Conservation of temples in Tamil Nadu is severely lacking and hence needs to be addressed before the damage is permanent.
Krithika Sivaswamy is a Chennai based Entrepreneur, Bharatanatyam Dancer and a History enthusiast. Hailing from a family of Shrautis, Adhvaryus and Classical Arts connoisseurs, she is privileged to have had early exposure to this rich culture. She has set out in an attempt to bring to the mainstream, the glory of Tamil Nadu, it's exquisite temple heritage, ancient Vedic traditions, fine arts and as well as the dangers it's facing today.
After the Madras High Court questioned the conservation techniques which led to a standstill of the entire effort by HRCE department, Shri Madusudanan Kalaichelvan, an architect, professor and lead conservationist in several expert panels throws light on the actual status. He also talks on the responsibilities of every section of the society towards the upkeep of our magnificent structures.
KS: What exactly do you mean by conservation? What does it involve?
MK: With technical differences, the more superior practice is conservation than restoration. Fundamentally, the vision is long term. If a temple’s Kumbhabishekam is performed once in 12 years, it does not mean maintenance of the structure has to follow the same timeline. There may be few architectural aspects that need periodic care. Conservation is retaining the structure the way it was built, whenever there is a need for repair or restoration, following the steps that were taken when it was primarily built or if there is a lack of material or skill, researching to obtain the closest possible technique that will not evidently show the difference. When it comes to architectural wonders like our temples, conservation is the best-prescribed solution. It is a highly technical and skill-oriented job. One has to be a master of many aspects such as art history, architecture, structural and civil engineering, material sciences, project management & finances to lead a full-fledged conservation work.
KS: We know that HRCE, the government body controls most temples in Tamil Nadu. Why is it that we don’t see any permanent expert panel for such professional work?
MK: As everyone knows, temple administration is the scope of HRCE. Maintaining the temples architecturally, structurally, conducting programs, looking after law and order inside the temple space comes under them. One of the components is also the conservation of temples. As a society, we have not been into the habit of “conservation”. This is a joint failure. Keeping aside Tamil Nadu, the whole of south India does not have an academic institute that offers a course, including top engineering or architecture colleges. We would mostly have six to seven institutions in the entire country with such programs. This is in a country which has 2300 years of built heritage. HRCE did not take conservation as seriously as it should have, until recently. It is well known that some of its works which required a lot of aesthetic components, ended up being extremely poor. Appointed engineers did not know the importance of inscriptions on the walls. Need for conservation came to the forefront when serious mishaps happened. It created a space to talk of conservation rather than renovation, and in some places a combination. A requirement for sensible solutions came up. It also created a lot of awareness among people ultimately making the courts come down heavily on the department. A panel which consists of conservation archaeologists, members from ASI, Sthapathis, Saiva and Vaishnava Agama experts has been now formed.
KS: What are the issues conservationists face on ground?
MK: Foremost is the challenge of every member on the expert panel to be in sync and work in unity. Apart from this, temples are a community’s “Kula Daiva” for over a thousand years. Emotions run very high in such cases. Explaining the need for conservation becomes a difficult task for the officials as we have situations where restrictions are required on certain practices due to the age of the structures. With more than 38,000 temples and many scarcely visited by people, the ability to discharge the responsibility of constant maintenance becomes harder. In many situations, aesthetics and practicality are divergent, leading to non-cooperation among devotees and experts. Frankly, it’s a bit far fetched to expect all the executive officers of HRCE to understand the heritage value of these ancient temples. Renovation also becomes a loophole for a few administrative officers to loot. All these pose a great hindrance to actual conservation.
KS: While identifying poor work, what all can you give as examples.?
MK: Anyone who steps into an ancient temple can notice new vitrified tiles on the floors, glazed tiles especially in all the places where Abhishekam is performed, exposed electrical wirings which have not only destroyed the aesthetics but have greater danger in places like the Madapalli and Mantapas. Such type of work has been done since the 90s. But thankfully, due to awareness now, a government order has been passed to stop it and manuals are being created.
