January 23, 2020
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Don't Blame It On Cement

Veteran archaeologist R. Sengupta defends the ASI's conservation efforts at Elephanta Caves

Don't Blame It On Cement
INDIAN art lovers have cause to be worried. After Sir Bernard Fielden, director emeritus of the International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), wrote to the World Heritage Council (WHC) to delist the Elephanta Caves as a heritage site because of faulty repairs, they wonder whether the Ajanta-Ellora Caves are next in line.

The onus for repairs is on the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). But is its policy of conservation and restoration of cave-temples really faulty and without justification? The method of restoration of rock-cut architecture by the ASI has been successfully used for the last 40 years in India and Afghanistan. Earlier, the Ele-phanta Caves were renovated with stone but the ASI had to change its policy in 1956 because it was not doing the monument any good. (Initially, the Ajanta-Ellora Caves and the Bagh Caves in Gwalior—taken over by the ASI in 1953—were also touched up in stone without the desired results).

Renovation of the Ajanta-Ellora-Elephanta Caves was undertaken in accordance with a set of principles the ASI evolved in 1956, which broadly complies with the internationally-accepted Venice Charter formulated in 1964. Reports on repairs on the Ellora Caves and on Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddha colossi were published in the ASI bulletin, Ancient India, in 1961 and in UNESCO's Asian Culture in 1976 and later even in the International Council on Monuments and Sites' magazine, Monumentum, in 1984. The WHC must have scruti-nised all aspects, including the ASI's policy on restoration, before enlisting the monuments. So why is Fielden now saying that the ASI has blundered in using cement to restore these cave temples?

The ASI's policy is generally in tune with the provisions of the Venice Charter. Take Article 10 for example: "When traditional techniques prove inadequate, the consolidation of a monument can be achieved by the use of modern technique...the efficacy of which has been...proved by experience." Or Article 12: "Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original...." Thus, at the Elephanta or the Ajanta-Ellora Caves, the use of stone does not conform with Article 13 as it forbids additions which would detract from the traditional setting and surroundings of the natural formation of rocks.

True, the newly added feature—a cornice—seen in the photograph of the report (Controversial Conservation, Outlook,March 13) must be replaced with something which fits with the natural rock hood to keep off the rain water. But the restored pillars, with the distinguishable concrete portions, carry the enormous superimposed load of layers of rock whose portions had fallen off earlier. Due to its homogeneity and mass, cement was found aesthetically suitable because it "integrates harmoniously" with the architecture.

Fielden himself has recommended camouflaging new work to match with the old surface in his book, Guidelines for Conservation, under the subhead 'Staining of Stonework': "By mixing boiled water of acacia with cement, powdered murum (granules of rock) and cowdung one can obtain the requisite colour."

Another requisite in restoration work is that the material used should be replaceable—so that it can be taken off when it decays and applied afresh. The old churches of Goa have a lime-cement plaster on the walls which are replaced with a fresh coat every 10 years. Of course, in the case of cement pillars, restoration is an elaborate process—the pillars have to be replaced en masse because there is no product which can substitute cement to a satisfactory degree. But ICCROM is searching for an alternative.

Nobody will disagree with Fielden's suggestion that the ASI needs "a complete reorganisation"—which is long overdue anyway. If the ASI wants to function as the custodian of national monuments, it has to root out laxity in supervision and other ills. Meanwhile, the WHC could organise an international seminar to sort out the dispute over the conservation. But an attempt to delist the Elephanta Caves from the World Heritage List is certainly not the best way to go about it.

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