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Tamil Temple Towns: Conservation and Contestation

The project arises from pressing issues of contested heritage in the great, living temple complexes at the heart of rapidly growing cities in Tamil Nadu.


We are examining two contrasting temple cities of Tamil Nadu, Madurai and Kumbakonam, to address current concerns over the ways in which some functioning temples are being restored. Guidelines must take account of the prescriptions of ancient Sanskrit ritual and architectural treatises, still much revered though not sufficiently understood.

The project aims to provide an authoritative body of research to inform inclusive and sustainable guidelines for heritage conservation and management in the temple cities. We are trying to build up a well-researched history of the architecture, urban settings, and phases of renewal of the representative temple structures, and to articulate the different narratives and perceptions about these sites. The nature of recent restorations are being evaluated. Sanskrit texts are being studied for an overview of their relevant instructions, and to show how their theoretical concepts relate to the actual practice of temple design and conservation.

Aims and objectives

The overall aim is provide an authoritative body of research to inform inclusive and sustainable guidelines for heritage conservation and management in the living temple cities of Tamil Nadu, India, focusing on Madurai and Kumbakonam.

  • Present a substantive understanding of the architectural and urban evolution of the temples and towns in question, including historical restorations and reconstructions.
  • Develop a diachronic overview of the religious and ritual use of the spaces concerned.
  • Articulate the varied perceptions and narratives concerning these spaces and structures.
  • Understand material nature of the recent restorations and interventions in the temples and temples neighbourhoods.
    Analyse the (often overlapping and conflicting) sacred townscapes linking the main temples to other structures and spaces.
  • Identify, collate, translate and interpret the available Agamic and Shastric injunctions on temple repair and restoration in their broader textual context.
  • Analyse the relationship between textual theory and actual practice in temple construction and renewal, historically and today.
  • Create digital models to encapsulate research findings, to provide data for architectural analysis, and as a tool to elicit and express the multiple viewpoints of the community and stakeholders.


The project arises from pressing issues in the great, living temple complexes at the heart of rapidly growing cities in Tamil Nadu. These are at once historic architectural treasures, thriving places of worship, ritual and festivals, centres for varied branches of culture, and hubs for the economy, tourism and pilgrimage.

Tourism and pilgrims

Tourism is increasing, but the main growth in numbers is from domestic tourism and pilgrims. New roads, low-cost airlines, and social media presence have enabled an increasing number of pilgrims to visit these sacred sites, especially at annual festivals when the numbers can overwhelm temples and their urban settings.

In some temples, ancient shrines and gateways have been demolished and rebuilt, high enclosure walls raised or ‘straightened’ and new columned halls erected. At busier temples, metal fences have been erected in the granite floors to control pilgrims’ movement, or marble slabs cemented over thousand-year old inscriptions. Indiscriminate sand-blasting of medieval stonework has resulted in the disappearance of traces of rare seventeenth-eighteenth century mural paintings or damaged relief sculptures. It is the lavish degree to which some temples have been transformed that aroused the dismay of government archaeologists and some communities of devotees, while other voices uphold the primacy of religious use over archaeological concerns.

Agamas and Shilpashastras

Apart from established conservation laws and guidelines, another (potentially conflicting) mediating force is the continuing authority of ancient Sanskrit religious and architectural texts (Agamas and Shilpashastras), which deal with temple renovation as well as ritual and design. The authority of these texts, seen as divine in origin, is vested in the Brahmin priest-scholars (acharyas), but also in the (often rival) figure of the hereditary architect (sthapati).

Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department

The network of stakeholders is complex. A central player is the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department (HR&CE), established by the state government in its present form in 1960 to oversee temple maintenance and administration, traditionally the domain of priests. Said to be the world’s largest heritage custodian, it controls over 36,000 temples. Alarmed by a spate of insensitive restorations, groups of devotees have recently brought court cases against HR&CE. In this context, the Madras High Court instructed UNESCO in 2016 to evaluate the conservation activity taking place. UNESCO (Delhi) commissioned the heritage organisation DRONAH, led by Shikha Jain (Co-I), to conduct a fact-finding mission. Our project arose form the need for an academic study to underpin policy and guidelines.

Funded by

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)/Newton Fund, in partnership with the Indian Council for Historical research (ICHR). Start date: 2018


The project is a collaboration between The Welsh School of Architecture, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), The School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) Bhopal and DRONAH Foundation.

Project leads

Professor Adam Hardy

Professor Adam Hardy

Emeritus Professor

+44 (0)29 2087 5982
Professor Oriel Prizeman

Professor Oriel Prizeman

Personal Chair

+44 (0)29 2087 5967