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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Unlike the damage caused by recent restorations, the mural-cleaning and conservation projects conducted by U.N. and Burmese teams in the ’80s and ’90s have proved remarkably durable. Early one morning, I arrange for a horse-cart ride to the 12th-century GubyaukgyiTemple, an imposing pyramid of redbrick with elaborate carvings topped by a tapering, corncob-shaped tower called a sikhara. Gorgon masks with garlands of pearls pouring out of grinning mouths form a frieze that rings the temple’s exterior. Inside, on the walls, tigers and fantastic beasts square off with snout-nosed, yellow-faced demons. In the niche of one window, I can just make out a pair of lithe dancers twirling arms and legs seductively in shadow. These are among the oldest and, after careful and proper restoration, the most vivid paintings in Pagan.


In marked contrast, at Leimyethna, a 13th-century temple about a mile away, I am appalled to see that a donor has inscribed his name in red paint over 800-year-old wall paintings. Equally jarring, a new gilt statue of a seated Buddha is surrounded by incongruously jazzy paintings of flowers, vines and lotus blossoms in bright Mediterranean pastels that look like poor copies of works by Henri Matisse or Raoul Dufy.


When the Burmese archaeologist Kyaing and I arrive at Nandamanya, a 13th-century terraced brick temple topped by a bell-shaped dome, we slip off our sandals at an intricately carved doorway and step barefoot into the cool interior. Weak sunlight filters through a pair of stone windows perforated in diamond-shaped patterns. When Kyaing turns on his flashlight, the dimly lit walls erupt in extravagant color, illuminating one of the best murals in Pagan: exquisitely detailed scenes of Buddha’s life painted in the mid-13th century.


One Nandamanya panel depicts Buddha preaching his first sermon in a deer forest embellished with intricate yellow flowers and green foliage. Painted fish with individual scales are so well-preserved that they gleam in the artificial light. An illustrated series of half-naked women, daughters of the evil demon Mara sent to tempt Buddha, remain mildly shocking, though hardly “so vulgarly erotic and revolting that they can neither be reproduced or described,” as Charles Duroiselle, a French expert in Burmese inscriptions, huffed in his 1916 description of the temple. Some of the paintings are riven with cracks. “Earthquake damage,” says Kyaing, referring to the 1975 tremor. “This temple was spared, but the murals were damaged. We are trying to leave them untouched except for cleaning and filling cracks with harmless epoxy resin.”


After Kyaing drops me off at my riverside hotel set among several temples, I rent a bicycle and pedal out to the 11th-century temple known as Shwesandaw, a milesouth of the city gate, a prime vantage point for catching the sunset and, for locals, netting Western dollars. At the entrance, eager vendors sell postcards, miniature Buddha statues and jewelry. I climb five flights of steep exterior steps to join other camera-toting pilgrims crowding the narrow upper terrace for a sweeping view of the milewide IrrawaddyRiver, where fishing pirogues scurry out of the path of a steamer ferry belching thick, black smoke. The fading light burnishes the hundreds of temples dotting the plain in shades of deep umber.


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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