A Mughal-era technique to restore Humayun Mahal in Chennai’s Chepauk Palace

Back to the roots: A bull churning a grinding roller to produce lime mortar in Chennai.

Back to the roots: A bull churning a grinding roller to produce lime mortar in Chennai.  


Two bulls from Kangeyam work a stone mill to produce pure lime mortar for much-awaited project.

It is a return to Mughal-era techniques to restore the fire-hit Humayun Mahal in Chennai’s Chepauk Palace to its old glory.

Nearly 249 years ago, the iconic Chepauk Palace, located close to the Marina, was built using construction techniques that were considered the best. Now, while restoring one of its constituent buildings, the Public Works Department has decided to go back to those traditional methods.

A couple of Kangeyam bulls have been deployed by the PWD as part of this, to grind the lime mortar that will be used to plaster Humayun Mahal’s walls. As a Department official explains, this ‘slow’ process yields plaster that is authentic and free from contamination.

The Kangeyam bulls working at Chepauk are from Saptur in Madurai district. They were yoked on Tuesday by Kannan, a farmer, to draw a limestone grinding roller that mixes the lime mortar.

“Normally, a grinder is used. But the traditional technique of bulls rotating the grinding roller blends the mortar better and provides superior adhesion. This is a Mughal wall plastering technique known for strength and longevity,” said C. Kalyanasundaram, Superintending Engineer, Building Centre and Conser-vation Division, PWD.

But it is not just the use of bulls that is old-style. The roller stone, weighing five tonnes, had to be sourced from Sholinghur in Vellore district and the stones used to build the ‘grinder’ — a circular path 25-feet in diameter — were specially chosen from Mamallapuram. The channel in which the lime mortar is ground is made of stone, because concrete is not suitable. Fine concrete particles could mix with the lime mortar and affect its purity, an official said.

Roller hunt

To familiarise themselves with the method, PWD engineers visited several places.

“We located the kind of rollers we needed at a temple in Kalugumalai, Tirunelveli, at a church in Thoothukudi and in Virudhunagar. But the owners refused to part with their heritage pieces. We then created the infrastructure ourselves at a cost of ₹3 lakh,” said K.P. Sathyamurthy, Joint Chief Engineer, PWD (Buildings).

The bulls have a defined routine: 48 rounds a day to produce 30 cubic feet of lime mortar for about 300 sq ft of wall. The output is 10% less than what modern techniques yield, but the quality tilts the scales towards tradition. The bulls are expected to toil at least six months on this part of the restoration.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 6:47:29 PM |

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