Tuesday, December 24, 2019

restoring PWD - using old technique and Kangeyam bulls


The bulls have a defined routine: 48 rounds a day to produce 30 cubic feet of lime mortar for about 300 sq ft of wall. The output is 10% less than what modern techniques yield, but the quality tilts the scales towards tradition. The bulls are expected to toil at least six months on this part of the restoration ~  wonder what this ‘bull-story’ in modern era !

Visitors to Chennai for sure, would be captivated by the winding road along the beach – the Beach Road on Marina beach .. .. there are so many statues, of which our hero Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathiyar stands infront of a famous red building. Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, the governor of Madras from 1881 to 1886, conceived and built the promenade along the beach in 1884 by extensively modifying and layering with soft sand. He also gave it the name Madras Marina ~  since the early 19th  century, a number of public buildings were constructed fronting the beach.  That beautiful building infront of Mahakavi statue is that of PWD (Public Works Department).   It  is the oldest department in Tamil Nadu, founded during British Raj during 1800. It became a government body in 1858.  The Public Works Department is entrusted with the construction and maintenance of buildings for most of the government departments and public undertakings, and the construction of bridges, roads, and infrastructure.

The Kangeyam (காங்கேயம்) cattle derives its name from the Kangeyam town located in Tiruppur district in the state of Tamil Nadu. This cattle breed is also known locally as Kongu Maadu. The name Kangayam was derived from Emperor Kangayan of Kongu Nadu. It is an indigenous breed of India. The animals are medium built in general and is considered a good draught breed in South India.  This breed is used in Jallikattu owing to its aggressive nature. It is disease resistant and has low body mass index, low metabolic rate and low water requiring, has capacity to withstand heat and humidity stress and resilience capacities.

The Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu which was established in the year 1858 by Lord Dalhousie turned 150  last year. The  department has over the years, undergone several structural and organizational changes to be in tune with changes in the political and administrative systems and with pace and orientation in the developmental activities.  The Madras Public Works Department was formed in the year 1858 under one Chief Engineer with three Inspecting Engineers, twenty District Engineers,       seventy-eight Executive Engineers and Assistant Engineers, two hundred and four Upper Subordinates and seven hundred and fourteen Lower Subordinates. The revival of "Coodimaramut" or unpaid village labour of ryots was brought about by legal enactment.  Through the years of evolution, the administration of the Department and the Engineering Services in general has been well streamlined.

During the post-independent period, on account of enormous developmental schemes under the Five Year Plans and remarkable increase in the construction activities, it was necessary for the Public Works Department to shed some of its responsibilities to be taken over by independent organizations and this necessity started even as early as in 1946. With the fast emerging urbanization and urban centers, and intensification of activity to launch drinking water and sewerage schemes and with the avowed policy of the Government to provide safe drinking water to all the villages, a separate Public Health and Municipal Works Department was constituted in 1962. This  later became Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Sewerage Board in 1971.

The Public Works Department through its long innings of 150 years has created invaluable capital assets including irrigation infrastructure in the form of dams, reservoirs, tanks canals etc. A few of these are the Dams, Reservoirs and anicuts like Mettur, Bhavani, Manimuthar, Amaravathi, Vaigai, Parambikulam, Sathanur, Palar, Ponnai, Tirukoilur, Srivaikundam etc; Buildings like Presidency College, University Senate House, High Court, Madras Law College,  District Courts, Collectorates, Hospitals, etc. and other monumental buildings. The Public Works Department in charge of construction of Public Buildings and their maintenance in the State ~ wonder, who and how will its own building be maintained ?

For the first time in decades, the heritage structures in the Public Works Department complex at Chepauk are being restored.  Built in 1865, the iconic red building facing Marina beach is also known as the Chepauk Palace and housed the Nawab of Arcot. It houses the PWD headquarters.  The main building, designed by Robert Chisholm, has two rectangular wings on either side.  The State government  recently announced Rs.20 crore towards heritage conservation. At present, work is on to repair a hall in one of the wings that was once used for maintaining records.

Elaborating on the process, an official of the PWD said lime and river sand are sourced from Tiruchi and Virudhunagar for lime plastering. “Mughal plastering using various traditional materials like egg white, curd and lime powder is used and several processes are involved to revive the sheen of the walls. Structures with wire cut bricks need such plastering for stability,” the official said. “We are also repairing the roof and courtyard. Skilled masons from Kovilpatti have been engaged for the work,” said an official.  The chest, which was made in London, is now being used to maintain confidential documents of the department.

Reviving a traditional method of restoring heritage structures, the public works department (PWD) has introduced a stone roller yard to grind limestone and sand that would be used for plastering. A pair of Kangeyam  bullocks attached to the roller in the circular yard grinds these materials replacing machine grinders.   Nearly 249 years ago, the iconic  Palace, was built using construction techniques that were considered the best. Now, while restoring one of its constituent buildings, the Public Works Department has decided to go back to those traditional methods.   As a Department official explains, this ‘slow’ process yields plaster that is authentic and free from contamination.



The Kangeyam bulls working at Chepauk are from Saptur in Madurai district. They were yoked to draw a limestone grinding roller that mixes the lime mortar. “Normally, a grinder is used. But the traditional technique of bulls rotating the grinding roller blends the mortar better and provides superior adhesion.  It is  not just the use of bulls that is old-style. The roller stone, weighing five tonnes, had to be sourced from Sholinghur in Vellore district and the stones used to build the ‘grinder’ — a circular path 25-feet in diameter — were specially chosen from Mamallapuram. The channel in which the lime mortar is ground is made of stone, because concrete is not suitable. Fine concrete particles could mix with the lime mortar and affect its purity, an official said.  About 20 rounds by bullocks attached to a stone grinder generates 250 kg of mortar, quipped an official.

Interesting !

Sir Mokshagundam Vishweshvaraya KCIE, FASc (1861 – 1962)  the brilliant engineer,  the man behind Krishnaraja sagar dam, 19th  Diwan of Mysore, recipient of Bharat Ratna, knighted as a Knight Commander of the British Indian Empire (KCIE) by King George V for his contributions to the public good,  took a job with the PWD of Bombay and later was invited to join the Indian Irrigation Commission.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
23rd Dec 2019.

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