For more than 20 years, temples have been the mainstay of architect SB Kalyanasundaram’s business. Carrying on his family’s traditional profession, his firm has built over 50 temples in Tamil Nadu, and restored several more that had fallen into decay.
“Temple architecture is a field of knowledge on its own,” said Kalyanasundaram. “There are various texts, or sastras, that teach the principles of temple architecture, right from whether the site is suited for temple construction, which direction the idol should face, to how tall the temple gopuram should be. Only after studying this can a temple be constructed accurately.”
Modern-day courses at government colleges in Mammallapuram and Kanchipuram try to do the same job as ancient sastras – instructing students in traditional architecture, sculpting and painting. But rarely does that classroom know-how translate into practice. When temple donors, or even the government, wish to restore ancient structures, they often do not look to the sastras or to the graduates – instead, they employ regular building contractors and construction workers.
“This results in poor workmanship in many of our historic temples,” Kalyanasundaram said.
This isn’t a complaint of Kalyanasundaram alone or of temple architects like him – a fact-finding mission by Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural organisation, reviewed the nature and quality of temple renovation in Tamil Nadu, and concluded in July that poor conservation work had damaged some of the state’s most historic shrines.
“The quality of conservation works at the temples assessed during the mission varied to a large extent with some good examples, some mediocre works and some truly shocking scenes of demolition and massacre of historic temples,” the report said.
The fact-finding team visited 10 prominent temples in Tamil Nadu in May and June, including the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. Nowhere was conservation norms for documenting, assessing and carrying out heritage work followed systematically: “There is no empanelment of experts…or qualified heritage work contractors for such specialised works, said the report.”
Part of the blame was directed by the fact-finders at the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Charitable Endowments Department, the government agency that administers the majority of the thousands of small and big temples in the state. Conserving these many structures is an onerous task – one which the department does not have qualified experts for.
The Unesco team discovered temples where walls had been cleaned by “water-washing and sand-blasting”. “These practices were banned by the Madras High Court in the early 2000s since it erodes the inscriptions on the walls,” said Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project, a group that works to return stolen artefacts to India.