The aim of Sathyabhama Badhreenath, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, is to make history accessible to people.

The building is redolent of history. This is Clive's House in the premises of Fort St. George where he lived briefly soon after his marriage to Margaret Maskelyne. This building houses the office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Chennai. The wooden staircase and the courtyard beyond exude a feel of the past, a past that Sathyabhama Badhreenath, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, and others like her are trying to preserve for the future.

A down-to-earth approach marks this official's attitude to heritage and conservation. “Forts, palaces, temples, I don't have any favourites among them. I'd like to make heritage accessible to the people,” she tells me.

One of the ongoing projects is the setting up of interpretation centres. “To mark the millennium of the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur, I got a touch screen installed in the premises so that information about the temple's architecture, history and painting could be easily accessed.”

The facility has also been installed at the Srivilliputhur palace of Tirumalai Nayak, she adds. One can gather a lot of information about the king and his contribution to architecture here. “At Kaveripoompattinam, the ancient Poompuhar, we excavated a Buddhist vihara. We have explained how the information found in the literature of the Sangam Age such as the ‘Silappadikaram' matches the archaeological excavation. This sort of information was lacking and we have filled a lacuna.”

Another project Sathyabhama is deeply interested in is the history of the Irukkuvel chieftains of the 9th century AD. “They were the trend setters of Chola architecture,” she points out. The sculptures created by this dynasty were located in Kodumbalur on the Madurai-Tiruchi Highway. “There were 40-50 pieces of sculpture. We have moved them to Tiruchi and put up details of the chieftains of the dynastic tribe in the museum set up there.”

Period museums

The museums of the ASI are site museums or period museums. “At the Vellore Fort we organised a bicentenary commemoration for the 1806 rebellion by the soldiers there, which marked the beginning of the 1857 revolt. I gathered correspondence on what happened during the 1806 revolt and had it displayed,” she says. “Though at the moment we are engaged in routine work, we are planning a small exploration about Buddhist remains and the Buddhist influence during the imperial Chola period,” she informs me.

Sathyabhama has worked on the subject of Narasimha in art and iconography. “The cult of Narasimha develops only in the later period - after the 11th-12th century,” she points out. “It grew during the period of the Vijayanagar rulers, which is why there are more temples of Narasimha in present day Andhra and Karnataka than in Tamil Nadu. I have focussed on Tamil Nadu and done a documentation of the important temples such as Namakkal.”

One of the excavations she is happy to have directed is of the brick temple of Subrahmanya in Saluvankuppam near Tiger's Cave on the Mahabalipuram Road. “The inscriptions date from the 8 century which means the temple existed much before that, perhaps from the early 5th century, according to the evidence available.” She has also directed excavations at Tarangambadi in Nagapattinam district and at Sirudhavur in Kanchipuram district.

Sathyabhama led the Indian team to Sri Lanka in connection with the restoration of the Tiruketheeswaram temple at Mannar. The archaeologist has led conservation work in various forts in Tamil Nadu including those in Chennai, Gingee, Attur, Namakkal and Tirumeyyam and at numerous temples such as those in Tiruvannamalai, Tirumeyyam, Madambakkam, Kudumiyanmalai and Sevalur. Conservation work has also been done at the World Heritage Sites of Mamallapuram, Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram.

The archaeologist is working on a Ph.D on the management of living heritage sites with reference to South India, mainly focussing on temples. “The environment around temples has changed, the peaceful atmosphere has been lost, and the number of devotees has increased greatly with many arrangements having to be made for pradosham and other festivals that attract huge crowds,” she says.

The surfeit of heritage monuments in the country poses a huge challenge to the ASI. But she is happy that awareness of preserving heritage has risen substantially.

There has been a tremendous increase in the number of women archaeologists says Sathyabhama, who after obtaining a Masters in history specialised in archaeology as she found it “fascinating.” She joined ASI and has served in various capacities for the past 26 years.

A huge challenge faced is the defacing of monuments and graffiti. “The lighting of lamps within temples is a practice that had to be tackled without hurting the sentiments of the people. The oil seeps into the sculptures. In the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur, we have restricted the lighting of lamps to one spot to prevent damage. I'd be lying if I said we have succeeded fully in our task,” she admits frankly.

There should be interaction with the people, the archaeologist believes firmly, for otherwise history will be drab. This is why she put up ‘Clive's Corner' in a room in the Admiralty House (Clive's House). “So many tourists and visitors would come to Fort St. George eagerly seeking links with the past and information about it. The museum was the only site we had to offer till we put up this corner. Now people visit it and get to know details about Clive's life and his career. After all he was the founder of the Raj.”

Does she constantly feel the historic vibrations here? Her practical approach is again evident when she smiles, “You get used to the atmosphere when it is your place of work.”

ASI turns 150!

The 150th Anniversary of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was inaugurated by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on December 20, 2011, in New Delhi. As a part of the countrywide and year-long (December 2011 to December 2012) celebrations, the ceremony in Chennai was held on February 23, 2012, and was opened by Dr. K. Rosaiah, the Governor of Tamil Nadu.

Twelve retired ASI officials were honoured on the occasion. During the event, the report on Saluvankuppam Excavations by Sathyabhama Badhreenath was released, apart from a small handbook on the monuments of Chennai Circle. The brochures on the following monuments, to be distributed as part of the free literature, were also released: Namakkal, Kudumiyanmalai, Great Living Chola temples, Kodumbalur and Rock cut Cave temples of the Pallavas and Archaeological Survey of India.

As a part of the celebrations, the Chennai circle is also planning events that include Heritage walks and a camp; seminars on archaeology and conservation and a photo exhibition.