Sometime in 2008, the over 500-year-old Gunja Narasimha Swami temple in Karnataka was in dire need of repair and restoration. The foundation of the temple, located on the banks of the Kaveri, about 32km south of Mysuru, had become weak due to flooding and loosening of soil. It developed cracks and some structures of the temple crumbled.
Sthapati (architect and sculptor) R Selvanathan, the 37th lineal descendant of Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perunthachan, who constructed the 1010-year-old famous Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, was chosen for the restoration of this Vijayanagara period temple. He decided to bring down the external structure stone by stone, replaced the old foundation with a new one using concrete, and reassembled the stones exactly like the original structure.
Selvanathan is upholding the over 1,000-year-old family tradition of constructing and renovating temples even today.
“I worked with 60 shilpis (stone carvers) on the Gunja Narasimha Swamy temple restoration, which was completed in 2011. Dr N V Ramanuja Iyengar, an NRI from Florida, USA, funded the project that cost over Rs 2.5 crore,” says Selvanathan, whose latest renovation and restoration project is underway at the Sri Thiruketheeswaram Temple, Mannar in Sri Lanka.
Upholding an age-old tradition on a global stage
This temple in Mannar, where Shiva is the primary god surrounded by 25 sub-shrines, was constructed 60 years ago under the guidance of Selvanathan’s grandfather, Shilpa Kalasagaram M Vaidyanatha Sthapati. Years of ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka had left the temple in ruins.
“In 2017, I was assigned the task of renovating the temple, replacing brick and mortar with granite stone. I took with me 100 shilpis, who have been working on this project for the last three years. The superstructure of brick and mortar was replaced with granite. All the sub-shrines were also demolished and constructed in granite stone,” adds 54-year-old Selvanathan, who grew up with the sound of chisel and hammer, seeing sculptors working in his family-run workshop – pattarai.
The work in Sri Lanka is now almost complete but artisans are stuck there due to the Coronavirus. All the stones needed for reconstruction were available locally. But that’s not the case with all his projects.
“The work is nearing completion now. Ten of our shilpis assembled the stones there. All the stones were hand carved in Bengaluru and transported to Hawaii by ship. Gurudeva (who commissioned the work) wanted the temple stones to be carved manually as this was the process followed in ancient times and ensures longevity of the structure,” he says.
Similarly, when a beautiful statue of lord Vishnu was found in Phang Nga forest in Thailand, the government wanted to replicate it and place it in the Thalang National Museum. “The statue was fragile and damaged. I spent two weeks there, examined it, made its cement replica and it was shipped to India," he says.
The procedures mentioned in ancient texts
The ancient processes of construction, restoration, rehabilitation of statues as well as temples are well documented in ancient texts. Temples need renovation every 12 years, according to shastras, something that the Sthapati clan continues to do even for overseas temples till date. Selvanathan has already renovated twice the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Maryland, just outside Washington D.C, which was designed and constructed by his paternal uncle Dr V Ganapathi Sthapati, who was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2009. Selvanathan had also worked on the project with his uncle.
“Our shastras like Manasaaram, Mayamatham, Viswakarmeeyam, Vaikanasam, Pancharathram and Kumarathanthiram give detailed instructions on the processes to be followed for temple construction, renovation and restoration. I also follow Sirpachenool treatise by my Guru Dr Ganapathi Sthapati. The book deals with iconometry – forms and measures,” he says.
During the renovation of temple structures and statues, shilpis make use of similar material as used initially. “In case of the non-availability of the particular material, we use better material with high quality as per our scriptures. For example brick structures can be replaced by good quality stones,” he says.
Temple restoration work usually addresses regular wear and tear, natural calamities, unnatural reasons like political unrest causing damage to temples, deliberate damage to temple parts, weakening of foundation besides damage by unwanted weeds and plant roots. A sthapati needs to examine the temple or sculpture under restoration, study the nature of damage and then carryout the work as per shastras.
The traditional knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next. While the sthapati clan thrived under the royal patronage upto the 18th century, it was supported by the Nagarathar community, also known as Nattukottai Chettiars, during the 19th and 20th century.
How Selvanathan became a sthapati
The world famous Pillayarpatti Ganapathi Temple rajagopuram, sponsored by the Nagarathars, was designed and built by Selvanathan’s grandfather M Vaidyanatha Sthapati.
While Selvanathan began exploring the nuances and curves of the tradition from childhood, he was formally initiated into the field by his paternal uncle.
The college was set up in 1957. Kamaladevi Chatopadhyaya, torchbearer of Indian art and crafts, identified M Vaidyanatha Sthapati (Selvanathan’s grandfather) to set up the school with the government's support. And this is where Selvanathan learned the traditional techniques as well as the principles of the ancient shastras.
Apart from this, he is also now working towards conserving the craft. He trains graduate sthapatis from his alma mater. “Through this institution, the shilpi tradition of imparting knowledge, which was strictly from father to son, was thrown open to all with no restriction around caste, family or community,” he says.
Around 20 to 25 students pass out from the college each year. “They work with me on projects within India and overseas and get practical training,” he says. He is now among the few torchbearers of this tradition that has stood the test of time for over a thousand years.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)