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The challenges of conservation

The Archaeology Department is involved with the largest restoration project in the State - conservation of the heritage buildings in the Fort area in Thiruvananthapuram, writes T. Nandakumar.

PHOTO: C. RATHEESH KUMAR

REGAINING PAST GLORY: Sundara Vilasom Palace in Thiruvananthapuram was one of the heritage buildings restored under the project.

Preserving an old building is much more difficult than constructing a new one. When it comes to century-old structures, repair and maintenance becomes an even more tedious job, requiring skilled workers and specialised know-how. That is why conservation archaeology has been recognised as a major field of research and study all over the world.

Conservation science calls for specific inputs from various fields, including chemistry, physics, civil engineering and architecture. It involves a keen understanding of and sensitivity to heritage values.

Restoration project

In 2003, when the Archaeology Department started work on the conservation of the heritage buildings in the Fort area in the city, it signalled the largest restoration project in the State. The project involved heavy repair and maintenance of several ancient structures in the heritage zone that were damaged over time.

Most of the buildings identified for restoration were century-old structures requiring replacement of defective joineries, carvings and roofing tiles. Repair of masonry and flooring were other major jobs. A few of the buildings also needed massive reconstruction with new balustrades, awnings and brackets.

According to Archaeology Director V. Manmadhan Nair, the earlier masonry repair works carried out by the Public Works Department using cement mortar were found to be coming off. The restoration team chipped out the cement patches and stitched the damaged masonry with lime-based plaster. "We avoided using cement because it does not bond with the traditional mortar," says a conservation expert.

Traditional mixture

The composition of the traditional mixture was discovered from a palm leaf manuscript found in the Padmanabhapuram Palace. An assortment of elements, including a variety of herbs and fruits and a particular species of cactus, are blended with palm jaggery and left to mature for 15 days. This concoction is then mixed with lime to prepare the plaster. Restoration workers point out that even a minor flaw in preparing the mixture will see the plaster turning to dust. In the correct proportions, it remains as hard as rock.

"The materials have to be sourced from different places. Some of the rare herbs are available only in the hills and this often leads to intermittent delays," a team member said. "All buildings taken up for restoration are thoroughly documented before beginning the work. This is to ensure that the restoration does not deviate from the original architecture," Mr. Manmadhan said.

Skilled manpower

Until 1975, the PWD used to maintain the heritage buildings in the Fort area. When the Archaeology Department took over, an engineering wing was created for the job. Nine contractors were identified for the restoration work. All of them have workers skilled in different aspects of conservation.

Wood is a major structural and decorative element in almost all heritage structures.

The rafters and reapers on the roof, the ceilings and even some of the massive pillars are made of wood. Most of the wooden ceilings are decorated with exquisite carvings. Some of the woodwork was damaged over time. Termite-infested rafters had to be replaced and cracked banisters rebuilt.

"Skilled craftsmen were sought out to recreate the intricate carvings found in many buildings. In a way, the project also ensured the revival of ancient craftsmanship," says conservation archaeologist Deepa.

Protective coating

Aluminium sheets are inserted between the reapers and rafters supporting the tiled roof to prevent rainwater from leaking in and damaging a heritage structure.

Wood surfaces are provided with protective coating and buildings were given anti -termite treatment. Mesh screens are also installed to arrest the entry of bats and pigeons through the eaves.

"Periodic maintenance is a must for restored buildings. They have to be inspected and whitewashed regularly to keep them looking good, freshly- sprouted saplings have to be cleared from the walls and wooden members have to be cleaned of bird droppings," Mr. Nair says.

The challenge of conserving places of worship is even more, according to experts. At many places, churches and temples have been structurally altered, with scant regard for heritage.

Some of the buildings were given concrete roofing, marble or ceramic flooring and murals were painted over.

Conservation officials say they are also hampered by restrictions in entering temples.

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