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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But the temples themselves have changed. Everywhere, it seems, temples with new bright pink brick and thick concrete mortar stand out in shocking contrast to the ancient redbrick exteriors and carved sandstone facades. Many temples are being newly built or reconstructed from the ground up rather than restored—using concrete and other materials that damage both the structures themselves and the fragile wall paintings inside. According to Minja Yang, deputy director of the World Heritage Site program for UNESCO in Paris, more than a thousand temples were badly restored or rebuilt in 2000 and 2001.


Since 1996, when the junta invited donations, devout Burmese from Secretary Number One on down, as well as hundreds of Singaporean, Japanese and Korean Buddhists—a total of some 2,000 contributors—have poured millions of dollars into the reconstructions. Their goal, too, is to gain religious merit in this life and in future incarnations. Although the work is widely condemned, the Burmese authorities still press for donations.


In the 1980s and ’90s, the French archaeologist Pichard worked with UNESCO and the United Nations Development Program to train Burmese conservationists. The restoration program was moving ahead, but the junta saw an opportunity to increase revenue by launching a cheaper conservation plan, so they shut down the UNESCO program. Pichard, who recently completed the eighth volume of his definitive Inventory of Monuments at Pagan, accuses authorities of churning out “Xerox stupas,” carbon-copy temples based on scant archaeological evidence. “They’ve rebuilt hundreds of buildings on ruins that are little more than mounds of rubble,” he says, “and they take a percentage on every one.” Very little of the donated money finances restoration of the precious wall paintings.


“The cement they’re using contains salts that migrate through the brick and damage the murals,” adds Pichard. The liberal use of concrete also makes the buildings rigid and far less likely to withstand earthquakes. He says that in a 1975 earthquake that registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, temples that had been reinforced with concrete in earlier restorations collapsed in huge chunks, some weighing a ton, smashing everything beneath. Without concrete, the bricks tend to fall one by one, causing far less damage, he says.


UNESCO and other cultural organizations recommend halting the poor-quality reconstruction and, using international funding, bringing in independent experts to offer technical assistance. But the junta has made it clear that it rejects all international oversight or advice.


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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