Restoring the luster to Asia's forgotten monuments

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In several parts of Asia, a continent that has produced some of the world's greatest civilizations, symbols of a glorious past are threatened with disintegration. Victims of erosion and neglect, these monuments are in urgent need of restoration if they are to retain their cultural luster.

Splendid as many of them are, they are not widely known. How many Americans, for instance, who have stood at the foot of the Parthenon or felt the enchantment of Notre DAme have ever heard of the imposing Borobudur Buddhist shrine in central Java or the serene beauty of the Katmandu valley?

A major international campaign to alert public opinion has been launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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both the financial and technical commitment, which the monument-bearing countries could not have undertaken themselves, proved considerable. To save Borobudur, for example, nine years and $15 million will have been required by the time the project is completed in 1982.For the projects, too, investments will run into the millions of dollars. But many observers believe humanity would be much poorer if these monuments were lost.

The great Buddha of Borobudur was built in the Javanese jungle some 1,200 years ago. It looks like a sculpted mountain. On a 147-square-yard base, four terraces etched with 1,460 bas-reliefs and 432 statues rise in the shape of a pyramid. Three more circular terraces complete the monument. They are edged with 72 bells (Stupas) made of perforated stone, each containing a statue of Buddha. Atop the pyramid a single Stupa, empty and closed, symbolizes the contemplation of truth.

It took some 600 technicians and laborers aided by experts from Europe and the United States to dismantle and subsequently rebuild the monument. Each stone had to be registered, cleaned, and treated. Carved stones were restored. Watertight layers were constructed behind the walls.

As recently as 200 years ago, Borobudur was entombed in jungle. It had disappeared from view and existed only in the memory of nearby villagers. In 1814, a dutch engineer officer named Cornelius was sent to investigate rumors about the buried monument. He employed 200 villagers to fell trees, burn bushes , and dig away earth and rubbish. The work was completed in two months and only then was the monument brought back to life. Soon it will be returned to its ancient splendor.

Borobudur is just one example of what remains to be done to bring out the lost luster of many Asia's cultural treasures. The most recent projects concern Sukhothai, 310 miles north of Bangkok, and the "cultural triangle" in Sri Lanka. In Sukhothai, UNESCO is helping Thailand in a unique venture that seeks not only to preserve and restore monuments and Buddha images, but also to conserve the ecology, natural surroundings, and way of life of the people of the area. In Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, monuments testify to the splendor of the ancient Sinhalese civilization. But nature, in the form of a tropical climate and advancing jungle, has taken its toll. Experts are searching for ways to blunt nature's biting edge.

Often the problem is how to preserve monuments in the face of marching progress, how to blend the new with the old. But monuments and artwork are not the only cultural legacies to be saved, particularly in Asia. Nepal, for instance, also embraces sacred mountains, forests, springs, rivers, lakes, and villages. And already some of the palaces and monasteries of the Katmandu valley are being threatened by decay. Urban sprawl and tourism are also taking their toll. But a start has been made toward checking this erosion under a five-year, $5 million program backed by Japan, West Germany, the Guide Foundation of NEw York, and UNESCO.

At times, preservation is a race against the clock. In the Indus Valley of Pakistan, some 250 miles north of Karachi, lie the remains of one of the world's most ancient cities. The city, discovered 50 years ago under an artificial hill , bears witness to a civilization that flourished from Iraq to India 4,000 years ago. Only part of the village has been unearthed. But already nature is eating away at the exposed bricks. Indeed, archaeologists say that everything they have managed to uncover so far may disappear within a few years. But Pakistan technical experts and UNESCO specialists are taking steps to protect the area from a rising water table, with erosion, and salt accumulation. The goal is to lower the water table about 8 yards. The next steps will be to construct a dike to divert the Indus River, dry out and clean the walls, and plant trees to reduce wind erosion. Once again the world community has been called to assist. The tab for this facelift will be high: a estimated $11 million.

Wars, too, sometimes threaten works of art, even if indirectly. Take Herat, for example. Minarets dot this second city of Afghanistan like giant stone pencils. But a group of six of them is in danger of collapsing. And the great fortress that overlooks the old city from atop a huge embankment also needs repair. UNESCO did send a number of experts to survey the damage. But the work had to be halted when the Soviet invaded Afghanistan. Fighting in the area threatens to reduce the relics to rubble.

Another endangered species is the temple of Angkor Wat, one of Southeast Asia's greatest architectural and artistic treasures. Like Herat, this 12 th-century shrine in northwestern Cambodia also has been threatened by war -- this one pitting the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin regime against the Khmer Rouge.

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