The Challenges of Heritage Conservation at the Da Parvatiya Site, Assam-India

by Ms. Deeplakshmi B. Saikia

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Assam, India

The protection and care of tangible cultural heritage is called conservation. Conservation is undertaken to maintain or increase the benefit from an object- be it monetary or non-monetary (cultural values such as identity, artistic, technical or rarity values, or socio-economic values such as economic, functional, educational or political values). This value attributed to historical objects or heritage sites does not occur naturally and is credited to human beings in a socio-cultural context. It is the result of human thought. Thus, conservation should include the social and cultural processes which an object has undergone in order to include practical concerns, instead of only theoretical reasoning.

In the context of conservation, these values are usually at stake because there is a conflict between continuity and change. There is variance of opinion between what material components should be stagnated or stabilize, and which social and cultural processes should be allowed to be continued that aid in the reproduction and development of the society. Moreover, the attribution of these values is a subjective process which makes conservation of such objects all the more complicated.

The process of conservation involves several sub-steps which includes cleaning, stabilization, repair and restoration. All conservation processes, however, may not include all of these steps. Cleaning means clearing up the surface area of an object in order to enhance its detail, whether it be texture, color or topography. Cleaning brings up the issue of dirt which might have accumulated on the object during different times and processes, which will in turn determine whether and/or how much should be cleaned. The different deposits on an object may be of the following type:

  • Dirt which has accumulated ‘in the museum’ (i.e., since the object was first collected)
  • Dirt which accumulated when the object was in use (i.e., between manufacture and collection)
  • Deposits applied intentionally during use
  • Soil deposits on archaeological objects
  • Alteration products arising from chemical changes to the object

Stabilization is sometimes also referred to as preservation preventive conservation in which further deterioration of the object is checked. This is usually done by setting the environment (temperature, relative humidity, light, human contact, etc.) surrounding the object to acceptable perimeters. But in the case of some objects made of materials such as ceramics and porous stones, their composition might be altered in order to prevent their condition from worsening. Removal of certain such elements may change the makeup of the object and it is an irreversible action, but it is often carried out in the interest of protecting the artwork or archaeological object.

When an object has dismantled, the rejoining of its parts is called repairing. Repairing too sometimes is an irreversible process and it also may sometimes change the overall look of the object. Repairing is also questionable when the cause behind the breakage of the object is considered.

Restoration involves the irreversible processes such as gap-filling, repairing, restoring missing pieces, etc. Since these involve permanent changes, they are the most contested conservation processes. They also bring into question whether the restoration is really being done in order to safeguard the longevity of the object or is it being done for aesthetic purposes. This question is important in order to justify the act of restoration. However, this is just one issue. Other naysayers may also bring up the importance of deterioration as a part of the history of the object and challenge any changes to it or its prevention.

As already mentioned, the conservation process may involve some or all of these steps. But what determines the selection of these steps is the way the condition and damage of an object is viewed at by people. Damage is subject to observer and context. So while a particular object may be considered to be damaged by an art historian, it may not be seen so by the public. It may be seen as a change which the object has undergone under the natural process of life. And they are right from that perspective because not all change is damage, and it is the viewpoint of some communities that certain objects are meant to change and ‘die’ over years, and not be frozen in time. While some other communities may be of the opinion that if an object is meant for a certain, it should be used, disregarding the damage or change that may occur during its course. And indeed, in some cases use does increase the benefit of an object. For if an object was to be stored away only to be preserved, then it might well not exist. On the other hand, it is also true that most damage occurs due to use. Therefore, a single viewpoint is not enough to arrive at an acceptable rate of damage.

Assam, which is situated in the north-eastern part of India, is home to some of the earliest rock-cut cave architecture which has been dated between 300 or 200 BCE and 100 CE, by some scholars. However, although sculptural art representing gods, goddesses and divine figures are found in abundance across the state, no sculptural art dating to before the 5th century CE are found. It is surmised that sculptural activities began in Assam with the expansion of the Gupta empire. The Gupta period, existing from approximately 240 to 590 CE is considered to be the classical period of Indian art and architecture. Along with a relatively stable political, economic and social environment, art, architecture, as well as other fields of study flourished extensively.

