During his recent visit to Cambodia, India’s Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vaypayee, signed an agreement to restore the Ta Prohm temples, part of the 1,200-year-old Angkor Wat complex, said to be the largest archaeological site in the world. The work will be carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which had worked on the main Angkor Wat monument itself during the turbulent period between 1986 and 1993, when the Khmer Rouge ravaged the country.
Preliminary estimates put the cost of restoration of Ta Prohm at $4 million over eight years, as much as the ASI spent in its previous stint. Two decades ago, in response to an international appeal from Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the ASI applied chemicals to the stone edifices and undertook structural repairs. Treatment is complicated by the fact that between the 15th and 19th centuries, Angkor, which owes its inspiration to Hindu proselytisers, was abandoned and the surrounding tropical forest has invaded the monuments.
A.C. Grover, ASI’s Joint Director General, told The Art Newspaper that Ta Prohm would not be in continuation of the earlier initiative. This time the work would consist of structural repairs, resetting structures which are out of alignment, restoring structures which have collapsed and exposing those which have been buried under the earth. In addition, the ASI will document the site, lay in drainage and landscape the area.
However, the ASI may well have committed itself to a project which is too ambitious. Ta Prohm has been deliberately left untouched over these years, except for clearing a path for visitors and strengthening some structures which were in danger of falling, in order to demonstrate the interface between the built environment and nature. It is difficult to tell which is supporting the other now.
Throughout the site, massive 70-foot-tall kapok and other tropical trees hold the intricately carved structures firmly in their grasp. Everywhere, there are piles of stones which have collapsed. The roots of the trees have snaked through the stones and sometimes look as if they are prising the temples open. Conservationists believe that it will be dangerous to cut down some of the trees because they are also supporting the structures now.
Mr Grover admits as much. “Regarding the existence of tall trees in this complex of monuments, there is a general feeling among tourists that the trees should be allowed to co- exist,” he points out. “The trees are about 70 years old and, as such, are a part of this monument but there have been recent reports in the press that due to the falling of some isolated trees, the temple structures have been adversely damaged.
“Although we have not contemplated the eradication of the trees to start with, the ASI would like to get the opinion of experts about the future of the trees in the Ta Prohm temple complex when we are making an effort to restore the temple to its ancient glory and grandeur.”
It is likely that India, which feels that it shares the heritage of Angkor Wat as a site influenced by Hinduism, was allotted Ta Prohm because most of the prominent temples are being restored by other countries (The Art Newspaper, No. 117, September 2001, p.56).
While some sites in India , typically the Ajanta caves near Mumbai, had also been abandoned for centuries, Angkor is unique because the 200 square km site lies in the heart of tropical forest, with heavy rain for much of the year. The ASI may not possess the expertise to restore such a site.
It had come in for criticism earlier for its use of chemicals. Although a former director general had referred to the ASI as bearing in mind the need for keeping “structural and sculptural intervention” to a minimum in order to retain the monument’s “historicity and artistic authenticity”, European experts believe that the ASI’s mistakes were ones of commission at Angkor.
According to the German Apsara Conservation Group, “many of the surfaces of the Angkor Wat temple are covered with a whitish, sometimes glossy, layer... These treatments were applied by a former restoration project to impede water infiltration but they also impede necessary consolidation treatments.”
The German group is now removing the acrylic coatings, but is treading warily, because strong substances may damage the stone. In its 1994 book, Angkor Wat: India’s contribution in conservation, the ASI described the huge size of the task, quite apart from its complexity.
The monument covered a surface of 200,000 square metres with 9,000 “architectural members”. It reset 2000 cubic metres of stone and treated 100,000 square metres with chemicals.
Ta Prohm is another site altogether and perhaps no country has the experience of restoring such a monument. While Mr Grover talks about “structural repairs and restoration of the fallen temples and other components”, nature may not easily permit such intervention.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Inseparably wedded?'