Architectural conservation – An Indian perspective

Protection, restoration & conservation of ancient structures are seen as foreign. Aspects of indigenous protection, available in plenty, still await their approval by modern conservation specialists.

Published: 13th April 2022 12:36 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th April 2022 12:36 AM   |  A+A-

temple, gopuram

Image used for representational purpose only. (File Photo)

Temples of south India have been a true repository of religious, art and cultural glory. Conceptualised and developed over hundreds of years, a big chunk of the history of ancient Tamil culture is best studied from the temple corridors. Protecting the shrines from collapsing and ensuring that the suggested method of conservation does not create more mess are two major parts of temple conservation. However, words like protection, restoration and conservation of ancient structures are all viewed as foreign in nature, and manuals and methodologies suggested by western scholars are referred to. Aspects of indigenous protection, though available in plenty, are still awaiting their approval by modern conservation specialists.

Jeernodhara Dasakam, a work comprising of ten verses and a detailed prose commentary authored by Nigamagnana, a great Saiva Siddantha acharya of 16th century CE, details out the nuances of conservation of Siva temples with strict-adherence to agamic traditions. Nigamagnana is believed to have been a resident of Tiruvannamalai town when this work was authored. He invokes the blessings of Ganesha installed in the gopuram constructed by the Sambhuvaraiyar kings. As a prelude, he refers to the Agamas, a compendium of supreme knowledge and an ancient system of traditional spiritual know-how passed on over generations. He goes on to describe the importance of religious towns and suggests devotees to spend two-thirds of their income on charity. The importance of conserving ancient temples is emphasised by enlisting it as one of the five noble acts of devotion towards Siva.

In the initial verses, the author enlists the bad effects that dilapidated and unattended temples can have on the city or settlement. Renovation activity is classified into three categories covering three different areas—the temple structure, the Sivalinga in the sanctum and other images of Siva installed and worshipped. Structural renovation is again classified into six types—repairing the floor and walls of sanctum sanctorum (like levelling the stone slabs, etc.), major structural renovations that would require a makeshift shrine being built, conservation of corridors, repair works for cloistered halls or mandapas, preservation of sub shrines in the temple complex and issues relating to Vaastu.

A detailed analysis on finalising the material palette for conservation speaks about the wide range of subjects the priests had mastered. Introducing a new material to an existing structure is generally prohibited in modern-day practice. The author from 16th century looks upon it as an unhealthy practice and insists that its best avoided. A new material shall not gel with the existing structure and would cause severe damage to the structural stability. So Nigamagnana prescribes the use of the same material and also advices to carry on repair works wherever necessary. In cases like when the plastering on walls are worn out or the painting has faded, it is enough to repair those respective parts alone.

In situations like dilapidation of the complete structure, the manual suggests that the deities are carefully shifted to a makeshift shelter where the daily rituals alone are conducted. The temple is completely reconstructed again with the same material without altering the sizes and proportions of the spaces. But interestingly, in case of a complete reconstruction, the author gives us the leverage of changing the material to a more superior one than the previous structure. That is, in case the initial temple built with bricks got dilapidated, it can be replaced by a better and more durable material, stone masonry for example. This should have been the rule that helped several kings of south India, especially around he t10th century, when several ancient temples, sanctified by the visits of saint poets like Nayanmars and Alwars were demolished and rebuilt in stone. Under such circumstances, the dimensions of the structures have also changed and new spaces and shrines should have been added.

Conservation activities are suggested to be completed within 12 years from the time of starting. In case of untoward incidences like fire accidents, an architect and priest—both well versed in the agamic texts—should carefully inspect and assess the site. If the sanctum sanctorum is damaged, the shrine becomes unfit for worshipping and hence immediately the divinity in the deity is to be transferred through suggested rituals to a representative icon. It can be a poorna kumbha, a sword, a painting on a piece of cloth or on a wall, holy sandals of the deity, a mandala, etc., in which the sanctity of the main deity is transferred and installed in a shrine until such times the damaged structures are conserved and brought back to life.

Ancillary spaces like ponds, wells and tanks also have prescribed methods of conservation. Apart from frequent services being done, the quality of water needs to be monitored and flood drains are to be checked and desilted. Repairing damaged steps to temple tanks promised high merits to the donor. Restoration and conservation of kitchen spaces, halls and gopurams are all covered extensively in the Agamas. Translation of several of these traditional works has also been published. It is now for us to consider these as indigenous works of traditional knowledge and start consulting them for our needs. After all, local issues need local solutions.

Architect and conservationist interested in Indian heritage and culture


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