India’s sacred literature points to the impermanence of all things, and to renewal and change as part of the natural order, but the very same texts reinforce the idea that renewal and renovation should be attempted before discarding or rebuilding. The Agni Purāṇa clearly states that old and broken idols should be repaired rather than discarded, and only replaced when repair is no longer possible. When studying India’s ancient texts, scholars have focussed on mahakumbhabhishekham, or consecration ceremonies, including prāṇa-pratiṣṭhā and cakṣu-dāna—that is, instilling life, and opening the eyes of newly made idols. But both these ceremonies are described in the very same texts alongside jīrṇoddhāra—an irrefutably Indian approach to conservation and re-use.
“Jīrṇoddhāra literally means digesting the past, an act of sacralised renovation,” writes the art historian Annapurna Garimella, who examined 2,200 inscriptions and dozens of temples in the Deccan and peninsular India for her dissertation, titled “Early Vijayanagara Architecture, Style, and State Formation.” The buildings of the Vijayanagara Empire, which flourished between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, were sponsored by rulers who took on a demonstrably respectful attitude toward the Choḷa past through both appropriation and reinvention. While examining jirṇoddhāra at work in architectural restoration and design transformation, Garimella explains that it is understood “as a form of worship, of revivifying or re-instilling life in what has already been made. The word ‘uddhāra’ also implies a loan, in the case taken from the past by the present, a legacy especially with regard to primogeniture, and equally, the person’s capacity to put forth that past for the future.” Numerous texts pre-dating the period of her study also devote attention to such practice. The Māyamatam, an eleventh- or twelfth-century South Indian treatise on architecture, devotes an entire chapter to jīrṇoddhāra, while the even older Agni Purāṇa has two chapters with information on the subject.
The paucity of modern studies and writing on this concept, however, has led to a profound misunderstanding of what was important in Indian art and temple worship, as also to a gap in the knowledge of the integral role that conservation and a sense of history have played in Indian culture. Conservation, repair and maintenance have been key to Indian thought. Understanding this allows for a very different imagination than the one prevailing today of what the management of art and architecture can do in the Indian context. That, by extension, opens the door to ways of using historical artefacts and monuments to make public statements through the use of layering, through adopting and transforming the old, rather than through slash-and-burn methods that try to wipe out the past in order to announce one’s arrival.