Print edition : September 15, 2001

In the heart of Cambodia lies one of the architectural wonders of the world. A battle is on with the elements to conserve the World Heritage Site.

Text and photographs: DARRYL D'MONTE

THERE is little in the riverside town of Siem Reap in the middle of Cambodia to suggest that it harbours one of the world's architectural wonders. As you drive out of the nondescript town through sparse paddy fields, you come to an elaborate check point. As you pass the check point, you are transported into another environment - a stately and seemingly pristine tropical forest, with towering trees, 300 feet (about 90 metres) tall.

Sunset at the Angkor Wat. The world's largest archaeological site is today the scene of the most intensive restoration efforts.-

If you choose to save the main Angkor Wat temple site itself for a more opportune moment, you drive through arrow-straight roads until you reach one of the elaborate gates. It is flanked by balustrades with a series of larger-than-life adorned human figures, holding aloft a mythical serpent - a naga. Atop the gate, there is the archetypal Angkor icon of the head of a deity, smiling benignly (or, as Western travellers liked to imagine, mysteriously) at you from a commanding height. The carved statue is festooned with creepers and plants, a distinguishing feature of Angkor.

A few hundred metres within the complex, in the Royal Plaza of Angkor Thom, is the Terrace of the Elephants. Dating to the end of the 12th century, it was built by King Jayavarman VII who was a Buddhist. He was the odd man out in a glorious array of Khmer rulers who were ardent Hindus - from Jayavarman II, whose reign started in 802 until the decline of the powerful Khmer Empire and the shifting of its capital in 1431 from Angkor to Phnom Penh, to the south of Cambodia.

The origins of the dynasty are not clear, but the rulers were heavily influenced by traders and Brahmin priests who came from the eastern or southern coasts of India. They presided over an empire that extended from the tip of what is today Vietnam to Yunnan in China and westwards to the Bay of Bengal, straddling present-day Thailand. The temples of Angkor are unparalleled in the whole of South-East Asia and they resemble the Bagan temple in Myanmar. They have also become an image of monumental decay, with the relentless invasion of the forest.

The Angkor Wat temple is by far the most majestic structure, which one approaches with awe. The 210-hectare rectangular site is bounded by a 200-metre-wide moat. There are enclosures within enclosures, which lead to the main temple. The outer walls are covered with 800-metre-long elaborate bas-reliefs, depicting scenes of the battle of Kurukshetra, heaven and hell, the churning of the Ocean of Milk and other representations from Hindu mythology. It is stunning in its formal architectural layout, with grassy lawns and ponds, in sharp contrast to the bewildering chaos of many of the other monuments crumbling with the passage of time.

Today the entire temple complex, of which Angkor Wat is the jewel in the crown, sprawls over 200 sq km, encompassing some 300 temples of varying styles and sizes. It is the largest archaeological site in the world and the scene of the most intensive restoration efforts. A year after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) named it a World Heritage Site in 1992, it set up an International Conservation Committee (ICC), with two co-presidents, from France and Japan, to supervise the "multi-national" conservation campaign for various monuments. This writer was pleasantly surprised to meet M.C. Ragavan, a library expert with extensive experience in India, who runs a documentation centre for the ICC at Siem Reap.

Enormous roots ensnare the Ta Phrom monument.-

"We assess all project proposals, even from the Cambodian government," Ragavan says. "Angkor sites have had a long history of preservation: the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO) celebrated its centenary here this January. We vet a wide range of proposals, from satellite imagery to interpret mapping, mounds, etc., to 'slit scan' moving photography," Ragavan says. The technique, introduced by Jaroslav Poncar of the German Apsara Conservation Group (GACP), employs a moving rail to photograph the bas-reliefs. It records the continuity of the depictions, which are interspersed by pillars and act as a historical record. These have been published in the book, Of Gods, Kings and Men: Bas-Reliefs of Angkor Wat and Bayon by Albert Le Bonheur, published by Weatherhill in 1996.

The EFEO has waged a battle against the elements at Angkor. In the first two decades, its efforts appeared to go waste because no sooner had the archaeologists turned their backs after clearing the vegetation in the temples - most of which were abandoned after the decline of Angkor in the 15th century - than it crept back again. The archaeologists were not sure as to how to restore Hindu temples in which Buddhist images were installed. In the late 1920s, experts emulated the Dutch method, used in Borobodur in Java, which reconstructed monuments, using the original materials and adhering to the original form. Any new materials should be used with the utmost discretion.

