Litigants turn accidental conservationists

Running errands in a historic neighbourhood one day, I chanced upon two properties, each having expansive grounds overrun with untamed greenery. A closer look revealed what appeared to be dilapidated but firmly rooted mansions with strong colonial architectural influences. An inquiry at a near by tea shop revealed that both were British era residences endowed to a temple.  The residences were locked down and off limits to the public because of an ongoing litigation. Unable to fish out more details on the history of the residences from the locals, I turned to history groups on Facebook and a couple of lawyer friends. In a few days, crowdsourcing helped me trace to some extent the history of these unnamed heritage structures.

Unnamed colonial structure Chennai
Heritage residence from late 1800s, Madras

Both the properties, let’s call them Thomas and Soori, belong to Ekambanathar Swami Temple in Kanchipuram. Thomas sits on 1.7 acres of land just east of the well known Seetha Kingston House School – a recognised heritage structure in the city. Soori sits on 2.75 acres of land east of Thomas. All the three pieces of land, including that of Seetha Kingston House School were donated to the temple, most probably in the mid or late 1800s. I could not trace the ownership of Thomas and Soori beyond the temple. The temple is run by a trustee board, however all temple operations and financial transactions are overseen and controlled by an Executive Officer (EO) appointed by the state government run Endowments Department. The temple leased out the land on which Thomas sits to a party in 1898 for a period 99 years. The land on which Soori sits was leased out by the temple to a business man and his partners in 1899 for a period of 99 years at Rs. 39.34 per month. While Thomas was constructed well before the land was leased out, Soori was commissioned by the business man and later sub-leased to India Posts. The new construction and sub-leasing were in violation of the original lease contract with the temple.

Colonial residence from the late 1800s Madras
Unnamed heritage residence

After expiration of the lease in the late 90s, the lessees of both Thomas and Soori decided to stay put and refused to vacate. Perhaps they were deeply entrenched in the maternal bond they developed with the land over the period of 99 years. The EO filed two separate civil suits, one against each lessee, to recover the properties. It is rumoured that the temple board had intentions of mowing down the existing structures and entering into a commercial joint venture to promote a mall or business complex.

Seetha Kingston House, Madras
Seetha Kingston House School, Kilpauk

After hearing the cases of the parties involved and deliberating for more than 14 years, the lower court ruled in favour of the temple in both the law suits and asked the lessees to handover the properties back to the temple along with a hefty compensation for arrears and damages caused to the land during the period of occupation. But in the domain of law, the first verdict is not always the final verdict. One always has a chance to go for an appeal, even if he or she is an anarchist like the Joker.

If the Joker could go for an appeal why wouldn’t our lessees? Thomas’s lessee filed for an appeal in the Madras High Court to reject the initial judgement on the grounds that an EO is not an authorised or a designated authority to file a civil suit. While Soori’s lessee filed another appeal in the Supreme Court to revoke or modify the baseless compensation terms forced upon them by the lower court. It’s been about a decade since both the the appeals were filed and court proceedings are still in progress. Delivery of a judgement is not in sight until 2020 at least. None of the contestants may lay claim or occupy the land as long as there is an appeal or petition awaiting judgement in the higher courts.

It’s funny how the sluggish judicial system and unscrupulous business men have managed to both dilapidate and preserve these beautiful structures at the same time. A more interesting scenario would be one in which the higher courts deliver judgements in favour of the temple, and then, almost immediately, the Indian National Trust for Architectural and Cultural Heritage enters the story with a public interest litigation to protect the heritage structures from temple board’s potential commercial venture.

Related resources
Madras Local History Group
Thomas’s lower court judgement and appeal
Soori’s lower court judgement and appeal

Other resources
Historic residences of Madras by Sriram V
Thatikonda Namberumal Chetty – Master Builder by Sriram V
Madras Musings Archive Vol. XIX No. 8, Aug 1-15, 2009

Photographs of Thomas and Soori were take from outside the properties from across the street. Photograph of Seetha Kingston House School is from this source. The names Thomas and Soori are fictional names given to the two unnamed residences. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is purely coincidental.

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