Rear view of the Da Parvatiya site, © Deeplakshmi Saikia

Sculptural remains belonging to the 5th-6th century CE period have been found at Da Parvatiya, Mikir-Ati, Badganga, Kamakhya and Dudhnoi. The site that will be studied in the current context is Da Parvatiya. Da Parvatiya, which is a small village situated in west Tezpur in Assam, is home to some monumental stone art. It has the remains of a 6th century temple. During the Ahom period (13th century to 19th century), a Shiva temple was built over the Gupta period temple. In 1897, a major earthquake occurred in Assam which destroyed the Shiva temple and the ruins of the Gupta period temple underneath were exposed.

The ruins of the Ahom period temple are in the form of a sanctum sanctorum and a pavilion. The ruins of the original temple include two upright door jambs and sill made of stone, bearing images of the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna standing on a crocodile and a tortoise, respectively. Other images include Surya, Lakulisha, attendants, geese, flora, etc. Some of the images have partially eroded which makes their identification dubious. The relief sculptures at this site share the characteristics of the Sarnath school of Indian art.

Front view of the Da Parvatiya site, © Deeplakshmi Saikia

The heritage site is enclosed on all four sides by low brick walls and there is an office of security cooperation. There is also an office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), but which was closed when I visited the site recently, and which looked like it has not been opened in a long time. There were visitors to the site who were leaving when I reached. The overall natural surroundings of the archaeological remains is well-maintained lush greenery. But the actual historical objects seem to have been left to be handled by the general public.

The Shiva lingam, which is an aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva, stands in the sanctum sanctorum. It has been wrapped by a red cloth and offerings in the form of flowers, earthen lamps, food and even money has been made to it. These are recent activities as is fairly evident from the freshness of the offerings. Thus, a heritage site with archaeological remains which go back to the 6th-7th century CE is still being actively used for the same purpose for which it was built. There has also been hung a metal bell which is always present in Hindu temples. The ringing of this bell by devotees is believed to produce an auspicious sound. This bell at the site under consideration too is a recent addition.

The door jamb and the Shiva lingam, © Deeplakshmi Saikia

Such usage of a site is heartening from one point of view, that is, it is still in use for what it was originally constructed. In that way, it can be considered a living tradition or a living history which goes back to many centuries. It can be fascinating to study and imagine the various changes that have undergone in the use of such sites over the years. Instead of barricading it, preventing people from coming close and being in touch with it, or carrying away specimens from such a site to a museum or a gallery where it becomes even more unreachable for people, the Da Parvatiya site can be said to be a still operating historical site. In a way, this also is an act of conservation. This also ensures that people will keep visiting this site, even if for only religious concerns. But won’t that also ensure that they are making history in the process, besides learning about the site, no matter how little? It must also be mentioned here that this site belongs to the current worshippers as much as it does to conservators as well as the people who were involved in its production several hundred years ago.

However, it is known for a fact that most Indian Hindu temples are not the cleanest of sites. And thus, the Da Parvatiya site can seem like a conservator’s nightmare. The sanctum sanctorum surrounding the lingam is layered with materials used for worship including oil and soot. The ground is blackened and covered with oil, and other materials such as flowers, leaves, eatables, matchsticks, remains of incense sticks, etc. Due to exposure to the lighting of earthen lamps, the lower portions of the Ganga and Yamuna reliefs is covered with black soot almost beyond recognition. There are also marks of vermilion on some of the reliefs as it is a custom to apply vermilion on the foreheads of people and the statue of deities.

