22 Sep 2018 - 10:00 to 12:00
Itanagar , Arunachal Pradesh
Of the many shared histories and cultures of India’s
22 Sep 2018 - 16:30 to 18:00
Varanasi , Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi has many spiritual connotations, and each of these
23 Sep 2018 - 07:00 to 09:00
Gwalior , Madhya Pradesh
  This heritage trail will begin from the south-east


Conservation by the Community


This article focuses on the unconventional understanding of the concept and relevance of ‘in situ[1] preservation of heritage’ in rural areas with special reference to stone sculptures. It is based on a field study conducted in selected villages of Delhi and Haryana. This work is worth taking up in the context of observing those archaeological relics such as images or other architectural remnants, which were perceived differently by the villagers and then incorporated in the religious paraphernalia by assigning a wholly different identity from their original one. The perceptions of residents towards such sculptural fragments which were assembled in village shrines or temples over a period of time unknowingly make them custodians of cultural and historical heritage (Lahiri 2013:423–38).[2] The crucial question which is posed is that how vital it is to study historical remains in their original setting and in what manner the artefacts are preserved by ‘illiterate villagers’ and how this practice preserves them from further pillaging. 


Since the colonial period, this practice of preserving and deifying the sculptures by the local populace has been observed by many British administrators and surveyors while touring northern India. Predominant among them was Sir Alexander Cunningham, the first Director General of Archaeological Survey of India appointed in 1861 (Fig. 1). Since the 1840’s he had the specific target of reconstructing the ancient historical geography of India by peopling it with actual sites and monuments. His view was that the ‘discovery and publication of all the existing remains of architecture and sculpture, with coins and inscriptions would throw more light on the ancient history of India, both public and domestic, than the printing of all the rubbish contained in the 18 Puranas' (Cunningham 1848:535).


From the 1870’s onwards Cunningham carried out many archaeological explorations in northern India. His archaeological investigations from 1861 to 1885 were published in 23 volumes. These are reports of an extensive documentation of broken sculptural relics and the manner in which they were revered, collected, and worshipped around religious shrines and sacred trees. He specifically asked his assistants to follow this tradition of documentation as well. One of his assistants, J.Ḍ.M. Beglar also noted many instances where villagers had collected fragments of sculpture under peepal trees, near their village. While most of the sculptural fragments were ‘rude’, as said by Beglar, he noted that on occasion there were finely executed specimens.



Fig. 1: Sir Alexander Cunningham with his collection of antiquities


Cunningham’s work was carried further by Chas. J. Rodgers who travelled extensively in the then Punjab area and mentioned the popular religious centres with special emphasis on the antiquities in his report. He stated his objective of visiting places like Thaneshwar ‘to ascertain what remains are today visible of pre-Mohammedan times, and to see the uses to which Mohammedans had turned Hindu and Jain materials (Rodgers 1891:8).’ In Kurukshetra he mentioned the tank Sunetsar with the temples and trees around it which had old images in them. There was an old image of a Buddha placed under a tree on the bank of Sunetsar (besides some other subsidiary images of Jain and Buddhist figures) which he gave specific description for, and which was later shifted to the Lahore Museum.


The post-Cunningham period is when the emphasis of the department of Archaeology shifted from fresh excavations to a more focussed approach of conservation, restoration and documentation. The prime advocator of this methodology was James Burgess (Director-General 1885–89).  Although the official records did mention the importance of in situ preservation of archaeological remains, but prior to this, the department had only sporadically allotted funds for specific conservation work. Conservation was the urgent need of the time for many reasons, prime among them concerning those antiquities which were being removed off-site, such as loose sculpted panels and figures. The accusation of damaging the heritage was on both ‘natives’ who could be targeted as the chief culprits for scouting stones and bricks, and also the British civilians and officers, who arbitrarily lifted sculptures for adorning public and private places and also frequently carried them outside India’s territory. Cunningham for instance, had no reservations about sending Indian antiquities out of the country. In the case of the sculptures found in the Yusufzai district he thought that they should be safely housed in London, while good casts could be made for the Calcutta and Lahore museums.[3]


In 1863, an act was passed which gave the Government of India the sanction to protect and preserve buildings noteworthy for their historical and architectural value. Similarly, ‘The Treasure Trove Act’ was introduced in 1878 which sanctioned the government to claim any treasure exceeding ten rupees value. By the term ‘treasure’ it means ‘anything of any value hidden in the soil, or anything affixed thereto’.[4] This act was clearly the most important of all such legislative enactments. It invested in the government of India and the provincial and local governments ‘indefeasible rights’ to the acquisition of all objects of archaeological interest, providing a detailed definition of what was classified as ‘treasure’ and ‘what constituted its value’ (Thakurta 2004:56).


