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Solving the Riddles of The Temples of Ashapuri, Madhya Pradesh, India

Ashapuri is an extraordinary site, with 26 temples in ruins, all standing close to each other in silence above a line of steps leading down to a large pond. The temples are on the slopes of a rocky hillock, once surrounded by thick forest and with flowing waters. Construction of this site continued over two centuries, under the royal patronage of the Pratiharas and Parmaras in central India between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Sitting on the temple plinths, one could imagine a time when this site must have been full of people worshipping the gods and learning to build temples. The Sthapati (master architect) and the young apprentices must have been singing hymns, and drawing and sculpting these stone temples. Perhaps they were reciting the Sanskrit texts on temple construction as they worked. There must have been music all around, whether it was the gusty air, rippling water, sounds of the hymn singing, or the hammering of chisels. The evenings must have been romantic. As the sun sets, the steps toward the water would be full of activity, the evening bells ringing in the temple, little lamps floating on the waters, and flickering flames lighting up the site; and the men and women wearing fine clothes with such intricate jewelry. As we worked at the site we found remnants of jewelry and small lamps, making our imaginations run wild. Over time, the ruling dynasties changed, money for construction got scarce, coupled with natural calamities and invasions, and gradually the glory declined. One temple fell after the other, and the site became ruinous, hidden under the earth, lost to nature for centuries. In 2010, the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Madhya Pradesh, began a vigorous program of excavation. In the enthusiasm for discovering one plinth after another, the scattered architectural fragments were stacked on the rock nearby. Unfortunately, many fragments from different temples were jumbled together, making the task of working out the original designs all the more challenging. The Ashapuri Temple Project sponsored by World Monuments Fund is a collaboration between the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, and the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal. With three temples as the starting point, we had to work out special techniques for documentation, to discover how the site developed, and to deduce the original temple designs and the potential to reassemble them, wholly or partially. This work has been continuous over the last two years, and there have been many challenges along the way. We had to contend with torrential monsoon rains, and after the rain the dense vegetation that grew, covering the site. Working in a sea of sculpted stone under the baking summer sun was not easy either. Sometimes the stone fragments seemed simply to refuse to give up their secrets. Finally we were able to solve the riddles that had been set for this stage. This was made possible by the support of WMF, along with the patience and dedication of the team, among whom we must certainly count the locals of Ashapuri village who are so committed to bringing to light this hidden treasure at their doorstep. A few steps further, and proper arrangement of the rich sculptures and architectural pieces, along with models and all kinds of explanatory material, will make this a unique place for understanding how temples in India were designed and constructed a thousand years ago. WMF has partnered with the government of Madhya Pradesh’s Department of Culture to develop a sustainable management program for continued conservation and maintenance of the state’s heritage sites.