As many people in Kerala are piecing together their lives and homes devastated by the deluge, some experts have come together to survey and restore the damage sustained by Kerala’s heritage in an innovative manner.
Called Kerala Heritage Rescue Initiative (KHRI), it is backed by the Indian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). KHRI brings together experts from across Kerala as well as cities like Delhi and Bengaluru, and student volunteers from fields of archaeology, historical studies, museology and study of intangible heritage.
They are surveying the damage and loss of tangible, intangible, movable as well as immovable cultural and natural heritage across Kerala, and then will ultimately come up with ways to salvage, restore or recover it. And in an innovative move, KHRI is updating the information from the survey on a ‘crowdmap’, a digital platform you can visit here.
Artefacts recovered in Paliam
Volunteers and the ground team go to affected areas, assess the damage to artefacts, historical buildings, monuments, cultural heritage, handicrafts, flora and fauna, farming practices and so on. “The information collected by the team through damage assessment forms will be uploaded by the zonal coordinators on ‘crowdmap’ that has been set up in cooperation with the technical support of ICOMOS India President, Rohit Jigyasu and Project Coordinator, ICCROM, Aparna Tandon,” explained Surya Prasanth, a conservation architect who is the field coordinator of KHRI on behalf of ICOMOS.
Assessing the damage
“Heritage is an integral part of understanding the essence of a community,” Surya says. “The cultural and natural heritage of the area defines the basic fibres of understanding the essence of a community which has evolved over time. Catastrophes like this threaten to destroy the very basis of this essence.”
The field work has been undertaken by three teams, split zone-wise (North, Central and South). “Each zone has a designated coordinator responsible for collecting all the information from heritage volunteers in their zone, who will undertake onsite recording of damage through forms,” she explains.
In what the team has found so far, Surya tells TNM that the built heritage is mostly intact. “However, artefacts like manuscripts, craft forms, handloom sector and handicrafts have suffered major damage,” she says.
Old land documents recovered in Paliam
It was during these surveys that the KHRI teams found that the major damage was sustained in three areas, says Dr B Venugopal, honorary director, Centre for Intangible Heritage studies, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady. He connected Surya and team with many student volunteers.
“Heritage at the Muziris Heritage project, Kalady University and Aranmula area were found to be heavily affected,” he states. “Paliam, which is part of the Muziris Heritage Project has also sustained a lot of damage. The museum there and Nalukettu in Chendamangalam, Paliam Sanketam and temple buildings… Intangible heritage like Koothambalam, where Koodiyattam (a performance art form in Kerala) is performed are also areas we are concentrating on.”
Speaking to TNM, PM Noushad, the Managing Director of Muziris Heritage Project, said that several artefacts such the manuscripts and palm leaves were submerged when the flooding happened. “6-8 volunteers – both students as well as some professors and conservation architects - are working here to recover these artefacts, drying them and salvaging them according to international standards,” he said.
He adds that fortunately, while there has been damage to several artefacts, it looks like all of them can be recovered.
Survey and recovery at Muziris Heritage Project
In Aranamula area however, substantial damage has been incurred not only to built heritage but also handicrafts. RS Nair, the executive director of Aranmula Heritage Trust tells TNM that heritage in the area been impacted in three places.
“Aranmula Kannadi, the GI-tagged handmade mirrors fashioned from alloy metal which are made by 25 families here. Their homes and workshops were washed away with the flood waters. This also happened with the 52 palliyodams (snake boats) kept in the different villages along the banks of river Pampa. Even the temples around the area which contain many paintings made with natural paints and centuries-old wood carvings have sustained damage,” he says.
A damaged palliyodam in Aranmula
Nair elaborates that the families who make the Aranmula Kannadi mirrors are not very well off, and hence it is crucial to support them and restore their workshops so that the handicraft can continue. “We are looking for corporates who can support them financially, and also companies who can provide them with the materials they use to make the mirrors, for free,” he says.
Damaged Aramula Kannadi workshops
The palliyodams, which are revered by the villagers, were washed away from their places with the flood water. “Many of them are several years old and three of them were brand new – just three years old. Today, making them will easily cost over Rs 1 crore. One of the boats has been destroyed completely – it’s broken into three pieces and cannot be remade,” he rues.
As for the paintings and carvings in the temples, Nair says that these centuries-old artworks were submerged under water for five days. “And the flood water carried the mud from the mountains, which is now deposited in the carvings. Because they are so old, you cannot just wash them off with water. They need to restored properly using the right substances and by people with requisite expertise,” Nair explains.
While KHRI was a result of quick mobilisation of like-minded people who wanted to salvage and restore Kerala’s heritage after the flooding, there have been plenty of challenges along the way.
One of the first challenges they faced was technical says Dr Venugopal. “After the crowdmap went live, and we got about 30 volunteers to go to survey different places, we realised that only 10 of them had filed reports and updated the crowd map. When we asked why, it was because many of them did not have the technical know-how, or access to android phones to do so. So, we started asking them to send us the photos and the observations, and we would update the crowdmap,” he recalls.
Another challenge they will face in the future too is the lack of people who have expertise in the field of restoration of heritage sites and documents, RS Nair observes. “One person has expertise in one area, and another in another area. But there is no one place where we can get a pool of people who will have expertise in the entire process of survey and restoration,” he says.
Nair says that while they are still in the survey phase, they will have an expert committee meeting on September 18 where restoration and the way forward will be discussed.
This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.