The remains of the pavilion, in the form of stone slabs, have been arranged in the form of seats. This might have been done to facilitate visitors and devotees to the site. Besides the stone slabs, there are also other relief sculptures and pillars which lay scattered in the pavilion. There are also large stacks of bricks dating back to the Ahom period in the area. These objects lay exposed to human and environmental factors and thus risk of deterioration. All the care and supervision undertaken by the ASI authorities seem to extend to only the area surrounding the actual site, i.e., the lawn and the walls enclosing the site. But the exposure of such historical objects to natural and human factors is not something unique to this site. This can even be seen in many Indian museums whose laws often feature sculptures without any enclosure or protection for their preservation.

Area of worship, © Deeplakshmi Saikia

Coming back to all the oil, grime and soot accumulated at the site and its objects, can these be considered to be ethnographical dirt- dirt collected due to original use of the object? And if these are cleaned, will it really be considered to be an act of restoration or repair? Moreover, such acts of cleaning will have temporary effect because the site is still an active temple and worshippers will continue coming here for religious purposes. Also, cleaning of objects is not governed by the museum ethical code, but by the requirements of the users or the owners of the object. The site contains both utilitarian objects (example, the Shiva lingam) and objects for decorative or religious purposes (example, the reliefs of the door jamb). The word ‘repair’ is used for utilitarian objects and the word ‘restoration’ for decorative/religious purposes, but the difference is considered to be illusive. Cleaning, as an act of restoration, can remove parts of the object which has developed because of utilization of the object. Such removal can compromise the integrity of the object. It is even more contestable because the results of such actions are usually irreversible. Although the Da Parvatiya site is under the authority of the ASI, it is clearly actively utilized more by the general public. In any case, heritage is the asset of mankind and the public should have as much say in the conservation of the site as much as any art historian or archaeologist or conservator. According to the UKIC Guidance for Conservation Practice, “nothing should be removed from an object without sufficient evidence that it is not part of the original condition of the object”. Even though the removal of corrosion products is ethically acceptable to UKIC, will our appreciation of a historical site or object be deficient if these deteriorative products were not removed? Or will it enhance our understanding of the site even more?

Goddess Ganga, © Deeplakshmi Saikia

It is usually the kind of object that determines the requirements of the curators or the conservators, and it is usually their views which are considered. But expectations of the public should also be considered. This will be more problematic when the views of the public and the associates of the conservators do not coincide. Moreover, the public might also have expectations from the restorer themselves. A public relations campaign in order to spread awareness about what is being done to the historical object or site and why will aid in arriving at a mutual decision. decision.

Goddess Yamuna, © Deeplakshmi Saikia

Thus as is evident, conservation processes should not only consider the shape of the object, they should also take into account the changes that will occur in the chemical and physical composition of the object. Moreover, the value attributed to the object and by whom is also crucial when considering conservation, most of the processes of which are irreversible. It is usually the people who are directly involved in the ‘discovery’, collection and care of such artworks or artifacts whose consultation is considered expertise and is valued but dialogue between them and the public to whom cultural heritage is supposed to also belong is very crucial. Conservation is thus not just a scientist’s domain to be carried out with only empirical data. It can involve contestations, discussions, emotions and values among a wide range of people.

Bibliography

  • Choudhury, R. D. (1998) Art Heritage of Assam. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.
  • Szmelter, I. (2013) New Values of Cultural Heritage and the Need for a New Paradigm Regarding its Care. Retrieved from https://journals.openedition.org/cero/3647
  • Smith-Ashley, J. (1995) Definitions of Damage. Retrieved from www.scribd.com/document/296708962/Definitions-of-Damage-Jonathan-Ashley-Smith-1995
  • Torraca, G. (1999) The Scientist in Conservation, The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, 14 (3), 8-10.
  • Oddy, W. A. (1994) Restoration: Is It Acceptable? London: the British Museum Press.
  • Oddy, W. A. (1999) Does Reversibility Exist in Conservation? London: the British Museum Press.
  • Walter, N. (2014) From Values to Narrative: a New Foundation for the Conservation of Historic Buildings, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 20 (6), 634-650.
  • Zancheti, S.M. & Jokilehto, J. (1997) Values and Urban Conservation Planning: Some Reflections on Principles and Definitions. Journal of Architectural Conservation, 1 (3), 37-51.

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