Sacred and Profaned

Misguided restorations of the exquisite Buddhist shrines of Pagan in Burma may do more harm than good

International conservators have been concerned about Pagan's restorations since 1996, when Burma's ruling junta began cutting corners by whitewashing interior walls , using concrete as mortar and constructing temples, some from the ground up, with new pink brick . (Cameron Davidson)
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As we rattle along rutted dirt tracks in a battered jeep, Aung Kyaing, chief archaeologist of Pagan’s breathtaking 1,000-year-old Buddhist temples, points out an enormous pentagonal pyramid sparkling in the morning sunlight, dominating this arid central Burma plain.

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“Dhammayazika,” he informs me as we bounce past a golden, bell-shaped dome with red banners and a flashy marble walkway. “Secretary Number One paid for the restoration himself.” Secretary Number One is Gen. Khin Nyunt, one of the two strongmen leading Burma’s repressive military junta. Kyaing, an affable scholar dressed in an immaculate white shirt and green longyi, the traditional wraparound skirt favored by both Burmese men and women, is showing me an archaeological disaster—the best and the worst of the government’s recent efforts to restore the ancient temples.


In 1996, the junta invited sponsors across Asia to donate money to help the Burmese rebuild the crumbling temples, but they spurned any professional assistance from international conservators. The resulting hurried and often sloppy restorations have risked destroying the very treasures that make Pagan unique. “The restoration campaign is catastrophic,” says Pierre Pichard, a French archaeologist long familiar with Pagan.


Like many of Afghanistan’s archaeological treasures, Pagan’s temples may fall victim to politics. But there are signs of hope. Pagan attracts nearly 200,000 foreign visitors a year, 12,000 of them American, despite the U.S. government’s imposition of economic sanctions in April 1997 and the country’s repressive regime. With the May release of Burmese dissident and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 57, from house arrest, the government has signaled, if not a willingness to back away from its harshly antidemocratic stance, at least a recognition of the importance of tourism and foreign exchange. If the change in attitude continues, many temples could be saved—at least that’s the hope of archaeologists like Pichard.


On this vast lowland plateau at a sweeping bend in the Irrawaddy River 300 miles north of the capital city, Rangoon, temples, domed pagodas and gilt spires create a surreal landscape. At the height of the Pagan Empire in the 13th century, there were some 2,500 temples; now, due to earthquakes and neglect, there are 300 fewer. Still, the overall effect remains awe-inspiring. Originally built by kings and subjects intent upon earning better lives in future incarnations, the temples were the seat of a dynasty that extended over an empire more or less the configuration of present-day Burma. (In 1989, the military dictatorship reverted to precolonial names—for them this is Bagan, Myanmar. But the U.S. State Department continues to use the names Pagan and Burma, as do many other organizations protesting the tyrannical government.)


About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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