SREE VADAKKUNNATHAN TEMPLE CONSERVATION PROJECT

BY dd ARCHITECTS

Restored through a continuous effort spanning over a decade, Sree Vadakkunnathan Temple Conservation Project was carried out under the supervision of Thrissur-based Vinod Kumar MM of dd Architects. The process focuses on the authentic with an idea of reviving traditional workmanship through an amalgamation of interdisciplinary interventions.

Located in the heart of Thrissur – the cultural capital of Kerala, Sree Vadakkunnathan Temple (incrementally built around 12th century) has played a significant role in the evolution of the temple town. Conceived as the conceptual centre of the temple town, the place continues to be a living institution in the core of the new and aggressive developments around.

The sprawling fortified temple complex consists of multiple structures performing their specific roles – a comprehensive cluster in the urban fabric of Thrissur – the Sree Vadakkunnathan Temple Complex. The orthogonally planned temple complex sits on a hillock with four entrances at the main axis cardinal access points following the traditional scheme of the Kerala temples. With an undetermined date of origin, the temple is a time-honoured illustration of the local architecture headlining a reserve of invaluable knowledge systems of the past. The elaborate open spaces, institutions, vernacular housing, the customs and practices along with the social, spatial and the spiritual fabric of Thrissur has built an irreplaceable relationship with the geography of the temple structures.

After centuries of exposure to tropical monsoons and no recorded holistic repair and restoration works, a structural assessment conducted in the 1990s red-flagged a considerable part of the complex left in a state of disrepair and distress. The Vadakkunnathan being a repository of heritage and culture, an integrated conservation approach based on restoring this intangible landscape was essential. The legacy and the heritage of this place is a crucial driver in shaping the identity of Thrissur. A living entity, the temple complex is a continuing link to the viscera of the history of Thrissur. Enveloped by a changing urban fabric and yet effectively located amidst a conservative community, the residents were the prime drivers of efforts behind the conservation of The Vadakkunnathan. Day-to-day activities of the temple are administered and managed by the state agency – Cochin Devaswom Board, while the temple is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The funding and the human resources for the conservation project were provided by the VGKT, which is the Venugopalaswamy Kanikaryam Trust, Chennai.

Vinod Kumar MM of dd Architects led, facilitated and co-ordinated the decade long conservation project. Outlining his philosophical rooting in executing such a conservation process, Vinod writes, “The temple conservation process itself is incomplete without the elaborate traditions and rituals which are performed with the same respect and vigour as they were hundreds of years ago.”

SPATIAL EXPERIENCE
Positioned in a unique cultural realm, the commanding multifaceted temple precinct embodies dynamic systems and sub-systems with physical and metaphysical hierarchies. Being a sacred and religious a site, many customs dictate the access routes and controls for the spaces within the precinct. The main shrine, positioned in the centre of the complex, is surrounded by multiple verandas and courtyards. At the Vadakkunnathan, the innermost sanctum is wrapped in complete darkness and the progression into this space is a ritualistic movement where one undergoes dynamic experiences through the hierarchies of transition spaces filtering light in various qualities before reaching the sanctum. Light is and endemic element to the planning and design of the temples of South India. There is an inherent building diagram that follows the solar and the lunar calendar in response to more metaphysical and mythical layers.The Vadakkunnathan has a complex and distinct timber construction system which is characterised by a refined craftsmanship.

It is a repository of formal knowledge, structural clarity, tradition, symbolism and above all, material and workmanship in timber. There is an inherent endurance to the in the materials used, and the monumentality of the place is evidenced by the intricate use of timber and copper details and not through imposing scale or form.

MATERIAL HERITAGE – CONSTRUCTION CULTURES
The authenticity in place is reinforced by its cultural milieu. Being closely involved with the process for years, Vinod has restrained the project to a minimum intervention in an attempt to retain the ethos of the existing structures. The Vadakkunnathan Temple Conservation Project is an example of an intervention in living heritage – a case for many historic spaces across India. The learnings from the process has also informed Vinod’s contemporary practice. Vinod’s vision as a conservation architect to was to revive the craftsmanship which in turn informs his practice as well. While contemporary conservation attitudes either swing towards more stylistic restorations to outright insensitivity, Vinod intervenes in a way that the critical aspects of heritage – it’s ancient atmosphere and its ritualistic significance remains unchanged. The execution is rooted in the traditions.

Vinod explains, “Every sacred space has its relationship with the cosmic energies and renews itself at intervals It is highly important to understand these energy fields as well, the use of organic materials compatible to them while attempting any conservation interventions. The significant materials used for the temple construction were timber, lime, stone and copper. A traditional herbal mixture in oil called Ashtakuttu (a mixture of eight ingredients). was applied on to the wooden members used in the temple construction for protecting it from termites and other weathering issues.” In replacing the copper roof shingles, the architect limits the work to the places where it is absolutely necessary and by treating only the damaged parts of the timber, makes this project an important precedent.

The patina of transformation is visible through the layers of the old and the new. These visible accounts of transformation now remain open to scrutiny.

