Saturday, February 06, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Language of Stone Spells R-u-i-n

Rabindranath Tagore said of the Sun Temple at Konark, "here the language of stone surpasses the language of man." I have to say, I think I disagree.

The Sun Temple was built in the 13th century by King Narasimha Deva I, and celebrated a resurgent Hinduism. It is in the form of a chariot – Surya’s own rath drawn by his seven horses. Its twelve pairs of intricately carved wheels also act as sundials that chart the sun’s daily progress across the skies. But the really amazing thing about the temple is not the 2,000 and more artisans’ work – exquisite though it is – or the 12 years and more it took to build, or even the drain it proved to be on Narasimha Deva’s exchequer: such demonstrations of faith and power were par for the course where temple-building was concerned.

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 Gujarat is being lectured by a guide. Almost everyone wants to be photographed against the wheels. One man yanks at a stone elephant’s trunk.

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.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


*For more about the restoration story see this and this.


Laxman said...

Though the temple was in need of restoration when i had visited it in the late 80s, still it looked imposing and majestic. The ASI had not taken over the restoration work yet, if my memory serves me right, and there were not those iron scaffoldings. And after 20 years, recently i went there thrice. The deterioration seems to have set in very fast in these more than twenty yeras, so much so that at some places it looks like a heap of stones and beyond reclamation.

km said...

SB: Broken record here, but I'm really enjoying these columns.

So even the Konark Temple has not gone untouched by the Angels of ASI?

I've talked about it before on my blog and commented on some other blogs too. Does the ASI not care about the resulting fugliness of their work or do they just lack any appreciation for architecture?

Falstaff said...

"Broken record here, but I'm really enjoying these columns."

Broken columns. Sunlight.

What more can one hope for?

km said...

@Falstaff: I see what you did there :D

What more can one hope for?

I don't know, restored columns and moonlight?

aditya dev said...

you romantic you!