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CHENNAI: Any alteration to the structure or artefacts in a temple is traditionally governed by the agama shastra, a collection of ideas that defines the rules for temple worship, rituals and maintenance. However, this tradition is no longer sacrosanct as a UNESCO fact-finding team visiting the Madurai Meenakshi temple found, with the recently renovated temple tank having two types of pillars – one with the original carved images and the other, built more recently, made of plain rock.

In an effort to evolve guidelines for heritage professionals, a two-day workshop on “Agama shastra and heritage conservation” was conducted by UNESCO in collaboration with the Hindu religious and charitable endowment department (HR&CE) in the city on Friday and Saturday to discuss the role of agama in the maintenance and conservation of temples. At least 200 priests, mostly in their traditional attire, spoke about the agama shastra followed by them, which varies from temple to temple. Experts in the agama shastra from the Vaikhanasa, Saiva and Sakta schools expressed their insights on the ‘jeernoddhara’ (maintenance) of idols and architecture in the temples.

Sreeharar Bhattar, a temple priest from Sydney, said although every temple should function on the basis of its agama shastra, this was no longer happening. “Many governmental and other agencies intervene in the matters of the temple without referring to its agama shatra. The traditional knowledge system is widely neglected in many cases, which is a tragedy,” said Bhattar, a native of Tamil Nadu.

“Most temples follow agamic injunctions in matters relating to the temple and only a few texts are available for study and verification. It thus becomes essential for engineers, art conservators or archaeologists working on Hindu temples to understand the rules of agama and reconcile the same with their respective professional standards and practice. Scholars well versed in agama shastra are however limited and this ancient knowledge of temple construction and renovation is not readily accessible,” said a report released by the UNESCO fact-finding team during the workshop.

The event was part of UNESCO’s technical support to the HR&CE department for the review of its current practice of heritage temple management, on the invitation of the Madras high court. Senior archaeologist R Sathyamurthy said agama should be taken seriously. “The idea of the workshop was to create broader awareness about agama shastra with the focus on conservation and renovation of temples and idols through dialogue among scholars, heritage administrators and temple priests. It was a great success. But this is just a beginning. We have a long road ahead,” he said.