[Editorial] Conservation of the Sun Temple

About the temple:

  • The Sun Temple of Konark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in coastal Odisha.
  • It is a 13th century temple that forms a part of the ‘Golden Triangle of Odisha’, along with Bhubaneswar and Puri.
  • It is an example of Kalingan architecture and built using Khondalite rocks.
  • It is attributed to King Narasimhadeva I of the Eastern Ganga dynasty.

What is its conservation story?

  • The temple has a 120 year conservation history.
  • In 1900, after Lt Governor Sir John Woodburn visited the temple, efforts were taken to restore it.
  • By 1901, the mammoth structure was unearthed by archaeological Surveyor T Bloch. These efforts revealed the sheer splendour of its intricate carvings and size of its structure to the world.
  • In 1924, the Earl of Ronaldshay proclaimed it to be “one of the most stupendous buildings in India, which rears itself aloft, a pile of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay”.
  • Following this, over 11 reports were prepared by various authorities- most of which simply gathered dust.
    • The 1st report, from Bishan Swarup (an engineer who worked on the temple site between 1901 and 1904), noted that the temple edifice is on the verge of collapsing. This led to the structure being filled with sand. Apart from this, the report gave detailed suggestions for the temple’s upkeep- which were simply forgotten.
    • In 1950, a committee headed by Chief Minister Biswanath Das gave several recommendations- none of these were implemented either.
    • The 3rd committee was constituted in 1953– again under Das’ chairmanship. Its recommendation for erecting a scaffolding was implemented.
    • In 1978, the ASI formed the Konark Expert Committee which took a serious view of the problem.
    • In 1979, the UNESCO Expert Recommendation on Conservation of Konark was given to the Indian government.
    • Structural conservation was done between 1985 and 1990, following the collapse of 5 stone blocks from the main temple. Scaffolding was also provided for some of the vulnerable sections of the temple.
    • In 1987, after the temple was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site, UNESCO appointed a committee headed by Sir B M Fielden and P Beckman. They noted the temple’s alarming state and called for immediate measures.
    • In 1997, the Italian expert, Ing Giorgio Croci undertook a structural analysis of the ‘Jagamohan’ of the temple. Jagamohan is the assembly hall in the temple.
    • There have been recommendations for the removal of sand from the temple. One of the suggestions was to use endoscopic cameras, introduced through drilled holes, to assess the temple’s interiors.
  • The large scale plantation of poonang and casuarina trees (in 1906) was made to check the abrasive action of sand laden winds. However, these trees were destroyed by the 1999 supercyclone.
  • Authorities have tried planting cashew nut trees. However, these trees don’t grow very tall and only offer little protection from the winds.
  • Currently, the Jagamohan is the only fully intact structure in the temple.

What is the current condition?

The temple is a victim to several factors:

  • Stone erosion has already blunted the carved figurines’ fineness and has affected the soft stone.
  • Salt damage– given the coastal location of the temple
  • Abrasion by sand laden winds
  • Humidity promoting algal and fungal growth
  • Fissures have formed and some of the stone slabs are breaking off
  • As the entire compound has been paved with stone blocks, rainwater percolation is impeded. This has resulted in the temple suffering water logging every year.

What is the recent proposal?

  • The ASI announced that it is working on a roadmap to remove the sand from the temple’s interiors. This is in reference to the sand that was used by the British administration to prevent the temple’s collapse, 118 years ago.
  • The target of this proposed move is the Jagamohan. The ASI is looking to remove the sand as a 2019 study had warned of possible damage arising from the sand settling down and creating a 17 foot gap between the sand layer and the structure.
  • Following this study, there have been 2 proposed solution:
    1. Filling the 17 foot gap with fresh sand
    2. Or removing all the sand and properly restoring the structure

Background:

  • This idea was floated in 2020 at a national conference on Sun Temple conservation. The Union Culture Minister had directed the ASI to work out the modalities for removing the sand.
  • The ASI then formed a 4 member committee to study the structure and determine a safe method for sand removal.

Highlights of the proposal:

  • According to the preliminary proposal, a 6×6 foot window is to be created on the western side of the structure in the 1st phase. This is to be created near an existing opening from the British era.
  • This window will allow authorities inspect and document the walls and the interiors. This will help them lay out a course of action for conservation.
  • Another opening is to be made at the bottom of the Antarala (inner sanctum)- again for inspection, documentation and further planning.
  • A working platform is to be established over the Antarala.
  • After these steps, tenders are to be floated for the actual excavation process.

What is the way ahead?

  • The temple was originally much closer to the shore and its pagoda was visible over such long distances that ancient mariners used as a navigation point in their maps.
  • Why the famed temple is disintegrating so rapidly is still unclear. Some posit that the main temple was never completed and the collapse may be due to bad foundation and settlement. Others postulate that the temple has been beaten down by natural disasters like earthquake and cyclones.
  • According to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), it is among the best looked after monuments in India. However, its conservation over these 120 years have been quite uneven.
  • Simply acquiring a heritage tag for a historical structure is insufficient as a conservation measure. The tag imposes a greater responsibility and cultural accountability.

Conclusion:

With its 750 years of history, the Konark Sun Temple represents the culmination of temple architecture in Odisha. Even in its state of disrepair, it is a stunning example of religious art that attracts pilgrims, tourists and art and history lovers. It deserves efforts for its proper conservation- as opposed to band-aid solutions.

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