ASI rebuilding the glory of Buddhist complex in Cambodia

July 30, 2012 12:07 am | Updated 02:18 am IST - CHENNAI:

The gallery in the third enclosure in the Ta Prohm complex in Cambodia after it was restored by the ASI. Photo: Ashok Krishnaswamy

The gallery in the third enclosure in the Ta Prohm complex in Cambodia after it was restored by the ASI. Photo: Ashok Krishnaswamy

There are signs of devastation everywhere and vandalism too. Still, the sights at the Ta Prohm Buddhist monastic complex, built by Cambodian king Jayavarman VII around 1181 CE in Siem Reap province can leave visitors benumbed. Massive silk cotton trees have grown on the vimanas of shrines and uprooted many other structures, including galleries, shrines, pillars, and lintel beams. Corbelled roofs have caved in and pillars with beautiful carvings have broken into two. The gopuras on the east and west look forlorn with the sand-stone blocks that form the visage of Avalokitisvara dislodged from their places. Amid the ruins are the 48 pillars of the Hall of Dancers. Bas reliefs of Apsaras and Bodhisatvas have been gauged out of shrines and their niches are barren.

Every morning at this complex, there is a scrimmage of international tourists. “At 9 a.m. itself, there are long queues to see the trees that have grown over vimanas. Some of the trees are more than 40 metres tall,” said D.S. Sood, Deputy Superintending Archaeological Engineer, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and team leader of the Ta Prohm Temple Project. Tourists come from all over the world but mainly from South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Singapore and India.

“We are a team of five from the ASI, restoring the Ta Prohm complex from December 2004,” Mr. Sood said as he hosted a team of visiting Indians, led by T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, on June 24. “It is a challenging work because of the environmental and site conditions. Safeguarding the authenticity of the monuments is of utmost importance. UNESCO has said we cannot cut any tree because it wants the people to see here how the trees and the complex coexist,” said Mr. Sood.

Jayavarman VII dedicated this temple to his mother. He called it a “Rajavihara” (the royal temple). The word “Ta” means ancestors and “Prohm” originates from Brahma, Hindu god of creation. The main image in the sandstone complex is that of Pragnya Paramita, goddess of wisdom. The complex — 1,150 metres long and 663 metres wide — has concentric enclosures that house 39 shrines with small vimanas, galleries, the Hall of Dancers, a causeway connecting the third and fourth enclosures etc.

Dr. Satyamurthy called Ta Prohm “an outstanding monument” built of interlocked sandstone blocks without any binding material. It was different from the monuments in India because it had a single core. Jayavarman VII, a Buddhist, was succeeded by Jayavarman VIII, a Hindu. Jayavarman VIII systematically destroyed the Buddha images at Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Prea Khan and Banteay Kdei. The shifting of the capital from Siem Reap and invasions, internal disputes and neglect led to the ruin of the monuments.

UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. Today, it is one of the most visited complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region. The conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm is a partnership project of the ASI and the APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap).

When the ASI team arrived at Ta Prohm in 2004, everything was in ruins: there was very little standing other than the gigantic trees.

Mr. Sood, senior conservation assistants T.K. Ganju and A.K. Soni, and senior draftsmen E.P. Biswas and H. Raghavendra assessed the challenge. Mr. Sood said, “We studied the monument, its behaviour and tendency, how the structures were built, their methodology and technology, their stability, the materials used in their construction, why conservation was necessary and the quantum of conservation to be done. We analysed the causes of neglect.”

The first structure that the ASI restored to its glory was a completely collapsed gallery in the third enclosure. It was rectangular in shape. Its corridor, corbelled roof and two parallel rows of pillars had fallen. Only the corridor’s rear wall, once decorated with bas reliefs of mythical figures, stood. The ASI team restored the gallery and the causeway with balustrades, connecting the third and fourth enclosures.

Mr. Sood said, “After proper documentation, we removed the gallery’s fallen stones, using a crane. We documented all parts of the gallery. The stones were numbered and measured for their length, breadth and height, and weighed. It was a jigsaw puzzle to find out to which part of the gallery the stones belonged. We were clear that we could not use broken stone blocks without joining them. If the broken parts of a block were available, we joined them by inserting steel rods inside after drilling holes in the blocks. We used the same kind of material. We did not use mortar or any binding material. We started the gallery restoration in 2007 and completed it in 2010.”

It was an equally big challenge to restore the Hall of Dancers. “The roof had caved in. There was no access to go inside,” Mr. Ganju said. The ASI team meticulously restored the hall, block by block. Where the sandstone blocks were missing, it used stones from the original source: the Kulen Mountain. A massive tree stands inside the hall on one side.

“We will keep the tree as it is, because UNESCO wants people to understand how it looked before the restoration. On the right side, we will restore the roof,” Mr. Sood said.

During the hall’s restoration, the ASI found the lower half of a beautiful golden crown. The hall was not meant for performing dances. Monks used it for meditation. The gopuras on the entrances on the east and west are being restored.

Dr. Satyamurthy called the restoration work “a remarkable achievement in the context of the enormity of the challenges involved.”

The ASI took the help of the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun, to prop up the trees that had grown on the structures. Water and Power Consultancy Service Limited, New Delhi, did hydrological and ground-penetrating radar studies to understand the movement of the roots below the soil. The Indian Institute of Technology — Madras helped the ASI in resolving the structural stability of the monument.

About 200 Cambodian workers, skilled and semi-skilled, are assisting the ASI team. If the magnitude of work at Ta Prohm is any indication, the ASI team has its hands full till at least 2014.

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