Muslim artisans on a temple renovation mission

Muslim artisans  on a temple renovation mission

A group of Muslim artisans from rural Andhra Pradesh is on a mission to renovate dilapidated Hindu temples in Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The artisans are from Mangalagiri Padu in Guntur district and the village is also known as Turkapalem as most of the residents are Sunni Muslims. These artisans are experts in restoring old magic of temple art using the same material.

Shaik Rabbani (32), who leads a team of 40 artisans, learnt the art of temple renovation from his father late Shaik Hassan Ahmad who used to undertake repairs of temples ruined by the vagaries of climate down the years. The boy then started taking individual assignments and built a few new temples, churches on his own.

“My first assignment was to build a church at Kalvakurthy in Mahbu­bnagar district in 1999. A few people saw my work and offered me to build a temple in Achampet in 2000, and there was no going back,” Rabbani recalled.

Working for a contractor with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Rabbani has so far renovated 20 temples, mostly in Telangana. His first project for the ASI was the Shiva temple in Bhoothpur which he completed by 2002.

Now, a five-member group of Rabbani’s team is working on the 11th century Chaya Somasekhara temple in Panagal in Nalgonda district, 110 km from Hyderabad.

The temple acquired that name as a vertical shadow (chaya) falls on the deity Shiva in the sanctum sanctorum, apparently from one of the pillars carved in front of the Artha Garbhalaya. It is explained that the perennial shadow is actually formed by the door sill (entrance) of the same chamber. Light enters the chamber through entrance from two sides. The gap between two light exposed area looks like a shadow of a pillar.

“The workers cook their own food during the wee hours and start work by 7 am. They eat non-vegetarian only on Sundays and they are very professional. We have no objection and we don’t care from which religion they belong to,” Sirigajje Bhaskar, a paddy farmer, working close to the temple said.

The local people also visit the temple and give suggestions which are then passed on to the ASI for directions. “The team is working on restoration of the outer wall of the temple which is made out of black granite. The three main “gopurams, the garbhalayam, artha garbhalayam and maha mantapam are in tact,” Adam Shafee, one of the team members, who oversees work in the absence of Rabbani, said.

Explaining his work, Rabbani says that repair and renovation work differ from temple to temple as the material used at that time are not available now. “There are four major groups in granite and then again there is lime to form a bond. In Bhongir (also in Nalgonda district) fort we are carving 400 steps from the same monolith gigantic hill which has the fort, as it is very difficult find same kind of stone,” he said. His work will remain for 1,000 years to come, he claimed.

A devout Muslim, Rabbani says that he enjoyed working with the temples down the years. “I could pray only on Fridays as I have to visit nearly 10 different sites where work is in progress. I instruct my workers, pay them some advance and provide food material to cook,” he said. Each worker is paid daily wage varying from Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 per day and even more for an experienced artisan.

“I also have to see that they have their hands full. Otherwise they could go to some other group,” Rabbani explains.

The Rabbani’s team is working in Palem, Kondapaka and Seven tombs restoration work project in Golconda funded by the Agakhan Foundation, Kollapur, Nagarkurnool and Madugula temples in Telangana. The Turkapalli artisans gained expertise in rebuilding an entire temple by dismantling piece by piece.

“The stones are numbered and photographed one by one by the ASI staff before carefully removing them,” said Yunus, who is an expert in refitting the stones. When asked whether he has ever failed to fit a removed temple stone, he says that he never failed to understand an old stone.

“All you have to do is respect the original sculptor’s art and intelligence. Once you remember that it is a god’s place everything falls in line,” Rabbani’s team says and believes.

Rahim and Jaani at the Panagal site said that even though they were not trained at the well-known TTD sculptor school in Tirumala or at the Stapathis of Tamil Nadu they are good in what they do. “Those students are good in theory and we are good in practicals,” Rahim said, chipping away the massive granite boulder in front him. Rabbani sees that each one of his team members gets a weekly off on rotation so that they could visit their loved ones back home in Guntur.

However, the team is concerned about increasing trend of damaging idols in centuries old temples in Telangana for hidden treasures. “In Bhoothpur, we are sculpting a new Shiva Linga as some miscreants tried to uproot it hoping to get  treasure and damaged the very rare black granite Linga,” Rabbani said.

But he is happy that there is a surge in the efforts to renovate very old temples. He wonders how the artisans of those days could build massive gopurams (towers) without the help of cranes and other latest equipment. His team has also worked in Gulbarga and Raichur.

J B S Umanadh in Nalgonda

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