History and contemporary practice has found a place in a building which has been restored over a certain period of time and while it does not reject the notion of transformation, it deals with transformation with a degree of reverence choosing to expose the magnificence of the old in proximity to the new and the restored.

The architect references collective knowledge. In India, the patterns of building trade occupations have traditionally followed a conservative caste system, recognising and working with this reality was intrinsic to the conservation process. Around five hundred artisans and craftsmen were associated with the restoration process over a time span of fifteen years.

The idea of the community engaging with the project helped resurrect the crafts and the sentimentality towards some processes.

These craftsmen engage with local contemporary practices today – thus safeguarding the practices as custodians of this intangible heritage of making.

RITUALISTIC CONTINUITY
A restoration project of this scale is not just an effort of looking into the material aspects, it also demands a careful study of the ritualistic heritage. The processes that are intrinsic to the life of the building must not been overwhelmed. Vinod had to work closely with the temple authorities running the cultural establishment to ensure that these essential continuities remain unbroken. His process has been conscious of this rich cultural repository. A considerable amount of contribution, guidance and knowledge also came from the occupants who administer the temple. The multiple philosophical layers of indispensable traditions attached to architectural space have an equal standing in the process of conservation. The execution of the project carefully accounts for and is done in conformity with the conventional building techniques and craftsmanship. This makes The Vadakkunnathan Temple Conservation Project a distinct illustration for contemporary heritage practices in the country.

It is an exemplification of restoration the intangible through a restoration of the tangible. The project balances the conventions and the mandates put forth by the various stakeholders and agencies involved in the execution with a clear structure and hierarchy along with a defined scope of work.

These stakeholders include the heritage authorities, communities, the local government and the administrators of the complex.

THE PUBLICNESS OF THE LIVING HERITAGE
Sree Vadakkunnathan Temple Precinct is a living structure which will always remain relevant to the transforming realities of town of Thrissur. It sits in a contested, yet a democratic realm and the consequences of this conservation process is accessible to all. It is an effort of restoration in the public domain.

The engagement and the participation of the community is not limited to the ritualistic use, it extends to the changing urban landscape of the temple town over years to come.

The process of design and the restoration effort takes into account the space surrounding the temple complex – its immediate context. Being an ASI protected monument site, the immediate radius remains porous to the urban community engaging with the space. The temple precinct remains adaptable and behaves as a nodal entity for the town. The conscious interventions do not extend to materiality solely but also these larger ideas including blurring the thresholds, thus allowing flexibility while reinforcing present urban connections. There are not many known, similar examples of living heritage within our urban centres that can afford the rich open space Vadakkunnathan possesses and to deal sensitively with this space is central to the new interventions. In this process, there is an underlying idea of preservation of an ancient public space.

GOING BEYOND
What emerges as a reflection of this process is that “Communicating the significance of a heritage site is equally important as conserving it. All efforts including expert workshops, exhibitions, seminars and publications – have been taken to communicate the essence of conservation works done to protect this living monument with all its authenticity and integrity.”

The Vadakkunnathan Temple Conservation Project was honoured with the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award of Excellence for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2015. It presents a compelling vision which potentially allows us to understand better, the changing roles of heritage spaces trapped within aggressively growing urban centres. The conservation project initiates a discourse on celebrating the idea of preserving and continuing the rich heritage of material craft along with a consciousness of the experiential heritage – the real and the mythical – a philosophy deeply embedded in our culture. A celebration of collaboration and a commendable effort, the values embodied over the components of the built environment – it’s identity, analysis and preservation processes, its identity and its historic significance – is a step further for community efforts in preserving the fragile thread of continuity that connects our collective past to our collective future and behaves as a nodal entity for the town. Vinod’s conscious interventions do not just extend to materiality but also to these larger ideas including blurring the thresholds thus allowing flexibility while reinforcing present urban connections. We do not have many such examples of living heritage within our urban centres that can afford the rich open space The Vadakkunnathan possesses and to deal sensitively with this space is central to the new interventions. In this process, there is an underlying idea of preservation of an ancient public space♦

Image Credits: ©dd Architects, PV Padmanabhan; courtesy Vinod Kumar MM and StudioMatter, Isha Raut
Text: Isha Raut


dd architects started as the individual architectural practice of Vinod Kumar MM. During his architectural training at Ahmedabad, Vinod was introduced to Kerala’s rich architectural traditions. Soon after college in Bangalore, Vinod left to work in a French-Malaysian architectural company at Kuala Lumpur. There he worked on modern high rises. A sudden turn of events brought Vinod back to his hometown in Kerala and he started traveling around the state exploring its indigenous architecture, people and art forms.

In 2002, Vinod Kumar MM started design dreams with his first formal public project – Sakthan Tampuran heritage gardens at Thrissur. In the next one decade, design dreams undertook a variety of projects – architecture, conservation, landscape, interiors and urban revitalisation. In 2013 design dreams evolved to a full fledged studio – dd architects.

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