Does having a UNESCO tag matter for monuments? What collapse of Virupaksha temple at Hampi tells us

The issues and threats at Hampi are not new

ONLINE COLUMNS TEMPLATE - 2 The Virupaksha Temple in Hampi | via

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time at Hampi, learning about the region's ancient history and exploring the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, the last great Hindu kingdom in history.

Situated in the Southern bank of the Tungabhadra River in the state of Karnataka, Hampi’s boulders welcome geologists from all parts of the world while the 14th and 15th Century monuments have been an active archaeological site since 1865. With over 1,600 structures uncovered till date, the nationally protected monuments were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1986.

Given the monuments' cultural importance, protected status and UNESCO tag, I was rather disappointed to read about the collapse of a portion of the Virupaksha Temple. If a site of such prominence is neglected, what is the hope for the other protected monuments of India? Do these badges of honour hold no value? Besides making sensational headlines, social media news and leading to over tourism in many cases.

The issues and threats at Hampi are not new. I recall my conflicting excitement on seeing this archaeological marvel and the masses of tourists flocking and thinking good management was the need of the hour. Later I was informed that unplanned development has not only impacted the local community but also affected the Tungabhadra River, which once provided natural fortification for the Vijayanagara

kingdom. Unauthorised building, encroachment near the river, has led to excessive dumping in the river and, in turn, eutrophication, causing the loss of invaluable marine life. The polluted, dried up river is now being cleaned.

Why are we always on the defence, practising damage control measures after the damage has been done? These monstrosities seem to be happening despite there being proper guidelines in place for nationally protected monuments as well as for heritage structures that hold a UNESCO tag.

The Vitthala Temple Complex, is the most popular temple at Hampi. The complex not only welcomes pilgrims but also invites lovers of cultural heritage, architecture, history and art. The temple complex consists of one of the most majestic pieces of architecture at Hampi, a beautifully carved stone chariot.

The attraction for the stone chariot eventually led to it becoming the logo of Karnataka tourism. In an attempt to project the chariot as a tourism icon for the state and display its importance the Archaeological Survey of India, installed floodlights in the temple. This was supposedly done to enhance the beauty of the temple and attract more visitors.

However, it has led to a number of concerns by professional conservators and locals, such as the effect of the continuous heat directly and in close proximity with the stones. Historic structures as ancient as Hampi’s monuments require professional care and maintenance. I would assume a body such as the ASI, must have the experts required.

Several parts of Hampi are being restored by the CSR branch of Jindal Steel Works (JSW). However, private-public partnerships can only be so effective. The onus is on the Archaeological Survey of India.

One of the most advanced structures of Dravidian architecture in the complex, the Rang Mandapa (pillar) includes 56 musical pillars, which produce melodious chimes when struck on. The increase in tourists combined with the inadequate security has resulted in a large number of people coming and hitting the pillars not realising that the pillars are fragile and cannot be misused. A group of tourists who were

curious to find out the source of the sound ended up damaging two such pillars. The damage done could not be undone but it did wake up the authorities and as a result the number of tourists entering the Mandapa has been regulated.

Why were there no clear rules, regulations and guidelines in place prior to this destruction? The World Heritage tag has played an important role in attracting tourism, especially internationally, at Hampi. But sadly it seems to have no impact where proactiveness and monument conservation is concerned. The recent collapse of a part of the Virupaksha Temple is testimony to this. Which is surprising, as one of the criterias for the monument getting the tag is its exemplary temple architecture.

While restoration has been taken up in a phased manner, the authorities seem to have slept for too long before beginning this work. Badges and tags, will hold no meaning if the purpose they were given for, will soon cease to exist. It is time we took a hard look at the way we maintain our monuments and preserve the ancient temples we have instead of resurrecting new ones.