Keeping Alive a bygone era

When renowned cartoonist R K Laxman visited Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village in Manipal about 15 years ago, he asked for a Guest Diary (visitor’s book) only to learn that there was no such book. Then he asked for a piece of paper and scribbled: “It’s more valuable than any museum I have seen in the world.”
Similarly, when Samskrithi Foundation (New Delhi) Founder O P Jain (who is associated with national and international bodies) visited the Village about 10 years ago ago, he exclaimed: “My ego shattered and diluted after coming here.”
Keeping Alive a bygone era-1Probably that sums up the multi-dimensional cultural project (Hasta Shilpa) which aims at restoring and conserving India’s cultural wealth expressed in the form of traditional buildings and objects of art, craft and other artefacts of aesthetic interest.

In fact, the magnificent pilgrimage sight for architects, historians and art buffs, the Heritage Village is a gracious Old World where one can discover the age of elegance. The project that has taken shape in 6 acres of land narrates the story of a crazy dream chased through hard struggles.  

It all began in 1974 when Vijayanath Shenoy, an employee of Syndicate Bank, thought of conserving the rich heritage as he could not bear to see the annihilation of his homeland’s traditional architecture. “Architecture is the most visible symbol of our cultural heritage. The age old traditional homes represented the conceptualisation of our ethos, the imagination of our ancestors, the ingenious indigenous technology, the skill of native craftsmen. They provide cultural continuity. But when I realised that the connection was breaking (due to various reasons) and there will be nothing to link us to our roots, I had to step in to save these homes,” he goes down memory lane.

“Though I did not have much money to undertake the mission, I brought what I could afford and pleaded with owners to donate me instead of selling to scrap dealers, what I could not afford. In fact, from an ordinary banker to heritage conservationist, Vijayanath Shenoy has come a long way.
Keeping Alive a bygone era-2Kunjur Chowkimane

Sitting on the verandah of 200-year-old house “Kunjur Chowkimane” (of Shivalli brahmin priests), Shenoy again goes down memory lane: “This is one of the first houses that I identified which were in ruins,” he said and added that it took years for him to painstakingly track down and correspond with every last one of the heirs to the home. “I had to convince everyone involved that my intentions were good and I would preserve the house untill I got the nod from them.”

The entire process of documentation, dismantling, transportation, restoration and reconstruction of the Chowkimane was funded by the Norwegian Embassy, New Delhi.
Today, the 200-year-old house, stands as a mute witness to the architectural marvels of a by-gone era. The house also has auto-burglar lock, which even the present day engineers can not think of, and optical illusion windows. When this correspondent sought details about the teakwood used in the house (which shines even today), pat comes the reply: “Teakwood was used only by Shudras and Kshatriyas. This house belonged to brahmins and only jackwood was used to construct the house!”

The house has several rooms including a room for the women (to stay during their menstruation) and a separate delivery-room (dark room without any light), paddy storage room, kuttat (above kitchen so that smoke goes out of kitchen), provision for sparrows to come inside (the people believed that sparrows visiting the house was very auspicious), besides all the brass and copper utensils, equipment used for Ayurveda oil massage, musical instruments, cradle and so on. All the windows of the two-storey house are at ground-level. “... Because there were no furniture at that time” adds Shenoy and said: “All the windows have sliding shutters which shows the indigenous technology used by native artisans. The French architects who visited the house were dumb-struck to see the 200-year-old technology.” (The windows can control inflow of light as well as air!)

Ms Shanthi, wife of Dr H V Hande (former health minister in M G R government, Tamil Nadu), could not control her emotions when she visited this place a couple of years ago, Shenoy says proudly who has succeeded in recreating the history of a particular community in a particular space of time in a particular geographical location, reflecting the lifestyle of people in those days. Ms Shanthi was born in this house.

Kamal Mahal

Kamal Mahal of Kukanoor (now in Koppal district) is another architectural marvel originally built in 1341 AD during the reins of Harihar I. Senior Director of Zurich Museum Dr Eberherd Fischer after visiting Kamal Mahal exclaimed that “this is one of its kind in the world,” recalls Shenoy. It comprises the private chamber of the Chief of Army (Governor) (part of Vatsal King of Vijayanagar Empire).

Just outside the private chamber is a fairly large hall with three levels, where the governor held deliberations with the military officers and other members of the administrative staff, more particularly in crisis or exigent situations.

Kukanoor was an equally important political centre during the era when successive royal dynasties like Chalukyas of Badami, Rashtrakutas, Kalyani Chalukyas, Yadavas of Devagiri, Hoysalas and Vijayanagara dyansty ruled parts of Karnataka. These royal dynasties had posted their governors with army forces in Kukanoor for administrative and defence purpose.

“The wooden architecture in Kamal Mahal is the last surviving specimen of Vijayanagar empire,” informs Shenoy.