From 1971 to 1995, during the protracted wars in Cambodia, the emergence of the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath, the EFEO stopped work and left the country. Today it is concentrating on restoring the Baphuon temple which has an enormous 40-metre-long, three-metre-high reclining Buddha on its west face. Pascal Royere, a young French architect, states:

"The Baphuon temple restoration programme has been going on since 1995 with support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is actually an extension of one of the greatest and most time-consuming challenges taken up by the various conservators working at Angkor.

"Back in 1908, teams were formed to fight back plant overgrowth in the form of brush and large trees. Such ground clearance was already under way on other no less prestigious sites, such as the Bayon and Angkor Wat. The monument was afflicted by an array of structural damage situations that were dealt with using conventional approaches... Notwithstanding these efforts, there were worrisome signs that the Baphuon was still suffering from the relentless process of ruin. Indeed, the monument was affected by a series of collapses in the 1920s... And in 1943, the eastern half of the north face... unexpectedly crashed down... Nothing was done until the late 1950s, when a choice had to be made either to restore the monument completely or let it just fall apart forthwith. The Angkor Conservation Office (then run by the French) opted to act. Although invasive, such intervention was an appropriate overall response to the needs of the monument.

The crumbling image of a deity at Ta Phrom.-

"The technical options selected were a reflection of the experience that the EFEO had gathered from its work on the monument dating back to the early years of the century. The 'anastylosis' technique - the reconstruction of a ruin using its own components - was the bottom line... If water enters, it increases the weight of the sand over which the structure was built. We therefore dismantled the entire structure, piece by piece, block by block and made an inventory of each piece, which we stored in the surrounding forest.

"There are some 300,000 pieces scattered over 10 hectares; reassembling them is somewhat like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. To complicate matters, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed the archives. The reclining Buddha, the biggest in Cambodia, is the only architectural witness to the period. Our work is akin to deciphering a book with several chapters: one has to sometimes depart from the script because the situation has completely changed."

The GACP is engaged in conserving Angkor Wat itself, considered the largest religious stone monument in the world, which UNESCO has also listed as one of the Sites in Danger. It is repairing 360 of the 1,850 sandstone apsaras, which "are in an extremely alarming state of decay". Julie Diezemann, a member of the group and a young conservationist of stone structures from the University of Cologne, described how the team used ethyl silicate to bind the stone. The harmful soluble salts consolidate with this chemical, and when the alcohol evaporates it leaves the silicate and quartz behind. She said that the German experience in treating cathedrals such as those in Strasbourg, made of sandstone, came in handy. The GACP's approach is "to keep the carved surfaces as they are; otherwise they would be a pile of stone".

The Germans have spent DM 1.8 million (about Rs. 360 crores) so far and are employing modern computerised documentation and imaging techniques. The conservationists measure in millimetres the amount of water entering the sandstone to arrive at the mode of treatment to stabilise the surface. Diezemann explained how the group sometimes employed ultrasonic techniques to find the fastest way to treat a decaying structure. The group is also training Cambodians to undertake some of the work so that they can preserve their own heritage in future.

Other countries that have pitched in at different sites in Angkor include Japan, the United States (through the World Monuments Fund), Italy, Indonesia and China. Earlier, the Hungarians and the Russians had conducted studies (North Vietnam occupied Cambodia to liberate it from the Khmer Rouge and the Soviets enjoyed some influence in the country at that time). According to Ragavan, Cambodia, with some of the largest reconstruction projects, today witnesses perhaps the biggest aid operation in the world. The conservation of Angkor has benefited in the process. He estimates that by now a few billion dollars would have been spent on the site.

The carved image of a deity atop a gate at the temple complex. This icon is festooned with creepers and plants that are ubiquitous at the Angkor Wat.-

India had helped to conserve the temple complex between 1986 and 1993, when no other country was willing to volunteer because of the political instability in Cambodia. However, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) record has been controversial. After the Vietnamese entered Cambodia in 1979, Prince Norodom Sihanouk sent letters to various countries requesting them to help save the monument and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi volunteered India's aid. Dr. B. Narasimhaiah, who has written a book documenting India's contribution (Angkor Vat: India's Contribution in Conservation, published by the ASI, 1994), headed the team for much of the time.

