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Heritage structures back in shape

Chennai lost many such buildings because of neglect

January 14, 2022 12:37 am | Updated 12:37 am IST

Humayun Mahal is part of the Chepauk Palace, which was built  by Muhammad Ali Wallajah in 1768.

Humayun Mahal is part of the Chepauk Palace, which was built by Muhammad Ali Wallajah in 1768.

When a fire in 2014 destroyed a portion of the 246-year-old Humayun Mahal, which exemplifies the Indo-Saracenic architecture, there was a proposal to demolish it and construct a new structure. The Grade-I heritage structure building, which is part of the Chepauk Palace, built by Muhammad Ali Wallajah in 1768, would have vanished from Chennai’s landscape but for the efforts of the Public Works Department.

After seven years and completion of 80% of the conservation work, the once-crumbling structure has emerged with its old charm. As many as 35 heritage buildings under the PWD are receiving a new lease of life after the creation of a heritage division in the PWD in 2017 for conservation and restoration.

“We have 85 registered public buildings under our maintenance. Work is in progress to restore 35 buildings, and more will be added to the list. The fund allocation for the current year is ₹150 crore,” said R. Manikandan, Executive Engineer of the division.

Chennai lost many heritage buildings because of neglect and lack of awareness. While a public campaign saved the DGP House facing the Marina Beach from demolition, the Admiralty House, once the headquarters of the CB-CID, was razed.

The idea of conservation gained momentum after the Madras High Court constituted a heritage committee to deal with petitions connected with conservation of buildings of historical importance. Its directions and orders saved many heritage structures, including 35 court buildings. Age is a factor that decides the heritage status of a building. It should be over 75 years old. Its association with historical events and style of construction are also taken into consideration for the heritage statues. The heritage division, adhering to traditional conservation methods and techniques standardised by organisations such as INTACH, has made a difference in terms of quality and aesthetics. It even brought two Kangeyam bulls to grind the lime mortar in a traditional grinder for making “authentic paste” used for plastering of the walls of the Humayun Mahal.

Earlier, historical buildings were repaired and altered without sensitivity. The Madras-type ceiling of the Khalas Mahal, adjacent to Humayun Mahal, was replaced with concrete. Similar blind renovation methods were adopted to the Travancore-style building of the Sethu Lakshim Bai Government Higher Secondary School in Kanniyakumari district. Here, a portion of the roof made of Mangalore tiles over teakwood frames was destroyed.

Mr. Manikandan said cement had no place in traditional conservation. “We are not using M-sand either as it will not match with lime mortar used for repairing and plastering. As river sand mining is not allowed in Tamil Nadu, we are getting it from Andhra Pradesh, where some quarries are in operation. There will be two layers of plastering: base and a final cover over it.”

Quality control is strictly followed for the construction materials. The teak woods meant for roofing is sourced from Sengottai where the Forest Department sells it through auction. “The load-carrying capacity of the teak wood should be between 6,000 and 7,000 megapascal. The moisture of the wood is also checked. The advantage with the Madras-style roofing is that the building will remain cool during summer and warm in winter,” Mr. Manikandan said.

But what remains a challenge to restoration is shortage of skilled masons. Just 10 masons worked for the restoration of Humayun Mahal for the last two years and it delayed the work. “We select skilled workers, depending on the nature of the work. Workers are available in Athankudi itself for laying Athankudi tiles. We get workers from Nagercoil for restoration of wooden ceiling. A lot of skilled workers are available in Virudhunagar district, particularly at Elayirampannai. There are also workers from north India,” said Rajesh, manager of Kadal Constructions, a company involved in conservation works.

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