As soon as Shenoy learnt of this structure which was left abandoned, he wrote letters to ASI and kept on reminding for 7 years. “Fed up with the apathy of ASI, I took up the task of restoring it,” he said and added: “The people in ASI are more interested in sending memos to their staff than restoring monuments.”

Deccani Nawab Mahal

The 230-year-old structure belonged to one of the wealthy Nawabs of the earstwhile dynasty of Barid Shahis, located 60 kms away from Humnabad (presently in Bidar district). Giving details about the Mahal, Shenoy said that it reflected the wealth and social standing of the family who had a lavish lifestyle. “All the new things that were produced and introduced in Europe and imported to India, such as Belgian glasses and lamps, Australian chandeliers, German floor-tiles, Birmingham-made cast-iron grilles and staircases were brought from Hyderabad and integrated into the structure of this mansion.”

Kunjur Chowkimane, Kamal Mahal and Deccani Nawab Mahal are only three magnificent structures out of the 34 architectural beauties in the Heritage Village. The proud creator of this wonder world, Shenoy has restored these century old structures from across the State representing different caste, community which were on the verge of destruction. In fact, the ancient structures at the Village showcase the intricacies of ancient carpentry and carving work depict a fresh outlook creating a nostalgic ambience. It also displays rare antiques collected from ancient houses.

“The basic purpose behind the launch of this project is to inspire, educate, motivate and generate awareness about the vanishing aspects of our heritage,” he says.

The restored houses represent the tradition and culture of that period in which they were built and are also the symbol of superb craftsmanship of those times.
Keeping Alive a bygone era-3Besides Kunjur house and Deccani Nawab Mahal, the other beauties include Bhatkal Navayath Muslim House, Christian house and Basel Mission Museum (both from Mangalore), Vaderhobli House, Byndoor-Nelyadi House, 400-year-old Coorg (Somwarpet) shrine, 600-year-old Mudhol Palace durbar hall, 175-year-old British building, a Folk Deity’s temple, 1,300-year-old Jungam Mutt, Hungaracutta Bansaale Mane, Vidyamandira of Ramachandrapura Mutt, 400-year-old Harkur Olaginamane, 1,000-year-old huge wooden carvings of daivas (ancestral spirits), pre-historic folk artefacts found in Aghanashini river valley, ancient trading house, market place and so on.
All these buildings have their own story to tell as they were the mute spectators of the changing socio-economic scenario.

From its inception in 1998, 34 ancient buildings were rehabilitated in this village. The then Deputy Commissioner Madhu had sanctioned six acres of land for Shenoy’s ‘mad’ fantasy. The Norwegian Embassy, Finland Government and Volkart Foundation of New Zealand came forward to fund the huge project. A group of like minded people assisted Shenoy on field trips, searching, locating, documenting, photographing, sketching, making notes and then transporting the structures. “I have spent several lakhs over the years,” he says.

The dismantling

Documentation is a very cumbersome job says Shenoy. Hundreds of skilled workers and engineers are involved in the whole process of dismantling and recreating. The carpenter measures the wooden structures and positions and numbers everything meticulously. Next the engineer takes down the dimensions of the building. The entire process of measuring is videographed before dismantling. When the process begins, it starts with the removal of beams, windows, doors, ceiling and so on in that order. Each item is numbered and marked.


In the restoration stage, the process is entirely reverse. A fresh foundation is laid. Same workers are involved in both the process of dismantling and restoration because if two look alike wood structures are inter-changed in their position, then those items don’t match. Damaged and missing components are replaced by making the replicas of those components.

No commercial goals

Vijayanath Shenoy is determined not to make this heritage village a tourist destination. “I hate the concept of tourism because tourists are not serious people and this is not a commercial venture.”

The carved polished wooden pillars, intricately carved wooden doors, highly decorated wooden ceilings, the elegant carvings of terracotta products, open sky courtyard are a feast for eyes. The tribal art museums and folklore collection explain the importance of conserving not only the cultural elements but also products bearing histories and stories themselves.

A glance at these structures invoke a sense of pride within us for inheriting this entire cultural legacy. A specimen of history lay frozen in this art village in the form of architecture which belongs to different eras. The concept of art and architecture has bloomed in a very unique way here.

Admiration blends with intimate awe when one sees the passion with which the setting has been created. It is truly a laudable venture as it is difficult to realise such a marvellous project as it requires utmost care along with efficient craftsmanship. Restoring, rehabilitating and reconstructing century old structures which are the testimony tradition and vernacular lifestyles is not an easy task. This physical documentation of vanishing culture is truly a remarkable endeavor to preserve our glorious past.

The Heritage Village in a tiny town of Manipal is a tribute to the vision and will of one remarkable man for single-handedly conserving Karnataka’s rich architectural legacy. As one of the eminent scholars put it: “His success demonstrates how passionate dedication driven by noble, unselfish motives can achieve spectacular results.”

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