Last week, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik wrote to Union Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma alleging irregularities in the way the Archaeological Survey of India is going about the restoration of Konark Sun Temple. What is the ASI procedure for restoration, and why has this project turned controversial?
Carvings in stone
In his letter, Patnaik cited a regional news report that claimed 40% of the artistic stone carvings have been replaced with plain stones. While the state government plans to take up the matter with the ASI Director General and set up an expert committee to look into the matter, ASI sources claimed that under UNESCO conventions, ASI cannot replicate original representations (carvings). Odisha Tourism Minister Ashok Panda, however, has countered that these rules were broken during conservation activities on Humayun’s Tomb, which was carried out by the Aga Foundation. On its website, the Aga Foundation’s India chapter website says: “The (conservation) plan (on Humayun’s Tomb Complex) was implemented by master craftsmen using traditional tools, craft techniques and building materials”.
Built in the 13th century, the temple in Puri district is modelled as a solar chariot, with 24 carved wheels and pulled by six horses, while various sculptures adorn the outer surface of the temple. UNESCO, which gave it the status of a world heritage Site in 1984, describes it as “the invaluable link in the history of the diffusion of the cult of Surya, which originating in Kashmir during the 8th century, finally reached the shores of Eastern India”. The temple remains a site of contemporary worship, during the annual Chandrabhaga Festival.
ASI conservation policy
Conservation of such sites is governed by the Culture Ministry’s National Policy for Conservation of the Ancient Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Remains (2014). Under the policy, “a monument or an archaeological site should be subjected to a minimum — whilst only necessary — interventions so as to maintain its authenticity and integrity”. While the policy allows reproduction and retrofitting, it states that any such activities should “be clearly discernible as a later alteration / repair / restoration, etc., to be able to clearly identify them from the original fabric of the structure”. It states: “Nonetheless, in certain cases, where a monument is being restored with the intention of merging [a new intervention] with the original fabric, for the sake of maintaining architectural integrity, work must be done very carefully by matching the original material / details in terms of form, colour and specification preferably through the use of same material and employing traditional skills as used in the original fabric. Such interventions should, as far as possible, be reversible in nature. The decision for achieving such objectives should be carefully recorded and documented for posterity.”
Ameya Bhushan Tripathy, Odisha convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), cites the above paragraphs to claim that reproducing of carvings is indeed permitted, if due care is taken. He has demanded that carvings on Konark should be restored by the ASI. INTACH has consultative status with UNESCO and conserves monuments not under the ASI’s wing. One of its senior members said INTACH attaches more importance to “revival of ancient craftsmanship that went into the ornamentation of such structures”.
“We therefore encourage reproduction of carvings atrophied over time taking every precaution that the replacement is a facsimile of the original. However, the decision to restore a particular tablet or a painting is subjective,” the member said. “For example, we may know an eroded carving or sculpture or painting was once that of the Buddha, but we will not attempt reproduction unless sure of the exact mudra. These decisions are subjective, complex and best handled through international committee of experts, scholars, historians, conservators and funding agencies.”
Replacement of blocks
Conservation architects agree that the ASI can replace stone blocks if the originals have eroded in thickness and are impacting the structural integrity of the temple. If some ancient carvings are lost in the process, restoration is a complex and subjective decision that only ASI can take, if it has prior information on the nature of that carving, down to the last detail. They add that the information should be available if ASI has taken photographs of every square inch of the temple over the decades.