Ancient city faces modern danger

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Temple townA tourist cycling around pagodas in Bagan in northern Myanmar.Photo: AFP
Temple townA tourist cycling around pagodas in Bagan in northern Myanmar.Photo: AFP

The spires of Bagan have survived wars, earthquakes and centuries of tropical sun, but in recent years Myanmar's ancient capital has faced a distinctly modern threat – scaffolding and cement.

The temples, some of which are around 1,000 years old, are one of the country's most treasured religious sites and a top attraction for foreign tourists flocking to the country .

While many have largely withstood the ravages of man and nature, haphazard renovation work has also seen new temples built on the foundations of crumbling structures, and experts say they bear little resemblance to the originals.

“Several hundred monuments have been completely rebuilt. It has obviously damaged the historical landscape,” architect Pierre Pichard, a former UNESCO consultant, told AFP.

Pichard helped restore the temples after a huge earthquake struck the region in central Myanmar in 1975, but was forced to leave the site in the early 1990s when the rulers effectively closed the country to the outside world.

After asking Buddhists for donations, the junta then started rebuilding the temples, many of which were just piles of bricks.

Around 2,000 have so far been renovated; many with hastily done stone and plaster work, using bright orange bricks and other modern materials.

A huge number of trees have also been planted across the vast plain dotted with pagodas and temples.

“One of the characteristics of Bagan in the past was to be able to see hundreds of monuments in the middle of fields, and now we see them less,” said Pichard.

Today new building works have been halted, but some structures are still being renovated, and archaeologists have been allowed back into the country to oversee the work.

Experts warn that much of the damage cannot be reversed, and could threaten Bagan's chances of winning World Heritage status.

'Waiting for the next earthquake'

One engineer who worked at the site after the 1975 earthquake, but stopped when the foreign experts left, said a lot of the restoration work was done quickly and cheaply to maximise the profits of local building firms.

“We are waiting for the next earthquake. The new ones will fall down as they used very poor mortar,” he said.

“These pagodas were built a long time ago, and the rain water has managed to get between the bricks and damage them, so we are filling up the holes,” said U Kyain, who is overseeing restoration work on the roof of the Dhammayazika Pagoda.

In its heyday Bagan was one of the most important centres for learning in Asia, if not the world.

Renovations 'a tribute to Buddha'

“The people of the world might see the renovations as us destroying the original form of the ancient monuments. As a Buddhist in Myanmar, seeing these old piles of brick it is not graceful or respectful to Buddhis,” said Kyain.

The temples, he added, are still in use by pilgrims who come to pray.

“The new generation of Buddhist people in Myanmar renovate and rebuilt the pagoda to show their respect to the old people who built these pagodas and to express their emotion to Lord Buddha.”

More and more foreigners are coming every year.

And despite the controversial renovations, Bagan could still win World Heritage status one day, said Tim Curtis, head of the culture unit at UNESCO's office in Bangkok.

“These temples are places of worship. They are not just heritage sites or archaeological sites – they are living cultural expressions.”AFP



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