhwars. This temple, apart from a tank inside the temple complex, has a vast temple tank at one of the busiest roads in Madurai, Town Hall road. But its presence can be known only by the fact that the roads on the east and west side of the tank are known as Perumal Theppam East & West road respectively.

There are said to be 195 shops around the tank that were initially just hand-pushed carts and slowly started being concretized into permanent structures with tin sheets with the tank wall as one of the walls. Gradually more shops started cropping up and the whole tank was hidden by the array of shops and except for the Mandapam in the middle of the tank, in a dilapidated state, the tank had all but disappeared. Apart from usurping the temple property, vendors began using the tank to let out wastewater and dump garbage. This resulted in the annual float festival being conducted only after the Shuddhi puja is performed every year.

In the past when the river Kirudhumal used to flow it is said that river-water fed the tank. After the river ran dry canals were built from the nearby water bodies to draw water to keep the tank filled. However, with all the inlets being blocked now and wastewater from the shops being let inside, the tank has become a drainage pit.

In 2011 taking it up suo moto based on an Indian Express news report about the neglected temple tank the Madurai bench of Madras High Court appointed an Advocate. It said that commercial establishments around the tank should be shifted to an alternative location as they marred the beauty of the tank.

The HR and CE Department was directed to file a report, along with photographs in a few days. The court also issued a directive to the State Archeology Department in 2013, to submit a report on whether the tank can be notified as an Ancient monument under the Tamilnadu Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act, 1966 as reported by The Hindu.

It also reported an HRCE official as saying, “In the past, there were proposals to build a bazaar-like the ‘Paalika Bazaar’ in Delhi near the tank and to sink borewells inside the tank to supply water to residences of nearby areas, but they never took off. Our priority is to clean and restore the tank now,”.

People who have been living nearby and frequent the area often don’t remember the tank ever having water. Even when the streets around the tank are flooded in the rainy season the tank doesn’t retain water for more than a few days. 

The tank is spread over a sprawling 1.74-acre land and said to have hosted a grand floating festival in the month of Masi (March-April) every year. The State archeological Department found beautiful sculptures around the tank wall and had estimated the renovation cost to be around ₹ 34 lakhs back in 2017. At that time 53 shops were said to have been removed from the south side of the tank which revealed the steps. While it was estimated to be the biggest eviction drive in Madurai, due to incessant appeals by different parties, mostly shop owners, it has taken 6 long years to evict 93 shops, that too in the same south side.

The names of the shops and appellants reveal what is hindering the process of renovation and a possible angle of land jihad.

  • Naseem, a sub-tenant of one Sultan, who had encroached the temple tank filed a Civil Revision Petition in the MMHC which was dismissed with a cost of ₹ 10,000 in July 2019. Another petition filed by Naseem was dismissed in 2017 as his counsel wasn’t present during the hearing.
  • Again in September 2019, the same person filed a special leave petition asking for a settlement which was also dismissed.
  • One Jahir Hussain, on behalf of the shop owners, filed a writ petition in the Madurai bench in 2014. HC squashed the eviction notice issued by the Assistant Commissioner, HRCE citing lapse in the procedure.

Fighting all these legal hurdles the eviction drive has begun and nearly 95 shops on the south side of the tank have been demolished. Meanwhile, the corporation officials have planned to divert rain-water flooding the streets elsewhere towards the temple tank as the Vaigai river no longer has water to be drawn from.

The civic body has constructed storm-water drains to bring the stagnant rain-water to the tank. As they are on a roll to restore temple tanks in order to pull back the abysmal level to which Madurai’s groundwater table has fallen, and devotees are hopeful that the temple tanks will be renovated to have the Teppam (float) actually float on the water instead of just being carried around.

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