February 15, 2020
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Eclipse Over Konark

The ancient chariot of the Sun God is racing against the devastating rigours of time, with little help from conservationists

Eclipse Over Konark

"Those who are critical and difficult to please, they stand astonished at this sight"—Abul Fazal, on the sun temple of Konark.

"There is no monument in Hindustan which is so stupendous and so perfectly proportioned as the Black Pagoda and none which leaves so deep an impression on the memory"— Historian Sir John Marshall.

THE sands had covered the sun temple of Konark for over two centuries, till it was dug out in the early 20th century and emerged into the sunlight in all its glory. Sadly, today the sands of time are once again etching their indelible mark on the unique monument.

A marvellous metaphor of time and space, the temple was conceived as a chariot of the sun god, Surya—a massive khondo-lite chariot, drawn by seven horses and with 12 pairs of intricately-carved wheels, that graces this quiet spot on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, 65 km east of Bhubaneshwar. The exquisite carving and architectural splendour of the temple built in 1253 AD by Narasimhadeva I of the Ganga dynasty gained the monument global fame. In 1985 the 700-year-old monument received its due: it was declared a World Heritage Site.

The Black Pagoda, created in the ancient Kalingan style of architecture, is divided into three major sections, the natya man-dap (dance hall), jagmohan (porch), and garba griha (sanctum). A luxuriance of sculptured figures of animals, gods, goddesses and erotica cover the outer walls. And the temple's 210-ft-tall shikhara (spire) is believed to have been one of the tallest in India. While the natya mandap and jagmohan remain standing today, the same can't be said about the main temple.

THE ancient temple is decaying, victim to advancing stone erosion and weathering which have already blunted the fineness of the carved fig-urines and taken their toll on the soft stone. Salt action, wind, humidity, algae and fungal growth have all contributed to the damage. Fissures have appeared in the walls, stone slabs are breaking off and the stone figures, as they erode, have lost much of their pristine beauty.

Chunks of masonry have fallen off at regular intervals. On September 19, a two-tonne cornice stone on the northeastern side of the jagmohan fell off onto a ledge below, according to locals. The piece had been observed hanging precariously the day before it actually fell and the ASI had been informed, says P.K. Routray, former chairman of the Konark Notified Area Council (NAC). But a defensive ASI staff denies the incident. T.J. Alone, deputy superintendent, ASI, Orissa, claims that the broken stone dates back to 1968 when Debala Mitra, former ASI director general, wrote her authoritative work on the sun temple. The damage, he insists, is clearly visible in the photographs in her work. However, even a minute study of the pictures in Mitra's book failed to turn up evidence of the broken cornice stone. Alone says that the huge stone rests in a safe position, presenting no threat to anyone. He also insists it isn't evidence of the deteriorating condition of the structure of the monument itself. The stone slab, by the way, is yet to be replaced.

Another large cornice stone at the back of the jagmohan, joined with epoxy mortar by the ASI in 1977, remains propped up by ugly scaffolding. No measures for any permanent restoration have yet been initiated. The rot is not restricted to the walls of the ancient monument. Theinterior of the jagmohan has been sealed off ever since 1901, when conservation work on the monument was seriously taken up for the first time. The walls were shored up from the inside and the interior was filled with sand to prevent imminent collapse—such was its tenuous state.

Conservation methods to halt the damage do not seem to have been particularly successful. Warns Dr K.S. Behara, head of the history department, Utkal University: "I won't say that conservation work isn't being undertaken but what's being done is piecemeal and lacks the unanimous backing of experts."

Back in 1950, an expert committee of Parliament, set up under former Orissa MP Biswanath Das, had suggested that a study of the humidity component inside the sealed porch of the temple was crucial in order to determine the soundness of the structure. Nearly five decades down the line, the recommendations of the committee are yet to be adopted.

 Controversy has dogged attempts to restore the jagmohan. At a meeting of experts, convened by the ASI in Puri last November and which UNESCO representatives also attended, Konark was declared a 'project monument' and 23 recommendations were made for its conservation. Foreign experts were of the view that a hole should be drilled on the top of the jagmohan so that someone could be lowered into it with videography equipment to record the state of the interior. Further, they said, the sand filling should also be scooped out immediately.

Thereis, however, no consensus on how exactly to proceed. Though the committee finally decided that video cameras and temperature recording devices would be inserted through vents in the walls to study the interior, more than a year has passed without any action being taken. The ASI claims it cannot go ahead with 'dubious' repair techniques on the fast-decaying temple unless a UNESCO report is submitted.

ONE reason why no major steps are being taken by the ASI officials is for fear it might lead to the total collapse of the crumbling temple. Testing of the soil and load-bearing capacity of the stone have recently been undertaken by the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Rourkee, and the Geological Survey of India. It's work that CBRI engineer A.K. Sharma feels should have been taken up 50 years back. "Ours is a lengthy and expensive process," he asserts. "Conservation is an ongoing process but routine maintenance is carried on every year," is all Alone would say.

The fact remains that no comprehensive conservation treatment of the temple is being undertaken on an annual basis. As of now, the work being done is more on the lines of maintenance rather than preservation or reconstruction. Currently, algae and fungal growth are treated with ammonia and teepol and are being cleaned with nylon brushes. But this work is done on selected portions of the outer walls and on a piecemeal basis, depending largely on the allocation of funds. This year, work is yet to be taken up.

UNESCO has offered to contribute $40,000 (about Rs 16 lakh) to the project, says A.K. Mohanty, the conservation assistant for ASI, stationed at Konark. Rs 10 lakh of this amount has been released. But how far it will be utilised is yet to be seen. According to ASI sources, over Rs 20 lakh was surrendered by the ASI circle last year, as the understaffed ASI could not spend the sanctioned amount. The chemical division at Konark is unmanned, there is no site laboratory, valuable stones remain scattered around the campus and the circle itself has been without a superintendent since last April. Little coordination exists between the ASI and the state archaeology department. The former charges the latter with non-cooperation while state officials counter with complaints of high-handedness against the central unit.

Locals like Dilip Panda are miffed at the ASI's secrecy over their activities. "As custodians of our heritage, they must take us into their confidence," he feels. The local NAC is also at loggerheads with the ASI. NAC members allege that ASI officials are insensitive to local sentiments and have no commitment to save the monument, and the ASI charges locals with illegal encroachment of its area.

The locals also oppose the ASI's decision to collect Rs 5 per person as entrance fee, and a memorandum against the move was sent to the DG. The fee, they feel, is too high for pilgrims and school students. "If the ASI is doing such wonderful work, why does it refuse to divulge details of funds spent on conservation?" demands Routray. Says the superintendent of state archaeology, B.K. Rath: "The Black Pagoda isn't the ASI's private property. It is a World Heritage Site and belongs to all humanity".

Yet, the ASI insists that Konark has one of the longest conservation histories in India and is among the best looked after monuments in the world. However, its conservation history is uneven to say the least. At one stage a British commissioner is said to have remarked that not one rupee should be spent on the monument—the sooner it falls, the better. This may well happen—and soon.

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