A New Kind of Battle Rages at Angkor Wat

Politics and conservation mix in a dispute over how to best preserve a cultural treasure.

THE soft dawn back-lighting the temple towers of Angkor Wat no longer echoes with the cacophony of war.

Since a struggling United Nations peace plan for Cambodia quieted the gunfire a year ago, though, a new dissonance breaks the morning calm of the country's national symbol and one of mankind's architectural jewels. Here, in the jungle thickets of northwestern Cambodia, as the sun rises and the day's heat builds, the vast temple already hums with the scouring of an army of poor laborers.

Perched on metal scaffolding, surrounded by buckets of chemicals and ammonia and water, 400 Cambodians use heavy brushes to scrub a thick layer of lichens, algae, and mold from the delicately carved temple stones.

Below, a 15-member team of Indian archaeologists and engineers supervise the restoration work that has bitterly split art conservation and archaeology circles around the world. Critics from France, Japan, the United States, and other countries contend the Indians are using potentially damaging chemicals, reinforcing with too much cement, and focusing on cleaning rather than bolstering the shaky sandstone foundations.

Barkur Narasimhaiah, a prominent conservationist who heads the Indian team, bristles at the criticism. "They don't want Indians to take the rightful credit," he says. "We know that the criticisms are superficial so we are not bothered by them. We know that what we are doing is the best for the monument. Let time tell."

The $3 million project of the Archaeological Survey of India (which will extend until 1994), began six years ago when Cambodia was still torn by civil war. At the time, New Delhi was one of the few supporters of the Phnom Penh regime, installed after Vietnam invaded in 1978 and ousted the Khmer Rouge.

The stunning 12th-century complex of more than 70 temples covering the 25-square-mile capital of an ancient Khmer empire had been isolated by almost two decades of turmoil.

Experts from countries backing antigovernment forces had been blocked from visiting the monuments since 1972, when French archaeologists were driven out by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Criticism grows

Change began in 1989, when Vietnam withdrew most of its occupying forces. Two years later, Cambodia's warring factions signed a peace accord. But as Western and Asian experts began to return, criticism grew over the Indian techniques. In 1989, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) commissioned its own report. It described some of the Indian restoration as "unsuitable" and urged a coordinated international effort.

"Basically what the Indians are doing is what any conservation team would do: They are trying to stabilize the environment," says Richard Englehart, an American archaeologist and anthropologist who heads UNESCO's effort to save Angkor Wat. The problems lie with materials, technology, and workers, he says.

"There are no trained people. Hundreds of the people are just rice farmers," he says. "There is not enough supervision and training."

And while the brilliant pink stone of the cleaned monument impresses many visitors, others say the two-tone effect ruins the romantic patina of the temple. `This is too much'

Earlier this century, before political turmoil had thrust Angkor Wat into isolation, the French decided to leave Ta Prohm, a large monument within the Angkor Wat complex, to the lush vegetation and trees that overrun the temple and lend it an eerie aura.

"This is too much," says Rosa Khieu Vyghan, a Phnom Penh resident who used to conduct tours to the site and only recently returned since the restoration work began. "I like it better the other way."

In the international race for influence in Cambodia, saving the country's signature monument has assumed bitter political overtones. Aside from the project's prestige, Hindu-majority India nurtures an emotional attachment to a monument that symbolizes its cultural legacy in Southeast Asia: The ancient complex was built by Suryavarman II, a Hindu king who used thousands of slaves to create a stone representation of the Hindu pantheon of demons and gods before Buddhism gained the religious upper hand in th e region.

India's strongest critics are the French, who dominated restoration work at Angkor Wat after the monuments were unearthed in 1861 by naturalist Henri Mouhot. French experts contend the temple's foundation needs a massive overhaul, a contention disputed by the Indians. Both sides have refused to turn over important archival documents on the foundation. India declines to disclose its mix of chemicals and preservatives. India, Japan, and France vie to dominate the international conservation effort.

The political bickering and a shortage of funds have slowed the UN push to save Angkor Wat. Last year, the UN sought $20 million to restore the complex, including an initial $1.5 million just to stem further deterioration. Khmer Rouge refusal to cooperate with the peace plan threatens a new explosion of political instability, deterring would-be donors.

"We have to continue to save Angkor from now until forever," says Englehart, the UNESCO representative. "[The complex] will never stop needing care."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.