Twenty-six houses stand together, each older than the next. The oldest goes back to 700 years, to the Vijayanagar kingdom, 700 years old. Kamal Mahal seems an unassuming single-storey house, until you cross the threshold.
The central room, with its high, teak roof, displays intricate carvings culminating in a lotus (kamal in the vernacular) frame—the mansion has been named after this. Once upon a time, this room served as the private chamber of the governor and his lady, where they might have sat together on a swing that hangs off the roof.
The heavy wooden roof, with its many beams and struts, bulbous and pointed pendants, rests on 12 ornate wooden pillars. The central space opens to a front room, adorned with murals, and Lepakshi and Kalamkari paintings done on cloth. The palanquins placed in the corners—open ones for men, closed ones for women—belong to the Vijayanagar period, too.
“You won’t believe the state I found this house in,” says Vijaynath Shenoy, a 75-year-old bank manager-turned-heritage conservator based in Manipal, south Karnataka. “It was being used as a cowshed of sorts. It took 40 craftsmen seven months to just clean the thick layer of dirt and dust gathered over the centuries,” he says. The house was originally in Kukanoor, in Koppal district in eastern Karnataka. Shenoy and his craftsmen transported it hundreds of kilometres south, and reconstructed it in a heritage village.
Much of its expansive structure had collapsed. Its occupants had no money for the upkeep of this high-maintenance palace. So, Hanumanth J. Desai sold it to the Hasta Shilpa Trust, the non-profit organization which runs the heritage village in Manipal.
Shenoy works with a team of traditional craftsmen and metal smiths. These people inherited the profession from their forefathers, and have never had formal training in restoration work.
At present, they are putting the finishing touches on a Ravi Varma museum in the heritage village; they are also working on a contemporary arts and crafts museum.
Every one of the many gaps between pillars and beams have been measured to the millimetre
Shenoy is looking forward to opening them up to the public. “People need to see works from the past,” says Shenoy. “In the pursuit of modernity, we are too eager to destroy everything of the past.”
Most of the restoration work in the village has been done over the last five-six years—but Shenoy is now out of funds. He has spent about Rs8 crore on the village—buying houses from the original owners, documenting, restoring and paying craftsmen. Most of the funds came from the Norwegian embassy, which takes an interest in preserving heritage the world over.
Displayed now over the 6 acres donated by the Karnataka government are the Nawab Mahal (Deccani, originally early 19th century), Mudhol Palace Durbar Hall (built by the Maratha rulers in Deccani Karnataka 200 years ago), a British colonial house (transplanted from Bangalore Cantonment), a Mangalore Christian home (given up by the Lewis family, which moved to Bangalore), Jungam Mutt (a 16th century Lingayat monastery), Hungaracutta Bansaale (a trading house from coastal Karnataka) and Kunjur Chowkimane (built by Shivalli Brahmins in Dakshin Kannada).
Once an agreement has been reached with the owners, Shenoy takes his craftsmen to the village where the house stands. Before dismantling the building, they take minute measurements—from the height of a plinth to the distance between each pair of pillars. Draftsmen prepare scale drawings; photographs and videos are taken.
“Measurements must be accurate to the millimetre,” says Shenoy. “The reconstructed structure has to conform exactly to the original measurements. Only then will all the pieces fit in,” he adds. So the next stage is identifying all the joints which are usually over the pillars, and numbering all the components, indicating their order and direction as well. Each pillar in these old homes is made up of six-eight components. A component in one pillar will not fit a similar space in another.
Then the dismantling begins, starting from the top. First, the roof tiles are taken off, then the wooden frame supporting the roof, then the beams and joists holding the wooden ceiling together; next come the batons and pillars, from their capitals to their bases. Dismantling the pillars is a laborious exercise—a lot of support is needed to dismantle them without damaging the woodwork.
Next off are the wooden planks of the ceiling, which are often overlaid with a layer of mud to keep the building cool. Termites often nest in this area, so that much of the wood may have to be junked. Once all the parts are removed, the foundation is taken up and measured.
The next step is the transportation of all the dismantled parts to the heritage village, where they are reassembled.
First, the foundation is laid using laterite stone, then the walls and the basic structure are built up. Beams are erected using steel jacks. Pillars come next: The capitals are nailed to the beams, pillar bases positioned, and then the pillar itself. The various parts go back into the structure in reverse order of removal—joists and batons, reapers and rafters, and finally the tiles are put into place with mathematical precision to recreate the magnificence.
Despite having no professional training in architecture or restoration work, Shenoy was engaged by the Karnataka government to restore the home of renowned Kannada poet Kuvempu, in Kuppali in central Karnataka.
“I managed because I’m not an architect,” says Shenoy. “If I were one, I would have made something like that,” he says, pointing to a rectangular, four-storeyed concrete block across the village.
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