The Sree Vadakkunathan Temple in Thrissur, Kerala, is on the tourist map of the world for its annual festival. The Thrissur Pooram is a spectacle, with captivating pyrotechnics, elaborately caparisoned elephants on parade and 200 percussion artistes on trumpets, cymbals and the chenda. Last month, the temple won India the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Excellence for the cultural heritage conservation of its architecture.
Unlike most other projects, the credit doesn’t go to one firm or person alone — this seven-acre temple complex has always been by the people and for the people. “From the donor to the craftsmen and the many stakeholders, there was a deep respect for the spirituality of the place. Somewhere, it brought back the old traditions of temple building in India, where the place was more important than the person. In our country, quite often we do not know who actually built some of our greatest monuments that still survive. This project brought back some of those values,” says architect Vinod Kumar, 43. His firm DD Architects was the local project coordinator and had to liaise with the Archaeological Survey of India-Thrissur (ASI), the donor, craftspeople, vaastu experts, temple priests, and temple owners, Cochin Devaswom Board, to make the conservation a success.
The Vadakkunathan Temple is protected under the Archaeological Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act-1958. Dedicated to Shiva, the complex is known for its rich Kerala architecture, its centuries-old murals and intricately carved wooden sculptures. Though periodic maintenance was done, the nearly 1,000-year-old multi-shrine complex was in need of repair. The ASI had been working on the conservation of the temple kitchen, the murals, the wood carvings and the south and west gopurams (gateways) since 1997. It was only in 2005 that the Director General, ASI Delhi, gave permission to Venugopalaswamy Kainkaryam Trust (VGKT), Chennai, the donors, for its overall conservation. Kumar and his team were roped in to manage the conservation of the main temple and the external shrines across the 65-acre grounds.
“Rituals were an important part of the restoration process,” says Kumar. “Astrologers were involved in deciding the time and how the work would progress. The main temple priest started the work of odilakkal — removing the first tile. At every step, the work was nourished through rituals, from the anujna, getting the permission of the deities, to the final kalasam ceremony that marked the completion of the work,” says Kumar. From peeling away withered lime plaster to treating termite-ridden wood and replacing copper-lined roofs, every shrine needed work. “We used traditional lime plastering for walls, with a paste of herbs, lime and jaggery. We did not want to use cement because it contains chemicals and also has a shorter shelf life. Lime plastering is organic and lasts longer than cement. Even for the wood in the main temple and the shrines, especially for the rafters and the beams, we used a traditional herbal oil prepared by the carpenters to treat wood, both old and new,” he says.
They had to be particularly careful about the teak wall plates in the main temple. Nearly 200 foot long, the entire wood had corroded and beneath it sat a Shiva mural, which is worshipped and therefore, could not be touched. It took nearly six months of permissions and a lot of guts, before work could begin. It was the head carpenter who finally gave the team the confidence of dismantling and restoring the rafters without any damage to the mural. “I have mostly been involved in modern design projects such as residences and office interiors. Working for the temple project for 10 years, being able to interact closely with traditional craftspeople, observing the process in detail has been a great learning experience. It is a whole new language and vocabulary of design that is not taught in modern architectural schools,” says Kumar.
The ASI had been preserving murals through chemical treatments. “Soot from lamps, and smoke and dirt from the annual Pooram firecrackers have damaged parts of these. We do organic treatments for the cracks and flaking that have developed,” says T Sreelakshmi, superintending archaeologist, ASI. Under their guidance, work in the external shrines were mapped and documented by DD Architects. Wooden sculptures were marked, photos were taken and drawings made before being dismantled so that they could be returned to their places once the construction was over.
The copper-lined roofs in these shrines intrigued the architects enough to research how copper could have landed on Kerala shores around the 12th century. They found their answer in a study on trade between Europe and Kerala. Copper was common in European cathedrals, and an agreement between the Kochi king and Portuguese traders brought shiploads of copper in exchange for pepper. Kumar, of course, only had to source it from Mumbai.
The temple, which has not only adapted a new element like copper to its traditional materials of laterite, lime and wood, has also been a hotspot for events outside religion. The Illanji tree that sits in the temple quadrangle has seen many festivals and ceremonies. Kesavan Nambudiri of Theatre Connekt says, “Besides the annual Pooram, where even non-Hindus are participants, the space in and around the temple has been host to many political conventions, especially during the time of EMS Namboodiripad and even recently for VS Achuthanandan. It is a place of debate and discussions for authors, film actors and theatre people, who are regulars to the complex. There has always been a powerful and harmonious camaraderie among people from all walks of life especially because it’s in the centre of the city.”
Thrissur is Kerala’s cultural capital with the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, the Lalithakala Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi headquartered here. If the Sanskrit theatre of Kutiyattam was born here, Thrissur has also hosted the annual international film festival since the last 10 years. The UNESCO award acknowledges that “the tangible attributes of the temple are inextricably linked with its intangible heritage which dates back generations, thus ensuring that ‘spirit of place’ resonates throughout the site.” Kumar is, therefore, planning a site museum where old and damaged parts of the temple building can be displayed. “In Kerala today, we see traditional buildings being pulled down and being rebuilt in concrete, wiping away any history of the original structures. We hope such a museum will make people aware of the values and principles behind traditional practices,” he says.
In his essay in Design magazine (October-December 1988), musicologist Walter Kaufmann writes: “The only good reason for conservation is not aesthetic, but a concern for posterity. This involves seeing oneself as a mediator between the past and present, and a link in a momentous tradition. In that, one feels responsibility both to one’s ancestors and one’s descendants and wants to make sure that the work that shaped us and our parents will still be there to shape our children’s children.”
The conservation of the Sree Vadakkunathan Temple stands testimony to that.
The story appeared in print with the headline If The Spirit is Willing