In 1881, Henry Cole was appointed as the first (and, also the last) curator of ancient monuments whose task was to advise local governments on matters relating to the conservation of regional historical monuments. As far as, the concept of in situ conservation is concerned, Cole consistently pursued its advocacy. In his reports as the curator of Ancient Monuments (Cole 1881-82), he mentioned his consideration on the conservation of historical monuments in India and emphasized the responsibility of the government for the in situ preservation of the historical remains. But none of his suggestions got support, either from Cunningham or from Burgess [5] and ‘his tenure as curator seemed a dismal failure’ (Singh 2004:211).


Similarly, throughout the 20th century, the focus of the Government and Department of Archaeology was primarily on the documentation, description and conservation of larger monuments and sites.[6] Surprisingly, most of the sculptures, especially the broken ones lying within the vicinity of these magnificent monuments were left unattended, and the majority of them ended up in the possession of the local populace. The intact figures found their destination either in regional or national museums or ended up decorating the houses of their discoverers. This same phenomenon is being followed in contemporary times where we have projects worth crores on the conservation of the larger buildings signifying ‘national heritage’ both by government and private organisations [7] whereas the other ‘movable antiquities’ are often completely neglected.


During my fieldwork, I came across several undocumented mutilated images and archaeological remains, which were in the custody of villagers and preserved in rather a remarkable manner. Most of these sculptures are the architectural fragments of temples of early antiquity and the ‘accidental discovery’ of these remnants led to their deification by the local inhabitants. Usually after finding these sculptures, certain myths, stories and extraordinary miraculous powers are attached to them.  Without any sense of incongruity these sculptures are now serving a sacred purpose in their new status as the tutelary deities of the villages. This ignorance of the villagers of the textual traditions (Banerjea 1956:615)[8] often turns out to be boon for sculptures found in various parts of the country. Instances of the preservation and veneration of such sculptures has been cited from different parts of the country. For instance, Singh has pointed out that in Sonkh, near Mathura old Naga images are worshipped as Balarama, and in Parkham, there was an imposing colossal image of the Yaksha which once stood next to the village tank and was later removed by the Mathura Museum. Still in the month of January, a Jakhaiya Mela (i.e., yaksha fair) is held in the village, where a small substitute yaksha image is still worshipped by hundreds of people from surrounding villages (Singh 2004:378–98). Similarly, Lahiri has pointed out that in Mawai, Hathin and Kheri-Kalan of Ballabhgarh Tehsil diverse collections of early medieval sculptural fragments recovered from the old mounds of the village were placed in folk shrines. In Kheri-Kalan the lower half of an Uma-Maheshwara image was found, whereas in Mawai several sculptural fragments are placed at the shrine of Shitala Mata (Lahiri 1996:244–64).


As mentioned above, such examples have been sighted by me during the course of the survey of some of the villages of Delhi and Haryana. The intention was to document the places where the active worship of the sculptures was happening. It was astonishing to learn how these sculptures are not only preserved but revered as well. This strange concept of preserving the sculptures in situ by deifying them is very different from the current institutional understanding of conservation. Below are some examples:


The idol of Durga Mahishasuramardini in Madanpur, Delhi: This idol of Mahishasuramardini was found beneath the floor of the house of a resident during renovation. Since then, they have preserved it by placing it in the temple at their house. This slender idol of the goddess has 10 arms, wears a jewelled crown, and is adorned with ornaments. The lion is on her right side, and her hand is placed on Mahishasura, the demon in the form of buffalo. Not all attributes that she is carrying can be identified but the visible ones are sword, shield, lotus, and conch shell. Under the demon’s lifted foreleg is an obscure figure, perhaps an alligator which is commonly associated with the goddess (Banerjea 1956:172). Stylistically, the idol is more likely to be an image of the late medieval period (Fig. 2).



