India - Sea change: Shore Temple sculptures on Mahabalipuram coast undergo irrevocable decay
A study finds that some of the sculptures in the Shore Temple are deteriorating due to sea exposure and salt accumulation. Conservation experts suggest solutions to protect the monument.
CHENNAI: Ambling along sun-soaked sand amid memories of youth crashing in like waves off the Mahabalipuram coast, P Rajendran, moving past 60, takes a stroll down memory lane, recalling his childhood days when the trove of sculptures and carvings on the walls of the Shore Temple were still well defined and marked by vivid contours. “This temple at the edge of the sea is our heritage. We should preserve it from further decay at any cost,” he says.
As the sun peaks mid-day, peeking over the horizon at the complex of shrines laden with history from the reign of Pallava king Narasimhavarman II, a sense of dread takes over Rajendran. Two months into retirement from the post of the principal of the government college of architecture and sculpture, Mahabalipuram, Rajendran frequents the temple overlooking the Bay of Bengal, caressing the sculptures made of native granite stones.
“The corrosion of the granite has been severe over the past 40 years or so,” says Rajendran, greeting one of the caretakers with a wave of hand. He points to the carving of an ancient man surmounted by a sculptured lion, which, over time, succumbed to disfigurement caused by the phenomenon of alveolarisation or honeycomb weathering. “We should preserve it from further decay at any cost,” he repeats.
Prevailing winds from the coast hovered over, scouring the edifices and gusting up to even 40 k/ph. Something it hoisted from the coast evoked dread.
Something was amiss… something abysmal…… falling through the cracks. Calling forth immediate attention.
According to a recent study in the Heritage journal by MDPI, sculptures on the side of the seventh-century granite monument, exposed directly to the sea, have been “obliterated beyond recognition.”
The deterioration of the architectural heritage has been accelerated by the four-fold interplay of salt weathering, marine aerosol, alveolarisation, and sandblasting occurring over time, indicates the study that was conducted between 1990 and 1997 by manager Rajdeo Singh, the then deputy superintending chemist of the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Some of the damage endured are irrevocable.
“Salt spray picked up by winds from the coast moves in the direction of the temple, depositing salt into cracks in the granite stone,” says Singh, who retired from the ASI as the superintending archeological chemist in 2015. “The accumulated salt gradually evaporates and crystallises, disintegrating the sculpture and weakening the structure,” he adds.
Over seven years, Singh conducted extensive research to determine the deterioration mechanism induced by salt weathering on the Shore Temple. Deteriorated and pristine stone samples were analysed using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), atomic absorption spectrometer, conductivity meter, SEM-EDX, DTA-TGA, petrological analysis, and FTIR for the study.