The accident at Kalimedu village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, where 11 people were electrocuted during the temple chariot procession in the early hours of Wednesday (April 27), has put the spotlight on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) put out by the Hindu Religious and Charities Endowment (HR & CE) in 2012.
Despite these SOPs, temple car accidents continue to happen, signalling that many temples across the state are either unaware of the existence of such guidelines or are not following them.
The Kalimedu accident, it is being said, happened when the gopuram (tower) of the 23-feet high chariot of the Thirunavukkarasu Apparswamy temple came in contact with a high-tension wire. Moreover, the road on which the procession was passing had recently been upgraded to a two-lane road. But, before laying the road, milling was not done, increasing the road depth (this leaves the road at a greater elevation, thereby bringing the temple car in closer contact with the electric wires).
It is to be noted that last year, during the floods, when water entered houses, state chief secretary V Iraianbu had ordered that when maintenance or re-laying works were carried out on existing roads, proper milling had to be done so as not to increase the laid depth of the road.
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“The temple authorities had got only oral permission from local authorities to conduct the procession,” a village resident told The Federal. “Also, following the construction, potholes had formed on either side of the road and they gave no room to run. Further, devotees were splashing water on the chariot as part of the ritual, which led to more deaths,” said the resident who was on the spot when the accident happened.
‘Temple not under HR & CE’
The 150-year-old temple was built in honour of a popular Saivite saint Appar, who is believed to have lived between 570 and 670 CE. He is said to be one of the oldest of 63 Nayanars (poet-saints who worshipped Lord Shiva).
“The people here worship the saint more than Lord Shiva,” said TR Ramesh, a temple activist from the district. He added that the temple is not under the control of HR & CE and it was run by the locals.
“Every year, across the state such accidents happen,” he said. “There are two reasons for these mishaps; one, temple cars have become old and two, high-tension wires passing through therodum veedhi (the streets where the temple car processions take place) are raised with a stick so that the cars can go under them. It is a very risky process. Such wires should be laid underground,” he added.
Ramesh said that according to agama shastras, the temple chariots should be constructed only with wood. But nowadays a lot of iron is used and that could be a reason the temple cars are often meeting with accidents.
“The famous big temple cars, like Thiruvarur and Srivilliputhur, are only made of wood. In big temples, the budget allocation and revenue are high and hence they are maintained properly. But in smaller temples, where the revenue is low, the temple cars are made of iron” he added.
Lack of awareness of SOPs
Though this is the first major temple car accident in several years, it is certainly not the first. On May 2, 2012, a similar accident happened at Arulmighu Balasardhuleeswarar temple in Vellore district, killing five people. Just a day before, a temple car toppled in Tiruvannamalai district, again killing five.
Following a series of accidents, the HR & CE had come up with safety guidelines for temple car processions. According to these, every temple car should have an accident and third-party insurance. The wheels of the cars should be replaced with iron instead of wood. The cars should have a hydraulic braking system and this should be inspected by BHEL officials. The path of the procession should be properly maintained and the power passing through high tension wires must be put off during the procession. Besides, the temple authorities should get a fitness certificate for the temple car from the public works department.
But when The Federal contacted some members of the temple authorities, they were unaware of the SOPs.
An integral part of TN culture
Dr K Kandan, former professor and head, Department of Sculpture, Tamil University, Thanjavur, has said in his paper that temple cars of Tamil Nadu are noted for their structural variety and iconographical excellence. “The most striking feature of these cars is their embellishment with iconographical masterpieces at the plinth level. Each and every car houses not less than 300 icons,” he informed.
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In Tamil Nadu, 45,980 temples are there. According to 2013 data, there are 989 wooden cars in 809 temples that are under the control of HR & CE. Besides, there are 65 golden chariots and 49 silver chariots, as per 2021-2022 policy note of the department. The temple car processions in the state are usually carried out four times a year during the Tamil months of Panguni (March-April), Chithirai (April-May), Vaikasi (May-June) and Aani (June-July).
“There are nine parameters — like the width of the street, height difference between ground and the electric wires passing overhead – that have to be considered before making a temple chariot. Also, temple authorities should carry out maintenance of the chariot six months before the date of the procession,” said renowned sculptor Appar Lakshmanan.
He added that the government should appoint permanent sculptors in temples which have chariots. “All the temple chariots running now were made by sculptors who imbibed engineering knowledge traditionally. But now, temple authorities are entrusting the maintenance works with engineers. Engineers lack knowledge about the intricacies of a temple car. Currently, there are about 200 sculptors in the state who have deep knowledge and understanding of building and maintaining these cars,” Lakshmanan said.
In 2021, the HR & CE had announced that it would take up maintenance works of 73 temple cars but how far has it been implemented is not clear.