KS: What is sandblasting and what was the serious consequence of using this technique?
MK: It is a method where fine sand particles are forced under high pressure to remove oil deposits. The idea of using it was initially to clean huge walls, both with and without inscriptions, across the entire temple structure with ease. It was later found that the method was removing a thin layer of the granite wall. About 0.5 mm of reduction was found to be a dangerous trend and more with ones that have sculptures and inscriptions. It has now been banned across all temples, and water wash is being used. Volunteers called the Uzhavarapadai (One started by saint Appar for cleaning etc of temples) are also being trained on handling walls with inscriptions.
KS: Coming to the role of ASI, initially I was personally under the opinion that they carry out a perfect job. But there have been instances of devotees questioning the intention behind restricting rituals like in Mamallapuram, Hampi. This leaves me with this thought, can't conservation and worship coexist? Does the ASI create dead monuments out of living temples? What exactly is the problem that people see in an ASI takeover?
MK: This is untrue. ASI has no ulterior motive. Virupaksha temple in Hampi, Brihadeeshwarar Temple in Thanjavur, Kailashanathar Temple at Kanchipuram are perfect examples to burst this myth. Indifference and lethargy may be present with few officials in the ASI, but there are certain technical issues people have to understand. The prescription in the Agamas takes into account the wear and tear of the Murti. Anything that has come into practice in recent times in addition to what has been prescribed in the Agamas, are the ones which can pose a danger to the delicate structure. I can quote an example of raising a Pandhal for Utsava by the devotees by tying ropes to the ancient and fragile sculpture on the pillar, something which ASI prohibits. Whom do you support here? ASI’s system of conservation is time tested and the best. But since their norms cannot be completely adapted to our South Indian temples, creating a new methodology is under progress. It is an attempt to strike a balance.
KS: I would like to talk about the state of paintings in the temple premises. Most of the ancient ones have vanished, new ones are extremely poor in design and color, Gopurams and other temple walls with chemical paint. Who takes responsibility to maintain the vintage look?
MK: We do not have as many painting as inscriptions in our temples here, most of them have been lost over time due to their organic and fragile nature. Repainting is not safeguarding them. Recreating complex paintings is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, we don’t have professional Chitrakar (painters) with colour and aesthetic sense who handle temples today. Chitrakara Sutras have become more of a research material than being practically applied. Rather, board artists handle it, hence you see average work being carried out. If you take the material used for painting, enamel paints pose a danger to lime’s breathing capacity on the walls. Water soluble paints are the closest, but Agamas recommend “Pancha Varna” (five colours) which can be difficult to obtain as the exact shade isn't possible while mixing water-soluble paints. About the intricate paintings on the walls, the department has stopped it due to the poor quality of the art.
KS: You mentioned the sorry state of the education system today that has no courses on conservation, on our ancient art and science such as Shilpa Shastra, etc. Do you see any genuine attempt in reviving it?
MK: Something that many won't know is that HRCE has its own academic institutions. For temple-oriented activities such as performing arts (Nadhaswaram and Thavil), Thirumurai Vinnappam, Agama Patashala, etc. If you take the mainstream education, we don’t see a B.Arch course with content from Shilpa or Vastu Shastra as these are still a traditional knowledge system with the Vishwakarmas. But it has been in decline for the last 100 odd years. The need to take it up by our regular education system has come up now. A lot of private colleges have it in heritage clubs or as electives. But this is not enough. We should be taking the Sthapathi and the structural engineer on a common platform to bring out an academic scheme that imbibes the best of both.
KS: My concluding question is on the responsibility that a devotee should take. What do you suggest we as devotees do?
MK: All I would like to say is that devotees are very much part of the entire temple system, we should cooperate with the authorities in maintaining the sacred space. We from our part could make sure we don’t scribble love quotes and roll numbers on the walls, practice only prescribed rituals which are not in violation with the Agamas and pose a threat to the structure in place, and mainly learn to appreciate the heritage value. A temple is a divine abode, a place for our ritualistic and artistic exploration together.