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Explained: When are prayers allowed, not allowed at protected archaeological sites?

A look at the ASI rules that disallow worship at some monuments under its purview, and why religious rituals are allowed at some other sites.

Written by Divya A | New Delhi |
Updated: May 12, 2022 12:33:03 pm
L-G Manoj Sinha at the site

After prayers were held at the ruins of the eighth-century Martand Sun Temple in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag last week, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has expressed its concern to the district administration while refraining from lodging a formal complaint.

The ASI, which functions under the Ministry of Culture, is the custodian of the protected monument. It deemed the incident to be a violation of its rules. A look at the ASI rules that disallow worship at some monuments under its purview, and why religious rituals are allowed at some other sites.

The rules

According to ASI officials, prayers are allowed at its protected sites only if they were “functioning places of worship” at the time it took charge of them. “No religious rituals can be conducted at non-living monuments where there has been no continuity of worship when it became an ASI-protected site,” an ASI official said.

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Of the 3,691 centrally-protected monuments and archaeological sites maintained by the ASI, a little less than a fourth (820) have places of worship, while the rest are considered non-living monuments where no new religious rituals can be started or conducted. The sites that have places of worship include temples, mosques, dargahs and churches; the highest numbers of such monuments are in Vadodara (77), followed by Chennai (75), Dharwad (73) and Bengaluru (69).

Although the Martand Sun Temple was once a thriving place of worship, commissioned by Lalitaditya Muktapida in the eighth century, it was destroyed by Sikandar Shah Miri in the 14th century. As such, at the time the ASI took over the temple ruins in the 20th century for conservation, no puja or Hindu ritual was being held there. So, when puja was conducted on the temple complex twice last week — first by a group of devotees and then in the presence of J&K Lieutenant-Governor Manoj Sinha — it was a violation of ASI norms since the temple is considered a non-living monument, ASI officials said.

The living monuments

The best-known example of a living ASI monument is the Taj Mahal in Agra, where namaz is held every Friday. Officials of ASI’s Agra Circle officials said namaz is offered in the mosque on the Taj complex, but this is only by local Muslims who have to display an identity card, and who have been directed not to start any new ritual or tradition. “Namaz has been offered here for the last 400 years and this is not a new tradition,” an official said.

Other notable living monuments include the remains of an old Hindu temple inside the Dayaram Fort in Hathras, three mosques in Kannauj, Roman Catholic Church in Meerut, Nila Mosque in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, Bajreshwari Devi Temple in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba, and several Buddhish monasteries in Ladakh.

As per the ASI’s Srinagar Circle, under which the Martand temple falls, there are only nine monuments in the region where worship can be allowed — such as Kathua’s Billawar temple, Sankaracharya temple, Pathar Masjid in Srinagar.

Authorised and unauthorised

There are also several protected temples and mosques where worship is allowed on special occasions, ASI officials said. For instance, at the ancient Brick Temple in Kanpur’s Nibia Khera, a maximum of 100-150 devotees are allowed during Shivaratri Mela every year.

Incidentally, many protected monuments are already witnessing “unauthorised worship”, according to ASI records. These include Lal Gumbad, Sultan Ghari’s tomb, and Ferozeshah Kotla, all in Delhi.

From time to time, there have also been attempts at holding prayers inside several other monuments. Just last week, Agra police stopped a seer from Ayodhya who wanted to visit the Taj Mahal to perform shudhikaran with mantras.

And in 2018, a controversy erupted after three women were caught on video offering prayers at the Taj Mahal, in the wake of a dispute over offering namaz on the premises of the monument.

Permission or not

Many have sought to defend the participation of the J&K L-G in the puja at the Martand Sun Temple, by citing the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules 1959. Rule 7(1) states: “No protected monument shall be used for the purpose of holding any meeting, reception, party, conference or entertainment except under and in accordance with a permission in writing granted by the Central Government.”

The ASI has, however, clarified that no written permission was sought by the district administration for the puja.

The puja was conducted not inside what was once the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, but on an open platform on the complex.

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