Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Thinking 'Conservation': What do we conserve, why, and for whom

What is a protected site? What is a monument? What is a temple?
This blog will discuss the questions above through onsite experiences. The questions were triggered while documenting a protected monument complex. The site, a ruined temple complex, was considered a monument as defined by archaeological acts and not under worship, meaning no puja was performed.
Let me describe the site, its setting and then the incident. We were working in the dark interiors of one of the cells in the complex: the floor was covered with debris and bat droppings, hearing us moving about some bats flew out, others continued to hang overhead in the darkest corners, we treaded carefully checking for snakes. Added to this there were many open joints and cracks on the inner wall through which the mud core of the double wall had spilled out. Many other cells of the complex were inaccessible due to collapsed inner walls which prevented our entry, besides the mud and debris accumulation around them. Such ruins were of course the living spaces of chameleons, large lizards, scorpions, cockroaches and other animal life that we could only hear but not see due to low visibility. We could only guess what they might be. As the sun rose overhead, we felt the scorching heat through the gaps, and the roof overhead which had lost its waterproof coating. The above describes our typical site, an exceptional case would be if we managed to access most parts of the site. The setting was also typical of most of the sites we work in, generally in a small village, with few or no caretakers.
Based on past requests and experience, at such sites, though they are declared monuments not under worship, within the premises our team would work without footwear. This was of course not a stated rule but an understood norm and applies to visitors too. The first incident involved a visitor who got into a tiff with a villager who preferred the visitor remove footwear before entering the “temple complex”. Neither the villager nor the visitor would budge. The villager was a local, likely with emotional attachment to the site as ‘temple’. The visitor on the other hand just saw a ‘ruin’.
The second incident is one we used to see in such monuments / temple complexes not under worship but with ticketed entry. Residents would demand ticketless entry as the monument was part of ‘their’ village. In this particular instance a local said it was “their temple” with a sense of pride and ownership and demanded entry to the site. Another time a resident spoke about how the access to his fields used to run just beside the complex but now it is fenced off.
These above incidents are just couple of many such “situations” where the historic structure is “a monument” for visitors but “a temple” for others. Or a part of their village that ‘outsiders’ are now claiming. All too often we would be mute spectators to such instances with the question of “whom these spaces are being conserved” running through our minds.

Based on field experience and training I could see both sides to the incidents above, i.e. “why can't the visitor respect the villager’s viewpoint as a person who is attached to the temple probably since his ancestor’s times”. On the other hand “why can’t the villager understand that temples were not designed to be visited during peak hours of the day and now that someone is visiting in the heat it would be difficult to walk barefoot and avoid stepping on droppings, debris and animals”.
These are some of the difficult situations that we face as field based conservation architects,who straddle the world between conserving ‘monuments’ that have survived time and appreciating the 'monument' as ‘ruined temple’, that is part and parcel of people's’ daily lives, their homes, and backyards.