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Hold fast to the past

Kanganahalli, a Buddha stupa, typifies everything that is wrong with archaeology and conservation in independent India, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Oct 25, 2012 21:43 IST

Near the little known village of Kanganahalli in Karnataka, lie the remains of an exceptional Buddhist stupa. Known today after that village, Kanganahalli was rediscovered as a Buddhist site in 1954 and excavated in the 1990s by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The only way to appreciate its beautiful remnants it is to visit it since no guide book is available. The ASI claims to have published the site’s excavation report but that too is neither available at the sales counter of its head office nor anywhere else.

The profusion of exquisitely carved panels, strewn over large parts of the protected site, is as remarkable in its execution as it is in the range of subjects that it depicts. Sublime panels illustrate the Buddha’s life from his mother Maya’s dream to his enlightenment. Representations of Yakshis and Nagas and the portrait sculpture of kings, including the first labelled frieze depicting the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, are among its treasures. And then, there is a singular series of animals — winged lions, elephants, camels, deer and bulls — moving in one direction, as if they were circumambulating the sacred chaitya there.

The abundance of riches at Kanganahalli is so extraordinary and on so many levels that it’s easy to forget the most extraordinary fact about it: this is the only stupa site in India today whose sculpted dome remnants still lie where they were placed nearly two thousand years ago.

The surviving stupas of ancient India are many, almost all of which have plain domes. Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh is an exception whose dome was faced with sculpted slabs. However, it was destroyed and dismantled by British explorers in the 19th century. So now, there is nothing of substance there and anyone interested in appreciating Amaravati must either visit the British Museum in London or the Government Museum in Chennai.

But what about our own post-1947 track record? The truth is that while excellent work has been done at some centrally and state protected monuments, on the whole, our archaeological heritage is as awfully endangered as our natural heritage. Kanganahalli demonstrates this and, in fact, typifies everything that is wrong about Indian archaeology and conservation post-independence.

Some 15 years after the site was excavated, Kanganahalli’s guardians are best described as modern Kumbhakarnas since systematic conservation work has not yet begun there. This was evident when I visited the site in November last year. Some of the sculptural repair looked like vandalism masquerading as conservation. The Ashoka panel, for instance, where the head of Ashoka’s queen had been defaced by a resin lump is reminiscent of how potholes on roads are repaired rather than an example of mending ancient sculpture. There was also no sequential numbering of architectural and sculpted elements at the site and one wonders how something as elementary as this was ignored by the ASI. Shockingly, parts of the protected site had recently been ploughed even while architectural elements could be seen lying in a forlorn state there. Even after rural development minister Jairam Ramesh’s visit and interventions, the ASI remains undecided about what kind of dome or cover it wants for it.

Worse was to come. Because of the celebrations around what the ASI believes to be its 150th anniversary, a few Kanganahalli panels were selected for making replicas. The mother moulds, from what senior government officers observed during their visits, were fabricated out of fiberglass. This is a tricky material to work with and, for that reason, sculptors do not use it for making the mother moulds of modern sculpture. On whose instructions were ancient panels treated in this manner at Kanganahalli and who supervised this work remains unknown. What is certain is that in the process of removing them, the panels got chipped because bits remained stuck to the mother moulds. In order to undo the damage, these were then physically and chemically ‘treated’. The damage, however, as evident from the photographs of the Ashoka panel, is there for anyone to see. And the chemical treatment was so cavalier that it has in, a couple of instances, led to the discolouration of some parts of the treated panels.

Given that Kanganahalli is a site where the illiteracy and arrogance of the ASI officers concerned seem to have reached its nadir, a group of specialists with a proven record of competence should be brought in by the government. Otherwise, it may well become independent India’s Amaravati — a place which is remembered as much for its exceptional heritage as for its wanton destruction by the very people who are meant to be its guardians.

Nayanjot Lahiri is author of the recently published Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories (Permanent Black)
The views expressed by the author are personal