Salvation of famous Konark Sun Temple stuck in the sand- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

BHUBANESWAR: Over a century of conservation and studies by several expert committees later, the Sun Temple at Konark is back to where it all began – sand.

To save the structure, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) will soon resort to sand refilling – a ‘quick fix’ that the British undertook from 1901 to 1903 under the instruction of the then Lt Governor Sir John Woodburn in the 13th century to the Jagamohan.

The ‘salvation course’ has come from the Roorkee-based Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) that was roped in by ASI to examine structural damages in the World Heritage Site (WHS).

The analysis: Refilling sand in the 130 ft-high structure would ensure stability of the Jagamohan – measuring 33ft x 33ft – as the sand-fill has settled by 12 ft. Sand will be poured through the Sukhanasi window of the structure.

Sealed Interiors

But will it help the ageing structure, considering that it was the same “curative measure” adopted in 1901 when it was crumbling?

Interestingly, the suggestion comes at a time when experts have been demanding removal of sand to examine damage to the internal structure in the past 116 years or more. Mind you, the first filling happened to stop further collapse.

Since 1991, the structure has been propped by scaffoldings. While the damage is for all to see, including the experts in temple conservation who think otherwise, ASI – the body responsible for the safekeeping of the eight-century-old World Heritage monument – has maintained a political quietness.

The result, the Jagamohan, which remained sand sealed since 1903 to prevent any further decay, has loose stones falling on several occasions.

In addition, the heavy roof that was supported through a pedestal on the foundation with help of a 15 ft thick wall abutting the four inner walls to neutralise pressure of the 80 ft sand filling, is also in a debilitating state.

Clearly, there has been inadequate research and conservation efforts made despite ASI claims to preserve this legacy.

This in spite of the fact that Konark is made of khondolite, which is known to be highly susceptible to weathering and cannot stand any form of chemical treatment.

In fact, this could be a reason that the British sorted to the only form of curative measure known during that time – sand filling.

The issue now is, says Anil Dey, author of ‘The Sun Temple of Konark’ and ardent observer of Konark Temple, “that the huge pile of sand inside is settling, creating enormous horizontal pressure and other complications.”

That, however, is one slice of the trouble.

The other, according to a study done by former DG of ASI, late Dr Debala Mitra, are the enclosed dark damp space within the structure that have become ideal breeding ground for harmful moss formation that slowly decomposes khondalite and can result in ejection of loose stones from the tightly gripping corbel.

Photographs taken by the CBRI during its endoscopic study of the Jagamohan interiors recently confirm this.

Decomposing Stones

“The delicate nature of structure also makes application of pesticide to the damp corner impossible. Result, excessive damage to the stones vis-a-vis corbelling of the Pidha cones in all these years. The humidity adding further salt to the wound,” said Dey, adding that both ASI and CBRI are convinced that the Jagamohan is crumbling and therefore, providing a sand pillow inside for its peaceful rest.

State Convener of INTACH, AB Tripathy agrees.

“Filling it up with sand seems to be the softest option for ASI which is not confident of removing the existing sand now,” he says further insisting that “the Centre should now involve international experts to examine the CBRI report and if they agree to sand filling in Jagamohana, ASI should go ahead with it.”Curiously, in the last three decades, many international experts have suggested for removal of sand but to no avail.

Dr Achal Kumar Mittal, senior principal scientist of CBRI and person in charge, concurs with the experts and stands by their official report too.

“We too would want to remove the sand to assess the damage inside but in the process, the stability of entire Jagamohan will be compromised and that is a risk we will not want to take for such an important monument,” Mittal told The New Indian Express.

Eminent structural engineer, GC Mitra, opposes the whole idea. Refilling, he says, will only build more pressure on the foundation of the monument.

“But if that is the only alternative, instead of sea sand, we need to work with a sand variety that is spherical in shape, single-sized and fungi-leech free. The lightness of the sand will exert less pressure on the pedestal which is eight tonne per sq ft, giving a wee bit more shelf life to Konark.”

Blunted Beauty

Sadly, the “crumbling” isn’t limited to Jagamohan alone, the iconic temple’s ethereal beauty is also fading, inch-by-inch.

The beautiful sculptures and intricate carvings that fetched the WHS tag of UNESCO to the monument in 1984 have fallen prey to the vagaries of nature.

Over last several decades, several damaged sculptural blocks have been replaced by plain stone.

The temple, UNESCO says, is 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 Silk Route.

ASI’s one-dimensional approach in conserving the beauty of the chariot-shaped temple that bears iconographical depictions of contemporary life and activities of the 13th-century Kalinga empire has earned it ire of the patrons and tourists alike.

What breeds further criticism is the lack of documentation of sculptural panels and motifs in the past to monitor and compare the deterioration process over the years.

ASI, on its part, claims steps are being taken to arrest deterioration of exterior surface of the 800-year-old monument: from water repellent treatment to removal of salt by paper pulp treatment, exterior fungicidal treatment to contain micro-vegetational growth and consolidation of weathered stones, besides routine maintenance.

However, going by the state of affairs it does seem more talk than walk.

Adds Mitra: “The effect of saline air on the structure is obvious. Compare photographs of the sculptures taken five years back and you will see the difference. Every year, the sculptures are losing layers and getting blunted.”

Of course, part of the reason is also the composition of khondolite which is 10 to 12 per cent porous and when it comes in contact with sea wind, there is deposition of salt in skin of the stone.

Due to variation in temperature, the salt expands or contracts as a result of which, the stone layers ‘decay’.

In case of the Sun temple, each khondolite stone used has a different composition.Add to that a majority of temples in Odisha which are made of khondolite stones, and one wonders why there has been no concrete effort to address the issue either by ASI or the Odisha Government whose best measure is to set up a laboratory where chemical conservation of the stone can be studied.

UNESCO Intervention

Amid the allegations of haphazard conservation, Dey feels it would be best to hand the Sun Temple over to UNESCO which had also suggested for removal of sand in the past.

“The condition in which Sun Temple is right now, it can collapse if there is another earthquake. UNESCO has in the past relocated the entire Abusimbel temple in Egypt that faced the threat of flooding due to construction of Aswan dam.

“It removed nearly 5 lakh stones from the temple, numbered and re-assembled them precisely as they were in a new site. Besides, it recovered Borobudur (an eight storied monastery) – piece by piece – from the Malaysian forests. Compared to these projects, Konark will be a much easier task for an agency like UNESCO. It can remove the sand from Jagamohan, treat the interiors and strengthen the damaged stones to give the monument a longer life”, he suggests.

Current Conservation

Under the current stint of Arun Malik, Superintending Engineer of Bhubaneswar Circle, ASI has rebooted another conservation process which is in sync with the CBRI reports. Calling the report safe, Malik insists that the paper pulp treatment of sculptures, which is being regularly done, can delay the aging of the sculptures if not prevent it. After Fani, ASI also began laser scanning, photographing and documenting every panel and sculptures of the temple for future reference and assessment of periodical damage.

The refilling, as informed by Malik, process will also be underway once CBRI has completed the necessary modalities and its impact.

“We have,” he continues, “begun work on strengthening the first, second and third Pidhas and sealing of joints that have cracked through grouting this year as well.”

Meanwhile, the CBRI has suggested creation of a green-belt around the monument by planting casuarinas to shield saline wind blowing from the sea.

The earlier planted cashew nut trees, low in height, by the Forest Department will also be replaced with casuarina trees.

In a nutshell, there has been a lot said, done and processed on paper – but for the Sun Temple to be around, it will be the groundwork that would tell.

Till then, Odisha’s finest legacy of architecture might just be turning its last chapter any year. This or next is the question.

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