Burma temples in red brick

Archaeologists are aghast at efforts to rebuild ancient Bagan.

For centuries this vast plain of temples has cast a spell over visitors to Burma (Myanmar), long after its imperial reign faded into history. Built using slave labor during two and a half centuries of dynastic rule, Bagan became a byword for Buddhist meritmaking.

Invaded by Mongols in 1287 and abandoned by its rulers, many of Bagan's glittering temples today lie ruined or buried in fields. Around 2,300 buildings remain, some still adorned with interior fresco paintings of Buddhist and Hindu icons.

Now, Bagan's architectural wonders face a new challenge. Foreign archaeologists say that Burma's military rulers are wrecking Bagan through careless renovation aimed at bolstering tourism and their political legitimacy.

The Burmese junta slipped further into international isolation this week after the pro-democracy NLD party refused to attend a constitutional convention Monday after the regime failed to release NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The US and EU - along with more sympathetic neighbors like Thailand - stepped up pressure for Ms. Suu Kyi's release.

Over the last decade, Burma's military rulers have rebuilt many of the site's temples using garish modern materials, piling bright red bricks atop crumbling ruins and erecting entire temples alongside ancient structures. Rich donors are urged to fund reconstruction as a way of earning religious merit.

The result, according to foreign experts, is the transformation of Bagan into a string of cookie-cutter pagodas that bear scant resemblance to the originals. "Everyone is horrified. These temples had an individuality that's been totally lost now," says Pierre Pichard, a French professor who catalogs the architecture of Bagan and other ancient sites in Asia.

Burmese officials, however, insist that reconstruction in Bagan is based on original designs. Nyunt Han, director-general of the Department of Archeology, told the Associated Press last year that he had old documents that showed precisely how the buildings were erected.

Behind the restoration is a drive to attract more tourists to Bagan, which receives around 75,000 foreign visitors annually (last year, about four times as many tourists visited the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia).

But the rash of new temples here also allows the ruling junta to evoke comparisons to Bagan's dynastic rulers, and earn merit - a daily necessity for Buddhists. State media regularly carry solemn reports of junta leaders consecrating new temples. Burmese joke that newspapers boil down to two ingredients: generals and pagodas.

"They only do it to stay in power. It's not true meritmaking. Actually it's desecration," says an elderly resident, pointing to a sacred umbrella called a 'hti' that was added to the spire of a popular temple.

But to pious Buddhists who view temples as spiritual offerings, beautification is a mark of devotion, not an act of vandalism. For archaeologists, preserving Buddhist monuments from devout pilgrims and clergy is often a struggle. "If you repair a roof, it's much better for the building, but that's not what people want to do because they want to earn merit," says Mr. Pichard.

Experts are also aghast at other building projects in Bagan. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization has roundly criticized a viewing tower that will eventually rise almost 200 feet, dwarfing most of the temples, and a new road that bisects the site.

Given the regime's isolation and disdain for critics, such cries will likely fall on deaf ears. Unlike Angkor Wat, which fell into disrepair during decades of civil war and has since been carefully restored, Bagan receives no international aid for restoration. UNESCO withdrew its experts in 1993, and Burma hasn't bothered to follow Cambodia's example and request world heritage status for Bagan.

Instead, it solicits money from foreign visitors and local devotees. Many temples have gray inscription stones that proudly name the donors.

A local engraver who earns his living carving the inscription stones defends the rebuilding. "It's something for future generations, I think it's good to rebuild Bagan," he says, indicating a new wall built to support a crumbling temple doorway lined with animal stone carvings.

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