Rabindranath Tagore said of the
What is really amazing is that no kind of mortar or cement was used to construct the temple. It appears to have lasted eight centuries on perfect balance and muscular faith.
It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that the temple is now in ruins, after a lifetime of conquests and plunder. I was warned to expect many carvings to have lost their sharpness, but nothing prepared me for the scale of the damage: of the many buildings that once surrounded the main temple, only two remain - the Nata Mandir at the entrance and the Bhog Mandap at the rear.
At the Nata Mandir, I notice what I would see again and again all over the temple*: cracks that have been sealed with a pinkish-red mortar injected under pressure; fallen stones that have been replaced so that sculptures of graceful forms sometimes end abruptly in blank stone. Of the two horses that remain, only one is whole; the second horse stands on what is effectively a crutch and looks indescribably obscene.
The inside of the main temple has been inaccessible for decades. A sign outside says that to preserve the structure from collapsing, the interior has been filled in. Even the steps that lead to the upper levels, through which one could look down, are now blocked. This is where the final shock is administered: two sides of the temple are under repair. With the ASI in charge, this means a network of steel scaffolding that looks more permanent and indestructible than the temple ever could have done.
Apparently, this is how a World Heritage Site must be preserved.
But to move on to another aspect of the horror story: on the day I visit, several classes from a Kendriya Vidyalaya are also there on an educational trip. Crocodile lines crawl over every path. The air is unruly with the chatter of a few hundred children armed with tiffin boxes, water bottles and badminton rackets. Elsewhere, below the erotic sculptures, a group of young men are hiding their embarrassment by posing as superheroes, nudging each other and giggling. A group of tourists from
A little away from the temple, a big banyan tree has spread. I sit on a stone under its shade and consider the temple: many stones and sculptures have been transported to a museum nearby; the more recently fallen ones that are lying about are closely guarded. What is left is being preserved as if against its will.
I can’t help wondering why the attempt is being made. It might make sense to acknowledge that beyond a certain point, restoration is not just pointless but impossible. What’s being done in the name of protecting heritage only seems to have advanced the depredations of time and the weather. The ‘language of man’ is pernicious and extreme and surpasses the speech of the stones.
I imagine what the temple could be: a silent place that no one visits, flanked by reclaiming forest and receding sea, free to stand in the sun. It might be the one way to restore to the temple something of the grandeur it once had and which it still attempts to hold on to amidst the crowds.