Saga in stone

Sthapati Selvanathan's heart lies in restoring ancient temples on the verge of collapse and he explains why these traditional structures should be preserved.

June 02, 2011 03:07 pm | Updated August 21, 2016 08:21 pm IST

Sthapathi Selvanathan.  Photo: K. V. Srinivasan

Sthapathi Selvanathan. Photo: K. V. Srinivasan

”There is actually no difference between a temple and a house in terms of vaasthu,” begins R. Selvanathan, Chief Executive Sthapati, Sri Vaidyanatha Sthapati Associates and Panchami Associates. The architect of many well-known temples in India and abroad, Selvanathan is the nephew of veteran V. Ganapathy Sthapati, with whom he worked for over 20 years, after graduating in temple architecutre. Father Ramachandra Sthapati specialised in vaasthu sastra.

Selvanathan’s heart lies in restoring ancient temples on the verge of collapse. “These temples represent our heritage, a testimony to the expertise of our ancestors. Besides, they are reference points. It is fine to build a new temple but in Tamil Nadu, a place of over 40,000 temples, resurrecting and renovating old ones would be more appropriate,” says the master craftsman. Wife Ponni helps her husband with research and has facts on her finger tips.

It is the Palani Baladandayuthapani idol of which the sthapati makes special mention in the context of restoration. Made of navapashanam, a concoction of nine herbs by siddhars, the statue was coming apart due to erosion and handling. “What with the controversy surrounding it, I was all nerves when I started on the project,” recalls Selvanathan. He stayed at the temple with his team of architects and they succeeded in repairing the damage done. “It was an unforgettable experience, as though a divine hand guided us through the work,” he observes.

Another project he considers himself fortunate to be associated with was the Srirangam temple. “Restoration of the Moolavar idol involved delicate work. It drew praise from the temple authorities and religious leaders.”

Renovation of the Navatirupati temples in Tirunelveli was another challenging task. “Original material, as used in the old structure, was used in all the temples. It took nine years to complete the project undertaken by the Venugopala Cultural Heritage Trust of TVS group,” he says.

Restoration and rehabilitation of the temples in and around Padai Veedu gave the architect great satisfaction. He makes special mention of Rama in meditation, a rare form. Building the Balamurugan temple, Rathnagiri, was a formidable task. “It was not easy, took nearly 20 years to complete but gave us a lot of satisfaction,” remarks Selvanathan.

Renovation of Sri Mathrubuteswar temple in Ramanasram, Tiruvannamalai, is another milestone in Selvanathan’s career. Here the sthapati speaks of the bond his grandfather, Vaidyanatha Sthapati, shared with Sri Ramana. “Bhagavan’s statue was made even when he was alive, with his approval. They were looking for a sculptor and many names were suggested. Ramanar settled for my grandfather. Work started and daily Bhagavan would inspect the progress. The statue was almost ready and it was a stunning life-like image with even the veins visible. On his usual visit, the sage, standing in front of the idol, exclaimed, ‘Here is Ramana!’ My grandfather put the tools down saying, ‘Nothing more need be done.’”

The team is engaged in the task of constructing Arumuga Theppakulam, a six-face tank on the hill. The restoration of the 500-year old Sri Gunja Narasimha temple in T. Narasipura in Mysore and the renovation that included a massive Rajagopuram of the 1,000-year old Sri Margandeswarar temple in Tiruvirinjipuram near Vellore find special mention in his long list.

In Chennai, the sthapati points out to the renovation of Sri Madhava Perumal temple, Mylapore. “Reconstruction will be the right term,” he amends. “For example, there was a shrine, that of Sri Boovarahar, inside the tank, a position not permitted by Agama. Besides, it was blocking a spring. The shrine had to be removed, an appropriate place found and relocated. The temple now brims with water,” he explains.

“There are many such instances. Old temples conform to shipa sastra, the architects meticulously following the principles. Problems occur when changes such as additions, say of new shrines, and relocations are done without the advice of a sthapati. An engineer cannot play the role of a sthapati,” asserts Selvanathan, who is approached by people with requests to set right errors.

“Prasadam Purusham matva poojayet mantra vittamaha” quotes Selvanathan from “Sirpa Rathnam” and explains the meaning: The temple is a form of god; hence mantras are to be chanted for the temple that is considered as a living organism. “Manena nirmite bimbhe swayam aabhati daivatam” (Makutagama). Meaning: Divinity is automatically revealed in the chiselled form that is based on shastraical measurement. “The norms laid down in the Agama have to be faithfully followed,” he repeats.

“The energy in space converges inside the sanctum sanctorum with the gopuram and the kalasam acting as the medium. Location and direction are vital factors here. Today, temples sprout a la mushrooms, on the pavement, abutting a canal, even a sewage. This is not correct. As Paramacharya said, there are thousands of ancient temples waiting to be resurrected, saved and maintained. Let’s protect them, our heritage,” concludes Selvanathan, who has been showered with awards and titles here and abroad.

The temples that Selvanathan and Co. have designed and constructed abroad are numerous. “There is no dearth of funds but it is dedication that impresses one. They make no compromises regarding Agama. Technology is used to overcome the extreme climatic conditions. And maintenance is impeccable,” he certifies.

The sthapati has come across many people during his career, remarkable among them being the late Sivasubramanya Swamigal of Hawaii. “An American, who loved India, he studied Hinduism and became a follower. He envisaged ‘Iraivan’ a massive temple of granite in Hawaii., with a five-tonne panchaloha idol. He is no more but the mantle has fallen on his disciple, Bodinath, an American.

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