In the introduction to Narasimhaiah's book, Dr. Achala Moulik, former Director-General of the ASI, refers to the observance of the Venice Charter relating to the preservation of monuments. The Charter points out the necessity of keeping "structural and sculptural intervention" to the minimum in order to retain the monument's "historicity and artistic authenticity". She writes: "However, due to disuse and neglect of centuries, measures had to be taken by the ASI to remove cryptogeneous substances (vegetation) in the matrix of the stones. Grouting had to be done to prevent hydrolysis (chemical reaction of compound with water to form new substance). Sometimes these measures attracted criticism and were unfortunately misinterpreted or misjudged. ASI tried in a spirit of international camaraderie to clarify the apprehensions voiced in the criticism. Finally, what will remain is the standing and eloquent testimony of the concern of the Government of India and the care of the ASI to restore the monument, which is a great symbol of Cambodian culture as well as being part of the larger heritage of India and the world."

Narasimhaiah also complains about being misunderstood rather than appreciated. He draws attention to the fact that the ASI, in the 130 years of its history, has never tried to gain publicity for its international endeavours, which include the restoration of the Buddha statue in Bamiyan (which the Taliban recently destroyed) and monuments in Angola. In a sideswipe at the French at Baphuon, he writes: "Never dismantle what cannot be reconstructed." He also refers to how the French attached new limbs to statues at the Terrace of the Elephants. The ASI, by contrast, followed in the footsteps of its illustrious Director General in 1902, the 26-year-old John Marshall, who cautioned against such intervention.

Narasimhaiah describes the ASI's much-disputed use of chemicals on Angkor Wat by stating that the surface was first sprayed with water and then a solution with one to two per cent of ammonia applied to neutralise the acids. Then it was treated with a 2 per cent solution of poly-methyl metacrylate (PMMA) in toluene. The scope of the enterprise was gigantic since the monument covered a surface of 200,000 sq m with 9,000 "architectural members". As much as 2,000 cubic metres of this stone was reset and 100,000 sq m chemically treated. He says that the ASI's trained workers were subsequently snapped up by the World Monuments Fund, while the French attracted some by paying them a dollar a day. The Indian government paid Rs.3 crores over the seven-year period, which was not an inconsiderable sum in those days. P. Banerjee, Director of Conservation at the ASI, who was not involved with Angkor, denied that there is any proof of the ASI having made mistakes.

However, European conservators, believe that the Indian "solution" was in fact responsible for today's problem. A GACP document circumspectly states: "Many of the surfaces of the Angkor Wat temple are covered with a whitish, sometimes glossy, layer of PMMA. These treatments were applied by a former restoration project to impede water infiltration but they also impede necessary consolidation treatments. The drying of the stone is also slowed down dramatically and the thermal behaviour of treated areas becomes totally different from the stone substrate. The project aims to find a suitable way to remove the acrylic coatings in order to allow conservation treatments."

A Vishnu idol at the Angkor Wat complex.-

Adds Diezemann: "We had seen that problems occurred in the 1990s with the resins; when you apply something, you don't know what and how it looks in 50 years. The acrylic, if that is what it is, traps water; the soluble salts in the stone crystallise and expand; the iron (yellow stains) is trapped too. These are very difficult to remove. I don't know exactly what they used and how much. One needs a strong substance to remove it but this may damage the stone." According to Ragavan, the ICC had written to the ASI for information on what precisely had been applied, but there was no reply. The team only left two pages of reports behind. "We are now making a strong plea that all participating countries make copies of their reports, so that we have complete records," he said. Ragavan believes that Narasimhaiah's book is not a full account of whatever the ASI did.

At the same time, the French in particular have been rather possessive about Angkor Wat, having "rediscovered" the monument in the 1860s and worked there for a century. In 1923, Andre Malraux, the writer who subsequently became the French Culture Minister, allegedly ransacked an Angkor temple with his wife and was arrested in Phnom Penh. After an outcry from the liberal-intellectual establishment in Paris in his favour, he was released. Julie Mehta, a Bangkok-based writer who has been visiting Angkor for several years and met Narasimhaiah at the ruins, recalls how, apparently at the prodding of the French, Prince Sihanouk reportedly wept after he saw what the Indians had done.

According to Ragavan, the ICC has been making overtures to the Indian authorities to send another team to the Angkor Wat. After no several years, this appeal appears to have touched a chord somewhere. Komal Anand, who was till recently acting Director-General of the ASI, visited the Angkor Wat in July. She has since reverted to the Department of Culture but ASI sources said that her visit had opened up "possibilities" of cooperation again.

Cambodians who worked with the ASI team retain happy memories of those difficult days and have a smattering of Hindi phrases for everyday commands. One such is In Phally, a photographer in the government's Angkor Conservation Office, who told me: "After all, the Indian people are my grand grandfathers." Asked about the Indian government's role, he pointed to how one side of the Angkor Wat's stepped embankment, which the ASI repaired, was still intact, whereas the other, done by the French, had collapsed.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor