Chhmar in focus
Coaxing a Khmer Temple from the Jungle's Embrace - by Robert Turnbull (New York Times)
A simple paradox lies at the heart of the restoration process: The less you notice, the better the job. Mr. Sanday sees overzealous rebuilding as compromising of a monument’s natural history, and much of its beauty. On the other hand, donors to projects such as these usually want to see tangible results, if not the revelation of some architectural marvel. Mr. Sanday’s solution is to opt for a “presentation” of key areas of the temple, which in the future can serve as a model. Visitors will enter — as did the ancients — past the eastern gopura, along a causeway largely destroyed by 600 hundreds years of monsoons. Once that is rebuilt, they will advance toward the southeastern gallery of bas-reliefs and access the temple’s central areas along suspended wooden boards. Under Predrag Gavrilovich, a Macedonian architect and colleague of Mr. Sanday’s, the fund is working on the southeastern gallery. Mr. Gavrilovich was responsible for rebuilding Preah Khan’s beautiful Dharamsala and Hall of Dancers almost entirely from scratch. His achievement was to completely disguise that fact by presenting something that seems utterly natural in its decay.
Can he do the same with Banteay Chhmar? His team has already reassembled the gallery’s square pillars and corbel vaulting. But the foundations need reinforcing before those parts can be lifted to their original position. “The building was not well constructed,” Mr. Gavrilovich said. “Maybe it was built in a hurry.” For the “face towers,” Mr. Gavrilovich will have the benefit of new software developed by Hans Georg Bock at Heidelberg University in Germany. By scanning all the rubble and carefully analyzing each stone, it is possible to create a 3-D database for a virtual reconstruction of the entire monument. The temple is only one part of Mr. Sanday’s project. His greater challenge is to turn a heavily mined former war zone with “finite” water supplies and massive scars on the landscape into a fertile and “zoned” area for responsible development as well as tourism. So water has to come from somewhere. The reservoir the ancient Khmers built just north of the temple is heavily silted. Damming by villagers of the temple’s ornamental moat has resulted in flooding and wastage at monsoon time. With no evidence of an underground water table or any deep interventions, Mr. Sanday has invited James Goodman, a hydrologist in Geneva to research and map the course of the old waterways. Mr. Goodman has been looking both at images taken by the colonial École Française d’Extrême-Orient in 1945 and aerial photos used by the United States during the Indochinese war. The idea would be to rationalize water supplies and to create a well-drilling program.
For the project to work requires the support of the 12,000 or so villagers who might wonder what’s in it for them. Community Based Tourism, a French-inspired organization, aims at rewarding local people with 100 percent of tourist revenue. In 2007 and 2008, 512 visitors showed up. For $7 a night they were offered a tour, a room in a house with hot water and several hours of electricity. Mr. Sanday is determined to prevent the kind of commercial pressures on temple sites that has dogged Angkor over many years. He said he thinks the authorities are behind him. “The ministry has set out clear zoning rules which dictate the position and size of new building and plans to create a new road that bypasses the temple,” he said. The Culture Ministry’s heritage police will soon take charge of security. Only then might the return of the original bas-reliefs be possible under an agreement between the culture minister, the Global Heritage Fund and Unesco. That agency’s Teruo Jinnai, for one, welcomed the idea, provided “the security situation meets international requirements.” It should happen. The return of these priceless bas-reliefs would demonstrate a new spirit of cooperation among those concerned with safeguarding Cambodian heritage. It could also send a clear message to those of ill intent to keep their hands off Banteay Chhmar.
Labels: Banteay Chhmar