Fig. 2: The idol of Mahishasuramardini


Suchi worshipped as Dada Saangla in Mangeshpur, Delhi: Dada Saangla is a guardian deity of the village and is venerated by all irrespective of their caste. As far as the iconography of this deity is concerned, it is not in anthropomorphic form but a suchi made of sandstone, around two feet in height, which is worshipped as Dada Saangla. Suchis are the horizontal cross-bars of temple complexes of ancient and early medieval period and are usually carved on three sides. The visible portion of the suchi exhibits the carving from three sides. On one of the sides are engraved human figures holding a water jar and bent over what appears to be a Shiva linga. It seems to be a probability that this suchi is an architectural remnant of a Shiva temple that may have existed in this region. Interestingly, the way suchi is worshipped in present times is very similar to the way the Shiva linga is venerated. (Fig. 3).



Fig. 3: Lotus flower on the front side of the suchi



The sculpture of Krishna lifting up Mount Govardhana in Bhorgarh, Delhi​: This sculpture of Krishna holding aloft Mount Govardhana was found by a resident of the village. The legend of Krishna saving the people of Mathura from the wrath of Indra is widely known. The sculpture depicts Lord Krishna standing in a tribhanga posture, and holding the stepped Govardhana parvat with his left hand instead of a finger. Behind his head is shiraschakra, a halo in the shape of a lotus flower in full bloom. In his right hand, Krishna is holding a stick which appears to be a mace, an attribute of Lord Vishnu, and is surrounded by many animals, mainly cattle. On the bottom are seen two figures flanking Krishna. One of them is a male attendant holding a chakra (discus), known as Chakrapurusha, and the other is a female figure holding perhaps a lotus, called Gadadevi. The iconography of the sculpture suggests that it belongs to the post-Gupta period, perhaps the 8th or 9th century CE. This image has been recently shifted to the village temple and is worshipped as a guardian deity (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4: Krishna lifting up Mount Govardhana



Shiva-Parvati and sandstone pillars in Gujjar Kheri, Sonipat: The village temple located on a mound has yielded several architectural fragments which probably belong to early medieval times. As one proceeds to the inner chambers there are four carved pillars of sandstone supporting the roof of the sanctum. Two of the columns depict human male figures holding a conch (or maybe a vessel) and the other two pillars have an inverted lotus at the base and other floral designs on top (Fig. 5). During my visit, a section of the temple was being dug which revealed large square bricks along with some broken idols. The priest informed me that as the news spread, some idols were stolen and several attempts were made to steal the one remaining in his custody. Thus, it was unanimously decided by the villagers to place the image of Shiva-Parvati in possession of the sarpanch of the village (Fig. 6).


Fig. 5: Pillars from the temple of Gujjar-Kheri



Fig. 6: Parvati in Shiva’s lap


Surya worshipped as Shivaji Maharaj in Badli, Jhajjar: In one of the temples of the village there is an unusual and intact stone image of Surya who is popular among the villagers as Shiva. What is striking is the appearance of the sculpture which has been completely changed to suit its followers and to put it at par with competitor idols of present times. Originally of black stone, it now has been innovatively painted in a range of colours which makes it really challenging for a viewer to guess its original representation. Surya is exquisitely ornamented with an elaborate crown and is surrounded by his many attendants and mythical animals. The image is depicted wearing pointed shoes, an attribute of Surya, but the painter hides this by painting feet on it. Every Monday women throng to this small temple to worship their guardian ‘Shiva’ (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Surya worshipped as Shiva


Door jamb worshipped in Pehowa, Kurukshetra: As informed by the priest this elaborate doorway was found from the mound nearby, together with 22 stone images, and was then set up at the entrance of the Saraswati temple. In 2014, after the renovation of the temple, it was installed on a separate platform just outside the sanctum along with the foot impressions of the goddess called Saraswati Paduka. The door jamb depicts figures of Kamadeva with his two consorts, Rati and Priti but these figures are worshipped as Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati because it is believed that these three celestial rivers meet at this junction (Fig. 8).


Fig. 8: Door Jamb worshipped at Saraswati Tirath, Pehowa, Kurukshetra


There were many more such examples found while touring these areas. Before beginning this work, I took references from various books which mentioned the sculptures in this region. However, when I went in pursuit of them, almost half had already disappeared (Handa 2006, Singh 2003). During the exploration, villagers and priests of religious centres informed me that out of all those sculptures which had been found by the villagers only a few managed to find their place in shrines and temples. Most of the remains get stolen either before or after their installation and are later sold, because of their immense value in the domestic and foreign market. Many sculptures were seized by the local police and the customs department while being smuggled, but despite efforts the pillage continues (Handa 2006).[9] The irony is that in most places, as I have been informed and have witnessed, politicians, people in government service and other locally dominant people who should be curbing such practices are themselves involved in this illegal trade. Also, in some places due to obliviousness of the villagers some old images were discarded after being branded as old fashioned as they were worn out and were replaced by newer and intricately ornamented marble ones.[10]  For this reason, it becomes even more essential to document these historical relics in situ before the heritage is lost permanently.


It is also pertinent to establish the role of sculptures as historically functional objects, in defining the socio-geo-cultural phenomena and the sacred landscape of the rural areas. For a scholar especially, studying an artefact in its natural setting is crucial not only when considering the original purpose the image served in the past, but also to reconstruct its journey to modern times in order to get a sense of the cultural evolution of a society.  It is mandatory to consider an inter-disciplinary approach towards this concept since the study of different social groups in present times might be helpful towards probing the mindset of these groups which gave these sculptures different 'incarnations' in display. This research itself is a combination of archaeology, art history, religious history, geography, anthropology as well as sociology.


Cunningham mentioned the significance of fragments of sculptures collected under trees and worshipped in older villages. Emphasizing the importance of documenting such examples, he said:


In noting these few examples, I desire chiefly to direct attention to the many curious and old-fashioned things which still exist in several parts of India. Some of these may help to throw light on the scenes sculptured on old monuments; others may serve to illustrate passages in ancient authors; whilst all will be valuable for preserving the knowledge of things which in many places are now fast passing away, and will soon become obsolete and forgotten. (Cunningham 1871)




[1] In situ means in its original place.


[2] Lahiri has done extensive research in various parts of the subcontinent and has focused primarily on understanding the relevance of the preservation by different communities of objects of antiquarian interest.


[3] Letter No. 89, dated Shimla, 12 August 1875, from Cunningham to the officiating Secretary to the Government of India, Home Proceedings/Public, September 1875, no. 197, Part A, The Oriental and India Office Collection of the British Library. Cited in Singh (2004:214).


[4] ‘Indian Treasure Trove Act, 1878’ online at www.asi.nic.in/pdf_data/9.pdf


[5] In fact, there was strong difference of opinion between Burgess and Cole regarding the removal of Amravati sculptures. Cole supported in situ preservation whereas Burgess wanted to shift them to the museum which led to a fallout between both of them.


[6] Presently, there are around 35 World Heritage Sites in India, natural and cultural, recognised by UNESCO. These sites are allocated huge funds for restoration and conservation.


[7] I personally visited Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and observed the amount of money spent on the restoration of the monument by the Archaeological Survey of India and Aga Khan Trust for Culture, co-funded by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. The grand ‘inauguration’ of the site, after the restoration process was finally over, was done by the then Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh.


[8] Pratimanalakshanam a text on the measurement of the images and icons, have specifically cautioned worshippers that ‘the image of a deity, if it be burnt, worn out, broken or split up, after its establishment or at the time of its enshrinement, will always be harmful. Cited in Lahiri (2013:427).


[9] Handa in his work has mentioned that two pillars belonging to Shunga period from Amin near Kurukshetra were stolen and seized by custom authorities while being shipped abroad.


[10] Residents of Bulandpur Kheri, Sonipat mentioned that when the temple was rebuilt, all the old images were removed and disposed in Yamuna River and new ones were installed in their place.





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