Written by Sonali Dhanpal
Authenticity is a concept widely discussed, defining something true, genuine or original. The romantic notion of an ‘unspoilt’ past in people’s imagination is met by authenticity, a form of social construction. But authenticity is perceived very differently in the Indian context and this is exemplified in the replantation of the Venugopalaswamy temple in Karnataka, India.
Located near Mysore, the historic capital of Karnataka, India the Venugopalaswamy temple was built in 12th century AD. It serves as an example of Hoysala architecture with characteristic features of the style: a Mantapa (pillared hall), Vimana (Sanctum Sanctorum) and other details like lathe pillars, ornate ceilings and detailed iconography. The conception of the KRS dam and its reservoir in the area condemned the temple and the surrounding village of Kannambadi to submersion in 1909. With the onset of monsoon the temple remained underwater leaving the temple to resurface only when the level of water in the reservoir dropped. This hide and seek of the temple continued for several decades with mixed emotions – happiness on seeing the temple and the subtle warning of the looming drought which meant bad luck to the local populace, primarily an agrarian community.
In the early 2000s a philanthropist undertook the mammoth task of replanting the temple from the reservoir and the project was completed by 2011. The temple that measured 300×180 feet in its entirety was proposed to be shifted from its original site to a nearby allocated land area surrounded by the dam. An enormous number photographs – 16,000 – were taken before dismantling the original structure, each slab used in the construction marked meticulously. All physical aspects: volume, shape and form of the temple, were digitized. The task of dismantling and transporting each stone in order within the short period of drought when the temple emerged is to have proved challenging. The project was executed by artisans and sculptors from surrounding areas thus involving a varied group of expertise.
Although attempts were made to retain the stones as placed in the original structure, the years of corrosion due to water and sedimentation of the stones led the restorers to polish every stone. Albeit onlookers can identify elements of Hoysala architecture, the redressing of the stones by removing a layer of the flaky surface to a conservationist’s dismay has now provided the entire temple with a new appearance. There is one small portion of the exterior wall of the temple that has been left unfinished so the original surfaces can be seen, giving onlookers a glimpse of the past.
Ideally, authenticity is sought because of its familiarity, but in the case of the replantation of the Venugopalaswamy temple, although the structure has changed considerably, the new appearance has not diminished the enthusiasm of the hordes that throng at the temple. Despite its unconventional conservation the exercise has helped visitors connect with what was and what is and has even helped the temple evolve from serving a few deities to one that embraces many. Hence this poses an important question, ‘is authenticity and maintaining original material fabric the only way to help people connect with their past?’ This question is met with an answer provided by this example of replantation where despite alteration of the original fabric pilgrims and visitors are still presented with a numinous feeling when at the site.