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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Pedaling lazily back to the hotel, I pass lantern-lit stalls where vendors are busy setting out silk, woven baskets and lacquer boxes in preparation for a religious celebration that will last three weeks. Fortune-tellers, astrologers and numerologists set up tables in anticipation of brisk busi ness from their many deeply superstitious countrymen. Squatting in front of a restaurant, a pair of old women puff on fat cheroots, crinkling their eyes in amusement as a young girl runs alongside my bike. “Want to buy a painting?” she asks. “My brother paint from temple. Very cheap.”


The next day, I sit on a bench encircling a gargantuan banyan tree in a courtyard outside the beautifully restored AnandaTemple, the largest and most revered in Pagan. I watch several young women sweep the courtyard industriously, a task that earns them 100 kyat (about 17¢) a day plus a ration of rice.


“No one is forced to work on the temples,” Kyaing says later when I ask if the women are forced laborers. “We Burmese enjoy doing meritorious deeds as a way to escape suffering,” Kyaing continues. “That’s why we clean temples and restore pagodas—so we can have a good life in the future. Even our Buddha had to go through many lives. Sometimes he was a king, sometimes an important minister of state, sometimes no one at all.”


Like Buddha, Burma is overdue for another, hopefully more democratic, reincarnation, one in which the restoration of its ancient sites will proceed more thoughtfully. As critical as Pichard and other scholars are of current reconstructions, they are not suggesting that the Burmese, and other Buddhists, be denied religious merit through donations for restoration work. Surely, they say, there is more merit in properly preserving the legacy of the country’s ancestors than in mass-producing fake stupas using techniques that risk destroying irreplaceable art.


If a more responsible conservation program is not undertaken soon, Burma’s transcendent mystique will unquestionably suffer irreparable harm. But if international pressure led to freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi, there’s hope a similar campaign can rescue Pagan.

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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