The allegation was made—and promptly refuted. But the clarification by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) did little to set at rest the misgivings stoked about intricately carved stones at the 13th-century Sun Temple at Konark being allegedly replaced with plain ones. It all started on February 10 with a tweet by Anushka, who tweets as @ANaayak_. It had two ‘before and after’ pictures, one showing the exquisitely carved stones and the other showing plain stones. “Restoration they call this. In the first picture, you can see how it must have looked like. Second picture is their restoration,” she wrote. “I asked one guide. He said maybe they restored it this way because it had erotic sculptures.”
There were angry reactions from outraged twitteratti and the ASI soon came out with a denial: “The two images shown in the tweet are from different locations. The image with sculptures is from Natya Mandapa, while the plain stones images are from the plinth of Jagamohana (the main temple).” It followed that up with another post: “The plain stone work shown in the image was done in the mid-1980s. ASI used plain stone only wherein there was no evidence left and, as per ASI’s the then archaeological policy, only such portions were filled with plain stones. ASI would like to confirm that no sculpture has been replaced.” But concerns about the fine sculptures of the Sun Temple, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984, have persisted.
“How can the ASI wash its hands off when it has been in charge of maintenance of the temple since 1939?” asks Amiya Bushan Tripathy, convenor of the Odisha chapter of INTACH. The problem, say experts, is that the temple is made of khondalite stone, which is highly susceptible to the effects of weather and the sea breeze because of its irregular porosity. “It is caused by the enclosed dark damp space within the structure that has become ideal breeding ground for harmful moss formation, which slowly decomposes khondalite and can result in ejection of loose stones from the tightly gripping corbel,” former ASI director-general Debala Mitra wrote in a study of efforts to conserve the temple. Mitra’s apprehensions have been borne out by many instances of stones falling off the structure in the past few years.
Preservation of the stones is only part of the problem. The bigger task is conservation of the structure itself. Based on the recommendation of the Roorkee-based Central Building Research Institute, the ASI is all set to begin sand refilling of the entire structure, a strategy adopted during the 1901-03 period by the Britishers in an effort to prevent further damage to the temple. This, in the backdrop of repeated suggestions for removal of the sand put in by conservation experts from around the world over the past three decades. “The extent of damage that has already taken place can be assessed only when the sand is removed, and technology for conservation or even wholesale shifting of the temple is already available globally,” says Anil Dey, who has spent a lifetime studying this piece of ancient Odisha heritage. “The best course would be to hand it over to the UNESCO, which has in the past relocated the entire Abusimbel temple in Egypt that faced the threat of flooding due to construction of the Aswan dam. It also recovered, piece by piece, Borobudur, an eight-storied monastery, from the Malaysian forests. Konark will be much easier.”
But will the ASI listen to the experts? Will the political leadership, both in the state and at the Centre, display the foresight and courage to conserve this magnificent piece of global heritage, described by UNESCO as “the only invaluable link in the history of diffusion of the cult of Surya, which, originating in Kashmir during the 8th century, finally reached Udra Desh during the peak of the Silk Route”?
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar