Massive. Staggering. Magnificent. Impressive. Gift from ancient India to World Heritage. The Konark Sun Temple is about 750 years of history and 120 years of conservation. It represents the culmination of the architecture of the temple of Odisha. Even in its current state of disrepair, it is one of the most astonishing examples of religious art.
The Archaeological Survey of India insists that Konark is among the best-maintained monuments; however, its conservation history is uneven to say the least.
A marvelous metaphor of time and space, the old temple is deteriorating, a victim of the gradual erosion of the stone and of bad weather, which has already blunted the delicacy of the sculpted figurines and wreaked havoc on the soft stone. The action of salt, wind, humidity, algae, and fungus growth all contributed to the damage. Cracks have appeared, stone slabs shatter, and the figures, as they erode, have lost much of their original beauty.
It was in December 1900, after the visit of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Woodburn, that efforts were made to restore it to its full glory. By April 1901, archaeological surveyor T Bloch had unearthed the gigantic structure and the size and splendor of its intricate structure and carvings were once again visible.
In 1924, the Earl of Ronaldshay proclaimed that the newly revealed temple was “one of India’s most astonishing buildings, which stands on high, a heap of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay.”
More than 11 reports were prepared by different authorities at different times after that. Most of them were just collecting dust. The first report, prepared by Bishan Swarup, an engineer who worked at the site from 1901 to 1904, said the building faced collapse and had filled it with sand. Swarup had given detailed suggestions for the further maintenance of the temple, but these were simply forgotten.
The next committee, formed in 1950, was chaired by Chief Minister Biswanath Das and had on its panel CM Master, a prominent architect from Bombay. None of the recommendations have been implemented.
The third committee was formed in 1953, also under the chairmanship of Das, and the recommendation for the erection of scaffolding was implemented.
In 1978, ASI formed the Konark Expert Committee where, for the first time, a serious point of view on the problem was taken. The committee was chaired by the CEO of ASI. After the collapse of five stone blocks from the main temple, structural conservation was undertaken between 1985 and 1990. On this basis, scaffolding of some vulnerable sections was carried out.
In 1979, the recommendation of UNESCO experts on the conservation of Konark was handed over to the Indian government. After declaring it a World Heritage Site, UNESCO again appointed a committee headed by experts Sir BM Fielden and P Beckman in 1987. They described the temple’s condition as alarming and advised immediate action.
Italian expert Prof. Ing Giorgio Croci carried out a structural analysis of the Jagamohan in 1997. The committee’s recommendations included sand removal. One of the suggestions was to drill a hole and send in endoscopic cameras to assess the condition of the interior of the temple.
No one knows for sure why the Konark Temple disintegrated so quickly in such a short time. Various theories abound, some scholars believe that the main temple was never completed. Collapse can also be due to poor foundation and poor settlement, or natural disasters such as cyclones, lightning, earthquakes.
The temple was originally closer to the seaside, and its black pagoda was visible for miles. In fact, ancient sea charts used it as a navigation point. The standing corner of the tower was further recorded by James Fergusson in 1837 CE, who estimated its height to be 140 to 150 feet, and Kittoe in 1838 CE, who estimated its height to be 80 or 100 feet. This solitary remnant of the main temple fell in October 1848 due to a strong gale.
Rajendra Lal Mitra, during a visit to the temple in 1868, mentioned it as only “a huge mass of stones dotted with a few peepals here and there”.
In 1906, a large-scale plantation of casuarinas and poonangs was undertaken towards the sea in order to control the movement of the sand-laden winds and thus minimize their abrasive action. These tall trees were all destroyed in the 1999 super cyclone.
The authorities then planted cashew trees, which do not grow tall and offer little protection against the sand particles carried by the wind. This accelerated the erosion. In addition, the entire complex was paved with stone blocks, which prevented the natural percolation of the sand from the rainwater, causing the temple to become engorged every year.
Between accusations and counter-accusations, the state of the structure continues to weaken. The acquisition of a heritage sticker is not sufficient in itself; it implies and imposes greater responsibility and greater cultural responsibility. But our system in place hardly meets the needs of culture.
The author is project coordinator, INTACH Odisha