Rock solid: Descendants of fort-builders are helping the ASI restore monuments
The Wadars of Maharashtra helped the Marathas and Portuguese build their massive forts. Today, they are using the same methods on projects across the country.Updated: Jan 21, 2019 15:46 IST
In 2016, the majestic ruins of the Bassein fort on the outskirts of Mumbai were made famous by Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the weekend’, which opens with shots of the ramparts and an ancient stone staircase.
The 110-acre fort, over four centuries old, is all that remains of the once-bustling port city — that, and the modern-day fort builders of Maharashtra, believed to have descended from the men and women who erected these unshakeable walls.
“The Wadars, a community of stone-cutters from the villages of Ahmednagar and Solapur districts, have unique skill when it comes to working on basalt rock,” says Kailash Shinde, a conservation assistant officer with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). “We believe it was they who were employed by the Marathas, the Portuguese and the Ahmedshahi sultans to work this very hard kind of rock into durable fortifications and fortified settlements. Workers for this kind of stone are hard to find.”
In Maharashtra, the Wadars are helping restore nine forts, he adds. They are also helping restore the Bidar fort in Karnataka, the Jhansi fort in Uttar Pradesh and the Krishna Temple in Hampi. And there are plans to rope them in to help restore the Panchalingeswara temple in Mandya, Karnataka.
“The ASI has plans to employ Wadars in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh too,” Shinde says. “Most of the projects are forts, but they might be roped in to work on heritage temples too.”
One of their key skills is certainly visible in the ancient forts — the ability to cut rocks in uneven shapes such that they fit together perfectly with little else required to keep them in place.
“Their rocks are all shaped differently,” Shinde says. “They cut them in such a way that they fit into each other and form walls. If the rocks were uniform in shape, the walls wouldn’t be very effective.”
The Wadars don’t use plaster. “We use a lime-based mortar for walls, and we throw in chunks of jaggery to make the paste stronger,” says Tukaram Pawar, 56.
Another traditional recipe — used to strengthen walls — involves a paste of urad dal, okra, matki, hurda and jaggery, applied between the rocks. “This mix won’t crack. It keeps a wall strong for centuries, something cement can’t do,” says Uttam Pawar, 54.
Uttam is currently working at the Elephanta Caves, a Unesco world heritage site. It is a matter of prestige for the community that they have been chosen to work on this site, he says.
The ASI is not allowed to make any changes inside the caves without Unesco’s permission, so the workers are restoring the rock pillars at the entrance, and working on flooring.
Many of the workers take pride in the fact that they are rebuilding something they believe their ancestors erected.
“I am meant for this work,” says Tukaram. “My father loved stone-cutting work and my grandfather was a stone-cutter too. This is prestigious work that I am doing. Sometimes I wonder if I am touching the same stones that might contain the fingerprints of my forefathers. That brings respect to the work I do.”
He’s on a break from chiselling, outside the Bale Killa, a portion of the Bassein fort that was commissioned by Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat in the early 16th century. A few years later, the Shah would sign away all of Bassein, among other territories, to the Portuguese, and they would convert Bale Killa into a cathedral and rename the fort after St Sebastian.
Most of the Wadars brought over by ASI contractors are aged 35 to 55. “We look out for middle-aged workers because they have honed their skill,” says Manish Rai, an assistant archaeologist in the Mumbai circle. “For projects involving basalt and granite rock, we ask the agencies and contractors to look specifically for Wadars.”
Every worker has a set of tools they take everywhere, brought from their respective villages. The tools include a hammer with a wooden body, a small axe, a spear-like tool for chiselling, and a resting iron rod for balance. One worker won’t use another’s equipment.
In fact, many also have a favoured blacksmiths back home, who makes, repairs and replaces the instruments. “I go to one particular blacksmith and only him. He knows how broad the handle of my hammer should be,” says Vijay Dhotre, 35.
Caring for the instruments is crucial — it ensures they last longer, and work better. “A hammer typically needs replacement every five years, but I work best with my own instruments, which I have learnt to balance and wield,” says Tukaram.
Every morning, the workers sharpen their axe and spear-like tools with a special, thick blade. “The government used to provide instruments but we feel better working with our own,” Dhotre says. “The work is best when done with our tools.”
A HARD LIFE
The seniormost Wadar at the Bassein site is Nagu Mhaske, who is in his late 60s. “I used to accompany my father to work sites, mostly temples and quarries, as a child. Back then, stone-cutters were well-dressed, respected, not like us today.”
Tukaram, seated next to him, is wearing a white shirt painted brown by mud. He massages the base of his thumb, which is always slightly swollen from contact with the stone.
The men speak longingly of their roots. “My great-grandfather worked under the minister of a Peshwa,” says Uttam. “In those days, every stone-cutter would be given a document guaranteeing basic facilities. The document bore the royal seal and signatures of ministers. My great-grandfather had one and wherever he went for work, if he produced that document, he would be given a place to stay, good pay, and food.”
In the villages, some families have preserved those documents and still hold on to them with pride.
Today’s Wadars earn Rs 300 to Rs 900 a day (women are paid less than the men). They live in shanty-like shelters erected on site; make their own arrangements for food. Many have no one to leave their children with back home, so husband and wife both work on site, and the children go to school whenever possible. On a weekday at Elephanta, five- and six-year-olds run around playing hide-and-seek.
“Once our children turn 10 or 11, they start to learn the stone work,” says Vaishali Dhotre, who comes from a family of farmers but has learnt the stone work after marriage.
- The Wadars are currently helping restore the Unesco World Heritage site of the Elephanta Caves in Maharashtra, as well as the four-century-old Bassein fort on the outskirts of Mumbai, and nine other forts in the state — at Shivneri, Sindhudurg, Kolaba, Janjira, Panhala, Devgiri, Narnala, Gavilgad and Solapur
- The ASI has also roped in the Wadars to work on the Bidar fort in Karnataka, the Jhansi fort in Uttar Pradesh and the Krishna temple in Hampi.
- There are now plans to rope them in to work on the Panchalingeswara temple in Mandya, Karnataka, where work is underway in phases, and on heritage sites in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.
There was a time when youngsters were urged to join this profession; Wadar women were considered a good match because you could then learn and join the trade. “Thanks to the ASI, we at least have our livelihood,” says Sahebrao Bhosle, who is in his late 70s and is working at the Elephanta caves.
Those who can, though, encourage their children to opt for higher study, and white-collar professions. Many of the workers talk of children studying to be engineers, or teachers.
The ASI stresses that the workers get the minimum wage mentioned in the gazette of restoration projects. “Working with the government also gives them Provident Fund benefits,” says superintendent archaeologist of the Mumbai Circle, Bipin Chandra Negi.
It is very important to identify specific craft communities while restoring monuments, says historian and writer Rana Safvi.
“According to heritage laws, monuments have to be restored in exactly the same way as they were built. Identifying traditional communities who performed those tasks is vital if you want to restore accurately. That way you will be utilising a skillset that already exists.”
The tragedy in India, is that craftsmen, due to loss of patronage, are migrating to unskilled labour such as driving autorickshaws or working with contractors to clear garbage,” says Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, former vice-chairman of Intach (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and the person who helmed the Unesco award-winning restoration of Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad city museum.
“The ASI is doing a good thing by hiring these communities,” Mehta adds. “We need to empower them by training them in design, exposing them to the international art platforms and standards.”
Documenting their knowledge, as the ASI is doing, is also an important way to preserve their knowledge. “However, the government also needs to be sensitive towards these workers, as with all workers who don’t have unions to speak on their behalf.”