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Architect Vinod Kumar talks of his work at the Sree Vadakkunathan Temple

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Architect Vinod Kumar talks of his work at the Sree Vadakkunathan Temple

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What does it take to handle the conservation of an old and cherished structure that bags an international award? Architect Vinod Kumar talks of his work at the Sree Vadakkunathan Temple, ahead of his lecture in Bengaluru. By Ranjani Govind

When the Conservation of the Sree Vadakkunnathan Temple at Thrissur in Kerala received the Award of Excellence last year at UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, it was amongst a total of 12 winning projects from five countries – India, China, Lao PDR, Australia and Thailand – to have been recognised. The Heritage Awards had a panel of international conservation experts to review 36 entries from across the Asia-Pacific region.

The award recognises architect Architect Vinod Kumar’s effort that has resurrected not just the brick and mortar of the heritage structure but gave a potent message for professionals, archaeologists and government bodies on the importance of cultural preservation.

What does it take for a conservation architect to look at if the work involved is more than a 1000-year-old structure? Despite the intricate design elements and the Herculean work that involved hundreds of deft artists, the modest Vinod Kumar, who will be in Bengaluru on July 17 for a lecture, still brushes it off as “a learning process” that came his way. “My whole way of looking into architecture changed and I consider it a divine opportunity to be able to work for the project, for which the team won the UNESCO award,” he told Property Plus.

Excerpts of the interview…

Questions:

With your work at the Vadakkunnathan Temple at Thrissur in context, do you observe that conservation itself is gaining momentum in India?

One cannot say so. The work we did in Thrissur was made possible due to the coming together of many factors. Apart from good work being done by other conservation professionals, for the volume of heritage that exists in our country, whatever being done is still very limited. In Kerala itself, we have lost many beautiful Tharavads and Manas (traditional houses). Some of the largest and beautiful ones have also been lost in the past many decades. But of late there seems to be some level of awareness, but we still have immense work to catch up with that includes professionals from the Department of Archaeology, government departments, architects and NGOs.

We need a large movement to protect our heritage. We often encounter the issue of people complaining that only monuments are recognised for heritage, but beautiful small streets and hundred-year-old buildings in small towns and villages are often razed for development. So, an overall understanding and awareness is necessary.

It would have been a difficult task for the team of archaeologists, craftsmen and others to renovate a 1200-year-old temple to its original state, and the authorities then said they owe the success to the coming together of people from different fields…

It was a difficult task for the team of archaeologists, craftsmen and many others to renovate the temple to its original state. This was possible due to the coming together of people from different fields.

We had the Archaeological Survey of India, under whose guidance and control the works were carried out, the actual temple owners, the Cochin Devaswom Board who supported the project, the main donor from Venugoplaswamy Kainkaryam Trust in Chennai and technical guidance from Vasthu scholar Kanippayoor Krishnan Namboothirippad in Kerala. While the support from numerous craftsmen was paramount that made it possible, I worked as the co-ordinator for the project.

We are amazed that the paintings, wood carvings and idols stayed exactly the same as it was seen in the 100-year-old photographs of the temple. How old is the temple actually?

Archaeologists suggest that the temple is around 100 years old but it could be that the present temple structure is around that old, but the place of worship existed earlier. It is said that Adi Sankara’s (800 AD) parents had worshipped in the temple . It is also often said that Lord Parasurama founded the temple. But as in most parts of India, legends, myths, historical facts, all are intermingled and in order to identify exact dates, one may have to carry out fresh research.

If ‘conservation’ is a Western word, explain the difference in approach for the traditional ‘renovation’ that happened at the temple at every step.

Here, we use the word punarudharanam for conservation. I think the basic difference lies in the way a structure is looked at. The attitude, in Kerala or India, traditionally is that a temple or any structure, is considered as a ‘Living Being’. So we respect the structure when we have to handle it. There are clear rules to be followed for every aspect of work, right form the way wood should be cut and used. In Vadakkunathan, we even have a mural which is worshipped.

So, conservation is not just work for the structure/finishes. It runs much deeper. One can say it is a life-giving exercise where traditions are followed as per time-established rules for making the tangible and the intangible equally important.

With no cement, ceramic tiles or paint used, we hear the team used only original plant materials for restoration – and the damaged wood work was reconstructed by dedicated carpenters. Please explain.

The temple is based on bio-energy principles with natural materials such as lime, wood, copper, and stone amongst others serving better to sustain energy. Lime is used as a construction material since time immemorial. Techniques employed in the original construction are said to be the most effective method for repairing and maintaining the traditional masonry. Lime, as a material, allows the building to breathe and offers high degree of thermal insulation and condensation control. Due care was given to the preparation and application of lime mortar.

The preparation of traditional lime mortar mix was developed by experienced indigenous craftsmen involved in temple conservation. Around eight ingredients including jaggery and kadukka (terminalia chebula) were used in its preparation. The damaged wood work was reconstructed by dedicated carpenters. It was a step-by-step process. Each structure, taken up for conservation, was jointly inspected by the team comprising archaeologists, engineers and architects to carry out the plans.

Old wood which could be reused was taken up through wooden joinery with meticulously selected new wood (without nails). As there weren’t any records of renovation taken up in the last 100 years, we found that termite was one of the main reasons for damage. Rafter-ends were mostly susceptible to damage due to effects of rain that is common in Kerala.

The entire wood work was mostly marked, dismantled including the sculptural pieces and after the conservation process, was re-installed to its original position.

After repair, the pieces were often joined in the external work sheds, prior to installing in the structure. Finally wood coating, traditionally prepared with herbs, was applied as a preservative.

What were the other strategies used to keep the original structure intact?

We had seen that paint applied over wood/stone had to be removed to bring back the original colour and material. Wooden sculptural elements covered with lime when removed brought back the original look. The base of many structures was filled with mud over time and we had to remove it to show the stone base, which was also important, from the vasthu angle.

How much time did the renovation take and how many craftsmen worked on it?

It took more than 10 years. Roughly around 500 craftsmen worked for the project at different periods of time.

It included craftsmen working with wood, copper and stone, apart form a team looking after house keeping and horticulture for ensuring environmental improvement. Skilled craftsmen are still available, although their numbers are diminishing due to change in lifestyle and learning systems. One of the contributions of the 10-year-old Vadakkunnathan Temple project has also helped revive many skilled artists and craftsmen.

Courtesy to The Hindu