THE last time anyone carved a lotus petal in the sandstone fa,cade of Angkor Wat was probably about 800 years ago. But in early 1987, an Indian sculptor named Mohammad Jan began to recarve the weather-worn images on Southeast Asia's most famous monument, a temple entangled in both jungle overgrowth and global politics.
Mr. Jan is a member of a 12-man archaeological team from India helping to make Angkor Wat ``look like new,'' as he describes it. The ruins of the ancient Khmer civilization have been victims of a decade of war, plunder, and abandonment to nature's slow destruction.
Starting on the main entrance to the giant temple, the Indian experts are using newly quarried sandstone and modern cement to replace broken patches or fill in deep bullet holes. Jan then chisels in floral designs ``in the same fashion as the Khmer people did in the 12th century.''
``I studied the designs for about a week to understand the Khmer style,'' he says. ``The themes of the carvings, especially the Hindu epics on the walls, are from India, but the hand is Khmer. The effort is finer, simpler, and more elegant than the Indian style.''
Angkor Wat's five ornate towers extend 215 feet above a huge complex of carved rooms, steep stairs, and long moats. The temple, which remains amazingly intact, was built at the artistic zenith of a 600-year-long civilization that began in the 9th century.
According to legend, a Javanese ruler brought Hinduism to peninsular Southeast Asia. He also brought the cult of god-kings whose monuments represented the Hindu cosmos on earth - and who sought to portray themselves as semi-divine.
Built by monarch Suryavarman II in the 12th century as his mausoleum, Angkor Wat required 2,400 workers, 5,000 sculptors, and 2,500 elephants working for 50 years, according to inscriptions. It has been ranked as a religious structure with Notre Dame Cathedral, the Greek Parthenon, the Borobudur temple of Java, and the temples of Pagan, Burma.
The Indian team, overwhelmed with the task of restoration, does not plan to recarve the broken bas-relief of human beings and animals on the walls of four vaulted and sculptured galleries, which extend over a mile in length.
These images, like a stone cinema, include the Khmer court, gods and demons from the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and hundreds of apsarases, the graceful angels of Khmer cosmology. Only the most basic designs, such as floral lintels, will be recarved.
India's six-year plan for initial restoration includes replacing heaps of fallen stones to their original places, rebuilding sunken foundations, filling crevices with cement to prevent further water erosion, implanting corrosion-free metal rods in weakened pillars, and cutting out the roots of giant fig trees that have snaked through cracks.
The most obvious and perhaps controversial restoration is a dramatic color change: The once-blackened sandstone, when cleaned, takes on a biscuit tone, the result of applying chemicals to remove moss, algae, and lichen.
For 15 years, Angkor Wat - considered the world's largest religious structure - has been trapped in a combat zone, accessible to only the occasional foreign visitor. This length of time, however, hardly compares with the 400-year period when the temple was lost to the tropical jungle.
In the the 15th century, when the Khmer civlization was declining, the ruling monarch abandoned the multi-templed area that for centuries had been the center of a kingdom which at times spread over much of modern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. He moved the capital to Phnom Penh, near the Mekong River.
In 1860, forgotton even by most Cambodians, the ruins were brought to the world's attention by a French explorer when France was colonizing Indochina.
Nevertheless, the recent isolation and warfare did take a toll on Angkor Wat. The concerted salvage efforts led by the French in the 1950s and '60s were replaced by the salvos of AK-47 rifles in the 1970s and '80s.
In the early 1970s, the China-supported Khmer Rouge slowly took over Cambodia from the American-backed Lon Nol regime. In 1972, the last French restorers were forced to flee the Angkor area. The 1975-78 Khmer Rouge reign of terror isolated both temple and Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea).
When Moscow-supported Vietnamese troops swept into the country in late 1978 and helped install the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), fighting continued around the temple.
The ousted Khmer Rouge and two other anti-Hanoi groups in a coalition now supported by China, the United States, and six US-allied Southeast Asian countries have kept up guerrilla warfare against an estimated 140,000 Vietnamese and 30,000 PRK soldiers.
Angkor Wat has served as a powerful symbol for Cambodia's successive royalist, rightist, and communist governments. Flags of both the present government and the guerrillas, for instance, feature Angkor Wat's five towers.
The Khmer Rouge used the cultural heritage of Angkor Wat to spur Cambodians to build giant irrigation systems like those built by the ancient god-kings to help feed an empire with rice.
The Soviet-allied PRK, diplomatically isolated by the West and the UN, hopes to use Western interest in Angkor Wat to establish more and more international links, says Culture Minister Cheng Phon. And Cambodian officials say that by reviving ancient Khmer culture they can rebut enemy propaganda that claims Vietnam is colonizing Cambodia.
The Phnom Penh government has rejected an idea put forth by private groups to turn Angkor Wat into a neutral demilitarized zone. Instead, the PRK is trying to get Western representatives to join a group known as the International Association of the Friends of Angkor Wat. The only success so far is the expected arrival of a Polish team this year to assist the Indians. India, the only noncommunist nation to open an embassy in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, offered to restore Angkor Wat in 1980, but an agreement was not signed until last year. The historical Hindu influence in Cambodia ``gives us a moral duty to recognize the government and restore Angkor Wat,'' an Indian Embassy official says.
Several hundred Vietnamese soldiers protect Angkor Wat and the surrounding area from potential attacks by guerrillas. Although the Indian crew and local Cambodians say they have only heard of battles in the area, the anti-Hanoi guerrillas claim they killed several Vietnamese soldiers near Angkor Wat in January. To stop Westerners from going there, the rebels warn visitors they face ``grave dangers.'' Such warnings have so far not stopped the tours.
By late last year, security had improved enough around Angkor Wat to allow restoration to begin, and to permit a limited number of Western tourists to visit the site. Angkor Wat tours, organized by Japanese and Australian agencies, began in December. Visitors are flown in and out of Siem Reap Province on the same day, allowing only a few hours to see the vast and massive complex, which is 150 miles northwest of Phnom Penh near Tonle Sap, Cambodia's great lake.
Other ancient Khmer temples within walking distance of Angkor Wat, such as the eerie Buddha-faced towers of Angkor Thom, remain out of bounds, for unexplained reasons.
Some visitors complain that the Indian restoration, unlike the earlier French work, takes away from the grandeur of the ruins. Culture Minister Cheng Phon agrees, but adds: ``At first, we thought we would lose history if we made it look like new. But if we allow it to remain black and in ruins, it will be ruined.''
Mr. Gupta, the Indian team superintendent, acknowledges the differing approaches to monument restoration. ``The French did formidable work,'' he says. ``But it was just first aid. Now we need preservation.''