The tropical Malabar Coast in the Indian subcontinent reveals the socio-cultural manifestations of its rich built heritage through its traditional temple architecture. Developed through the creativity of eminent builders of the past, the Vadakkunnathan temple, since time immemorial, has stood high among the Hindu temples of Kerala. Even though the date of origin of the temple is unknown, historical research identifies the influence of diverse religious and cultural traditions like Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism and various European civilizations throughout the historical evolution of the temple as an architectural entity. Located right at the heart of Thrissur, widely known as the cultural capital of Kerala, the temple complex had a significant role in the historic evolution of this town and still serves as a nucleus for its growth and development. The world famous Pooram festival, held at the temple premises every year, stands out as a cultural highlight of this town.
The temple complex - with its massive fortified surrounding wall and the four entrance gateways at cardinal points - follows the scheme of the traditional Kerala temples mentioned in ancient treatises. The overall structural system, essentially of wood, showcases the invaluable knowledge systems of the past.
A large percentage of the temple complex was in a state of disrepair due to the lack of periodic maintenance and care. In addition to this, exposure to extreme climatic conditions prevalent on the western coastal belt of India, especially the monsoons, was not favourable for the disintegrating structural system. An assessment of the complex in the 1990s showed that no major repair works had been recorded for more than 100 years, and the need of the hour was to conduct a ‘planned restoration’ in its entirety.
Objectives of the Project
One of the primary objectives of the project was to balance the conservation principles put forth by the protecting authority and those prescribed by the traditional treatises. It was also important to respect the age old practices and rituals, in order to ensure that the authenticity and integrity of the temple complex was maintained.
Vadakkunnathan, being a Hindu temple, has many metaphysical layers of meanings attached to it. Hence conserving the intangible values associated with the heritage became equally important as that of the physical structures. The existing pattern of rituals and beliefs related to the building activity were followed, by using the regional texts and oral traditions as the literary base for the whole process.
Coordinating Various Agencies and Stakeholders
The day to day activities of the temple are administered and managed by the state agency- Cochin Devaswom Board, while the temple is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The funding and human resources for the conservation project were provided by VGKT (The corporate social responsibility initiative of TVS motor company, India). DD Architects worked as the local coordinator for the whole project.
To coordinate and manage the ideas and ideologies of multiple stakeholders with differing mandates was a major challenge in this project.
The System of Work
More than three hundred craftsmen covering different areas of expertise from all over south India were identified to be a part of this conservation programme. In that way, the project helped in conserving and reviving many indigenous craft traditions. Each of the shrines were taken separately, their condition was analyzed, the materials to be replaced/repaired were quantified and the appropriate work force were employed in various planned phases. Minor projects including horticulture, the revival of the traditional pond, housekeeping and illumination works were also carried out simultaneously.
Ancient treatises on building and construction which prescribe specific geometries, systems of measurement and rituals for renovation were followed for each shrine in the temple complex.
Challenges faced/ Lessons learned
One of the biggest challenges was to converge the ideas of the temple custodians and the approach of the conservation team. It was clearly perceived that a purely scientific approach to safeguard the buildings’ architectural value i.e. - treatment of just the material - would not suffice in this case. Therefore, prior to any action, gaining an in-depth knowledge of the temple protocols and the expectations of the custodians and users became essential. There was constant dialogue between the conservation team and the traditional experts, the temple priests and the temple committee representing the users. All decisions were taken following this consultative process; thus ensuring not just the protection of the religious, cultural and social values of the temple complex, but also the continued support of the community.
Temple and the Unseen Energies
Any sacred place has its own relationship with the cosmic energies, and the material used for its construction, being natural, is said to help in conserving these bio-energies existing within the temple precincts. Hence, in all the conservation measures, the parent material(in this case timber, granite, laterite, lime and copper)were used in particular, for the structures being restored. Apart from using the traditional materials in the indigenous method and pattern of use, the team also undertook minor research work on each of the materials, regarding its history, pattern of usage, ingredients, technical specifications and territorial linkages, revealing many interesting facts about it, thus enhancing the educational value of the conservation work.
Sensitization and Awareness Creation
The temple was honoured with the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award of Excellence for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2015, which is the highest recognition presented to the projects that display exceptional achievement in conservation efforts. In its citation, the UNESCO says, "The holistic restoration of the Sree Vadakkunnathan temple represents a milestone achievement in reviving living religious heritage sites, using a combination of indigenous knowledge of vernacular building techniques, strict adherence to elaborate ritual protocols and contemporary conservation practice.....Through the exemplary initiative of the temple stakeholders, and with commendable support from relevant authorities and the private sector, the project has preserved a significant archetype of Kerala temple architecture while safeguarding the community of age old practices of veneration."
In a context of ignorance prevailing in the state towards heritage conservation, the global recognition for this project rekindled pride and interest in cultural heritage among the local community of the town. Also, this award helped in creating awareness among the public and the temple authorities on the need to preserve heritage in its original form.
We have put forward a proposal for a site museum, which could ideally become a cultural space, helping people to understand the significance of the conservation efforts. Towards the end of the conservation process, an exhibition was also organized to convey the importance of the project to the public.
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