Osmosis to the rescue of Mahabalipuram monuments

Masons at work on the ‘Arjuna Penance’ panel in Mahabalipuram.

This stupendous stone bas-relief measuring 43 feet high and 96 feet long, manifesting the finest sculptural art of the 7th century AD Pallava dynasty Kings, is part of a cluster of breathtaking monuments at the World Heritage site of Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram), 55 km from Chennai.

Alongside the Bay of Bengal, in what was once a noted port-town of the Palla­vas who had ruled this part of South India from nearby Kancheepuram, these ‘soulful sculptures’ continue to express India ’s cultural ethos only because a few visionaries thought ahead of the need for proper conservation.

One look at the casuarinas scaffolding, perched on which scores of skilled maso­ns work with extreme patience and diligence on every little sculpture on the  panel chiseled several centuries ago, leav­es visitors the impression that Arjuna, the epic-hero of ‘Mahabharatha’, is again performing a penance to please Lord Shiva to get the ‘Pasupata’ weapon from him.

The bas-relief is about this story, though another interpretation of the
‘Descent of River Ganga’ is also associated with it. Besides the majestic four-armed Shiva with a trident in one of the hands to the right of the penance-doing Arjuna, the sculptors filled the vast space in between with a charming array of various orders of beings. “Apart from the celestials, there are hunters, sages, disciples, and wild animals like the lion, tiger, elephant and boar,” says the scholar C Sivaramamurti in his authoritative monograph on ‘Mahabalipuram’ published by the Archeological Survey of
India (ASI).

From this captivating dynamics on stone to the pinnacle of sublimity in
Pallava sculpture and architecture that culminated in the ‘Shore Temple’ at
Mamallapuram, the monuments-cluster also include monolithic temples “cut out of solid rock” (also called ‘rathas’ or chariots), cave temples and ‘sculptured scenes carved on the hill edges’, as Sivaramamurti says. But as a sea-side heritage site, as declared by UNESCO, its problems too are unique.

If the sea erosion is checked by ASI by putting up ‘Groyne walls’ and growing
casuarinas plantations on the perimeter of the ‘Shore Temple’, all the monuments- most of which are slightly away from the shore in the heart of Mamallapuram village around a huge granite hillock-, face a salty issue.

Thus, the choice of technique for preservation and conservation of these monuments has to be appropriate to ensure that the structures maintain their original authenticity, design and workmanship. The chemical cleaning and conservation is thus “problem oriented” and has to be adopted accordingly, “to enhance the life of the structures and monuments,” says ASI Science Division Director K S Rana based at Dehradun in Uttarakhand.

As one heading ASI experts team in cleaning and preserving techniques, Rana told ‘Deccan Herald’, when reached over phone on the work going on at Mamallap­uram, that the main problem faced there in protecting the ‘Shore Temple’ and other structures was due to “salt spray from the sea”. Salt particles settling down in crystalline and hydrated forms is “very dange­rous to the structure”, he explained. Hence, the ASI’s conservation technique adopted at Mamallapuram is more a  mechanical method rather than a chemical one. “In fact, no chemicals are involved in the cleaning,” he said, adding, the masons use blotting paper bits soaked in distilled water.

Masons patiently pick up bits of this prepared semi-sold pulp and cover the surface of the sculptures and structures. “We leave the pulp for four to seven days and then gently remove them,” a mason doing the cleaning and conservation work at the ‘ Shore Temple ’ told this visiting Deccan Herald reporter.

What happens is the ‘osmosis phenomenon’, explained Rana. The pulp-mix that is prepared has absorption powers. So, the salt gets dissolved in the (distilled) water and gets collected in the blotting papers.

“It is a simple process to preserve these monuments,” said Rana, adding, no other chemical is applied. The Shore Temple made of granite is standing solid and even withstood the 2004 tsunami. The problem is mainly from the salt-wafting and hence this cleaning has to be done periodically, he stressed.

This cleaning technique is more easily adopted on a temple ‘vimana’ as on the ‘Shore Temple’ shrines. But the method has to be slightly nuanced when “you work on Arjuna’s penance which is litter­ed with figures,” added the mason at work at Mamallapuram. Once the thick coating is gently scraped off, the sculptures regain their original lively colours and texture.

The chemical conservation and preservation work “is almost over” including at Mukunda Nayanar Temple and the ‘Tiger Cave’ (a monument some 5 km north of Mamallapuram which has a rock-cut shrine of the goddess Durga),” said another ASI source. Over the years, the ASI has splendidly fenced all the monuments and landscaped their environs to make the ambience more appealing to visiting tourists from all parts of the world.

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