The Puthia Royal Palace is a place of ancient grandeur and is famous for its mélange of designs. The ornate veranda railings of the palace still shine above the delicate 16th century Mughal-era terracotta that are embedded on its walls.
The triangular pediment of the 3.05m-long veranda was based on Corinthian style columns that capture attention for being an amazing blend of Greek and Roman styles with Mughal architecture.
However, the place looked nothing like this six years ago. The railings were broken; the floral motifs were lost. Fractures were prominent on the dampened walls, cracks were all over the wooden roof supports.
The main palace building was used by Lashkarpur Degree College as their academic wing until the government declared it a "protected monument".
The art of restoration
As per rule, the government can declare historic monuments over 100 years old as state property. In 2013, it marked 511 structures in the country as protected monuments.
The conservation of Puthia monuments fell under the project titled "Reformation, conservation and development of Puthia group of monuments in Rajshahi division". The project took three years to complete from 2014 to 2017.
"We gave the monuments a shape since we could not restore everything and we had to reconstruct a huge portion," said Firoz Ahmed, assistant engineer and a passionate conservator at the Department of Archaeology.
He said, "The buildings behind the Puthia Royal Palace were on the verge of collapse, the brass jars of the Shiva temple were gone, the terracotta of the Ahnik temples were partially destroyed and the Hawakhana had become an abandoned place."
Dr ATM Masood Reza, associate professor of Discipline of Architecture at the University of Khulna, informed The Business Standard that there are no fixed rules on how to preserve the ancient buildings.
He added, "The process can vary with time and trend and there can be massive reconstructions other than restorations, even the original bits can be removed if the situation demands. Since others do not hold the authority to say anything about it, we have to depend on the conservators' wisdom."
Firoz Ahmed and his team had to run extensive researches as many parts were missing. They studied the existing parts of terracotta to create special moulds and the bricks were produced based on the archetype of the old ones. Experts designed the blocks based on the motifs they found on the relics. They had to wait for days to get the accurate measurements of the Shiva temple brass jars.
After a few experiments, they invented a long lasting method to plaster the walls from inside to preserve the vintage look on the outside.
Firoz said, "Sometimes parts from significant buildings get totally destroyed. In that case you have to assess the other buildings as the ones from the same era tend to hold similar features."
After toiling so hard to restore these old glories, when they are accused of "destroying old monuments" it hurts them, but still they have to keep their spirits high.
Obstacles at Puthia palace
When The Business Standard visited the palace, they found a bus parked on the field in front of it. The correspondent asked Firoz Ahmed about it, who informed her that restoration of old pieces is not the only challenge, the locals pose even a greater one for them.
The open space in front of the royal palace is used as a playground, a place to hold village carnivals and as a garage to park buses.
He said all this was harming the ancient establishment. From offering remuneration to using a little force, nothing worked on these locals who had no regard for the ancient palace.
Firoz also informed The Business Standard that the space used to be a garden. The lakes in the area are not lakes at all, they were supposed to form a moat surrounding the palace.
If it was possible to deal with the influential locals, the garden and its walls could be recreated. The palace along with its temples and other ancient monuments has all the potential to become a fine tourist spot.
Since the conservation project ended in 2017, Firoz and his team have been facing the problem of limited budget because the yearly one, allotted per structure, is not sufficient.
As a result, the work on turning the royal palace into a museum has been put on hold and there is uncertainty about when it will be finished.
Challenges of working on such projects
Working on ancient monuments is not an easy job, said the conservator.
He expressed his grief over how the hardship of the work makes it less appealing to the new architects as 90 percent of the ancient buildings are in remote areas with little facility for food and accommodation.
However, Dr Masood Reza thinks that students have more interest in this field but there is less scope of work here and the payments are not enough always.
He said, "Again, it is a new field of interest that requires experts while new architects need more time. To become experts, they must work in the general field for a long time and gather enough experience."
When The Business Standard asked Taimur Islam, the CEO of Urban Study Group, about the restoration work of Puthia monuments, he gave a somewhat mixed reaction.
He said, "First of all there are a few gaps in our monument protection law. It was first amended in 1968 which lacks specificity. This is why we are always confused about which procedure we should follow for monument protection.
"Secondly, we tend to take monuments outside Dhaka lightly. Puthia monuments restoration is an example of such tendency.
"Our Archaeology Department has grown expertise in terracotta work and they are trying to improve upon their skills. But the use of colour and tone has shattered the essence of antiquity. They did not preserve the vintage flavour but, instead, have made it look contemporary."