Vol. 5 Num 1031 Thu. April 26, 2007  
Front Page

Unscientific restoration defacing heritage

Panamnagar, a township set up by Hindu merchants in the colonial era in Sonargaon, is virtually losing its originality and uniqueness as an architectural heritage site, in the name of restoration and conservation.

The Department of Archaeology (DoA) has not involved any historian, archaeologist or an architect in the conservation work, rather hired masons are carrying out the job, distorting and defacing a proud heritage of the country, experts said.

The government's approach is just arbitrary, unplanned and aimless, said conservation architect Dr Abu Sayeed M Ahmed adding that the government is carrying out the conservation project without any proper and authentic documentation, which is a prerequisite to conservation of a heritage site.

An office assistant at the site office of DoA, Md Anisur Rahman, told this correspondent, "We are carrying out the restoration work hiring masons on a daily basis. The masons know how to do the job."

According to conservation architects, friezes and other ornamental features of the old buildings are all being replaced with dissimilar and odd-looking features.

The original lintels of these buildings were made of bricks and of semi-arch shape.

Details of the ornamental works, their sizes and proportions are lost in the present intervention. The decorated pilasters in the original buildings had molded curves on the capitals.

The masons who had built the buildings left a lasting imprint of their craftsmanship creating aesthetic beauty in the decorative moldings on the walls, which are strikingly missing in the restored buildings, making them flat and dull, the experts said.

Original cornices were styled with moldings on the surface but the repaired ones are now flat with plain surfaces.

Shockingly, for example, the original features of one of the two frontal columns of Poddar Bari have been totally spoilt with a thick plaster coating creating a stark dissimilarity between the original and the restored.

Another building called Gate House of Sonargaon, built towards 1650, also has fallen prey to distortions under the same project.

Proportions and scales of many interior arches have been altered. Distortion has marred the shapes and patterns of the arches.

"The government agency is actually destroying the fundamental heritage features of the site in the name of restoration, engaging mere masons and construction contractors in the job," said Ahmed, who is also a member of the advisory committee on the project.

The DoA is not going by the recommendations of the advisory committee, instead they have bypassed the committee, he said adding, "What they are doing is just a waste of public money."

The advisory expert committee held only three meetings including the latest one on December 30, 2004, Sayeed Ahmed said adding that the archaeology department did not maintain any correspondence with the committee.

Documentation is a comprehensive work -- compiling historical, architectural and archaeological information is a must before launching any intervention on heritage edifices, he said. Conservation work of such a historical site must involve conservation architects, general historians, geographers, archaeologists and historians of art and heritage.

The DoA undertook a Tk 5 crore restoration and conservation project in the first phase of 2005-2006 fiscal. Allocation for the ongoing phase has to be spent within June 2007. The DoA has intervened in 16 out of 51 buildings of Panamnagar.

A group of Hindu merchants chose Panamnagar as their residence in the nineteenth century and set up this urban settlement of cluster buildings bearing the influence of architecture of the colonial era.

Eminent archaeologist and former director of DoA Dr Nazimuddin Ahmed said, at a seminar on Panam city organised by the DoA on April 13, that influence of classical, Greco-Roman and renaissance architecture is noticeable on the monuments of Panam city.

"To my knowledge, the country's lone building with Petra-Dura style decorative work of precious stones is in Panam," he said, "So, the authorities have to restore and conserve the site with utmost care and caution."

Noted historian and former vice-chancellor of National University, Prof Abdul Momin Chowdhury, said a conservation process has to have a 'long-term perspective and vision' for the sake of history.

"It will cause defacement, instead of enhancing the glory, if the conservation is done carelessly," he said.

He also said construction materials like timber, iron casts, tinted glasses and plaster casts might be manufactured in the original form.

Secretary to the Cultural Affairs Ministry ABM Abdul Howk Chowdhury, present at the seminar, said it is difficult today to procure old day building materials. He admitted that distortion occurred in the name of heritage conservation in the case of Satgambuj Mosque in Bagerhat.

While the original ornamental works on the ceilings, walls and cornices of the buildings were fine, detailed, elegant and aesthetic in nature with presentation of artistry and workmanship, it is shockingly absent in what is being touted as a restoration.

Cast iron brackets, ventilators, window grills, and balusters were extensively used in the original decorations of the buildings.

The original coating of plaster was of conch shell powder, which would create a smooth and pleasant look of white marble. But now the masons are putting a thick coating of lime and surki of a different colour.

A group of top architects including Dr Sharif Shams Imon, who is an expert in heritage management and teaches the subject in Macao, visited Panam city on March 19 along with the DoA officials.

Panamnagar is an architectural heritage site, said Dr Imon, and what DoA is doing is renovation and reconstruction 'but not conservation in any way'.

They are reconstructing a simple brick-built flat roof with reinforced concrete and iron rods, he said adding that maintaining the original technique is important there.

"The conservation will have no authenticity, as the materials and techniques are different in the restoration."

"An irreparable damage has been done to the heritage of the site," he said.

The masons are removing the entire old plaster destroying the exquisite and stylish workmanship, Imon said adding that they are instead putting new plaster of different material compromising the artistry of the original workmanship.

President of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) Mubasshar Hussain said, "The architecture of the buildings manifests an aesthetic pride of the affluent Hindu merchants but no effort is in sight to conserve the aesthetic manifestation of the edifices."

"What the DoA is doing is destruction of a heritage site by government officials with public money," he said.

Director of DoA Dr Md Shafiqul Alam claimed they have documentation of the site in forms of drawings and photographs.

"In fact, whatever we have done so far is a temporary work," he said adding, "Following the death of a mason, we had to do temporary work. We will, if needed, remove the temporary repairs to bring the original features back."

He said it was not possible to restore the detailed, fine and intricate ornamental works of the edifices, as they could not avail a suitable mason.

Responding to whether reconstruction of cornices, walls and other aesthetic features of these historic buildings with dissimilar and deformed motifs and roofs with reinforced concrete (RCC) are acceptable, he said, "Not at all."

"I have to go to the spot and see for myself actually what has happened and how," said Alam.

World Monuments Watch rated Sonargaon-Panam City as one of the most endangered heritage sites in 2006.

UNESCO refused to declare Lalbagh Fort as a world heritage site because of wrong restoration, said Sayeed M Ahmed adding that Panamnagar too is running the risk of facing a similar fate.

Panamnagar, a township set up by Hindu merchants in the colonial era in Sonargaon on the outskirts of the capital, losing its unique architectural features due to improper restoration and conservation measures taken by the Department of Archaeology. PHOTO: STAR