For more than 20 years, temples have been the mainstay of architect SB Kalyanasundaram’s business. Carrying on his family’s traditional profession, his firm has built over 50 temples in Tamil Nadu, and restored several more that had fallen into decay.

“Temple architecture is a field of knowledge on its own,” said Kalyanasundaram. “There are various texts, or sastras, that teach the principles of temple architecture, right from whether the site is suited for temple construction, which direction the idol should face, to how tall the temple gopuram should be. Only after studying this can a temple be constructed accurately.”

Modern-day courses at government colleges in Mammallapuram and Kanchipuram try to do the same job as ancient sastras – instructing students in traditional architecture, sculpting and painting. But rarely does that classroom know-how translate into practice. When temple donors, or even the government, wish to restore ancient structures, they often do not look to the sastras or to the graduates – instead, they employ regular building contractors and construction workers.

“This results in poor workmanship in many of our historic temples,” Kalyanasundaram said.

This isn’t a complaint of Kalyanasundaram alone or of temple architects like him – a fact-finding mission by Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural organisation, reviewed the nature and quality of temple renovation in Tamil Nadu, and concluded in July that poor conservation work had damaged some of the state’s most historic shrines.

“The quality of conservation works at the temples assessed during the mission varied to a large extent with some good examples, some mediocre works and some truly shocking scenes of demolition and massacre of historic temples,” the report said.

Poor conservation

The fact-finding team visited 10 prominent temples in Tamil Nadu in May and June, including the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. Nowhere was conservation norms for documenting, assessing and carrying out heritage work followed systematically: “There is no empanelment of experts…or qualified heritage work contractors for such specialised works, said the report.”

Part of the blame was directed by the fact-finders at the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Charitable Endowments Department, the government agency that administers the majority of the thousands of small and big temples in the state. Conserving these many structures is an onerous task – one which the department does not have qualified experts for.

The Unesco team discovered temples where walls had been cleaned by “water-washing and sand-blasting”. “These practices were banned by the Madras High Court in the early 2000s since it erodes the inscriptions on the walls,” said Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project, a group that works to return stolen artefacts to India.

A sculpture at Nageshwaran temple in Kumbakonam before and after water-blasting. Credit: India Pride Project

At sites where restoration had been attempted, the Unesco team found no attempt at consulting the Agama and Shilpa sastras, Sanskrit texts with prescriptions for temple construction, down to the measurements and proportions of different parts of the structure.

In Meenakshi Amman temple, the south and east corridors of the Potramarai had been demolished and reconstructed. This “is against the principles of Agama sastras where it is clearly recommended that the old stone material needs to be used and reused until it has lived its life,” said the report. “The same is also true with regards to conservation principles followed as per National Culture Policy of ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] and International ICOMOS Charters.”

Traditional profession

Trained and established temple architects, or sthapathis as they are known, are not surprised by the Unesco report. It was a long time coming. Earlier, only those well-versed in the field of traditional architecture, either through education or through family business, could affix the appellation sthapathi to their name. “But now even a local mason or sculptor calls himself a sthapathi,” said M Palanisamy, who owns a temple architecture firm.

Traditionally, temple architecture was the domain of the Vishwakarma caste group, who were believed to be descendants of the Hindu architect god, Vishwakarma. The community, predominantly based in Thanjavur district, produced several well-known architects, including the late Padma Bhushan awardee Ganapathy sthapathy. But then, two things happened. Many members of the community moved away from temple architecture, and with colleges offering courses in the field, members of other caste groups adopted the occupation, said Palanisamy.

King Dasarath and his queens, after and before water-blasting at the Kumbakonam temple. Credit: India Pride Project

Today, established firms like that of Palanisamy’s and Kalyanasundaram’s receive contracts from wealthy temple donors who are willing to spend anything to restore old temples, or build a new one. “We give them our estimate, and if they agree, we can do a very thorough job,” said Palanisamy.

In the end, the dereliction, the poor restoration all comes down to money, said the architects. The government gives a small fixed budget for restoration, much of which lines the pockets of local contractors and temple officials, they said. Even when large donations are given by devotees, a small percentage is set aside for renovations – which are often destructive.

“They do sloppy work and destroy our tradition,” said Palanisamy. “If the government used the advice of knowledgeable sthapathis, such a Unesco report would never exist.”

Stone sculpture of a council of ministers, at Nageshwaran temple in Kumbakonam, after and before water-blasting. Credit: India Pride Project