Protests broke out in Thanjavur district on Friday outside the Brihadisvara temple where Sri Sri Ravishankar's Art of Living Foundation (AOL) was set to hold a two-day event. Over 30 members of the Tamil Desiya Padhakaapu Yekkam gathered outside the UNESCO world heritage site to oppose permission given to conduct a private event at a place of worship. In addition to this, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been filed at the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, seeking that the event be cancelled.
The two-day 'meditation camp' organised by AOL has been given requisite permissions by both the HR&CE and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It is set to begin on Friday evening and close to 800 people are expected to attend the discourse on Kashmiri Shaivism. A large temporary pandal has been set up in the temple 25-acre property. Opposition for the event began on Thursday, soon after the structure was noticed by journalist Ar Meyyammai, who posted pictures of it on social media. Sources in the temple tell TNM that setting up a structure disrupting the path taken by devotees to pray is disrespectful to the place of worship.
The PIL filed in court too argues that allowing for such an event to take place in a temple, will affect its sanctity. The petitioner reportedly points out that AOL has been held responsible for damage to the banks of Yamuna during a three-day event near Delhi. The case is expected to come up for hearing on Friday afternoon. District police, meanwhile, tell TNM that protesters began gathering at the site at around 11 am and that adequate security has been deployed in the area. Protesters are allegedly against temple lands being utilised for the event.
The AOL Foundation, however, alleges that the opposition to the event could be politically motivated. They are further ready to begin the event at 6pm.
"Sri Sri Ravishankar is apolitical but he is linked to the BJP for no reason. These protests seem to be a targeted campaign with political viewpoints in mind. This is just a perception issue,” says Raji Swaminathan, Media coordinator, Tamil Nadu. “We have got all the necessary permissions and even now, the ASI has said we can go ahead conduct the event. The temple land has been used for private events before. As far as the National Green Tribunal case is concerned, this event has no connection whatsoever with that one," she adds.
In 2016, the National Green Tribunal slapped a fine of Rs 5 crore on the foundation over damages to the environment caused by the controversial World Culture Festival which was held on the banks of Yamuna in New Delhi. An expert committee set up by the government in 2017 stated that the event had completely destroyed the floodplain and that it would take 10 years to restore it. Despite the backlash from environmentalists, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attended the event and heaped praised on the spiritual leader.