Dictators "Defacing" Famed Burma Temples, Editor Says

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated September 3, 2004
The military dictators of Burma (Myanmar) are defacing Pagan's dreamy field of timeworn medieval Buddhist temples (Traveler, January/February 2004) with a trumped-up "restoration" and improvements more suited in ways to a recreation center than to one of Southeast Asia's greatest archaeological heritage sites.

Within the 20 or so square miles (50 square kilometers) known as Pagan (also spelled Bagan) stand the ruins of more than 2,000 buildings—domed pagodas, spires, ziggurats—mostly built between the 11th and 14th centuries.

Archaeologists and historians routinely debate whether to restore ruins for the benefit of visitors. Many argue that half-tumbled walls left untouched are moodily evocative and remain available for future study. The pro-restoration camp contends that while accurate reconstruction disturbs pristine evidence, it does recreate part of history, for better understanding and appreciation.

At Pagan, the military junta has done neither. Where the original architecture is unknown, unskilled restorers often conjure up arbitrary guesses, dressing up the temples and stupas in new red bricks and identical spires, with little eye to historic authenticity. The modern commercial bricks bear no resemblance to the medieval ones. International restoration experts also complain that the new brick adornments are slapped atop rickety old walls without reinforcement—this in an earthquake zone.

Each of the authentic temples typically had its own unique design, but the junta has crowned the remnants of old foundations with standardized cookie-cutter models.

In at least one temple, restorers whitewashed over the wall decorations. In another, a four-armed Vishnu god sprouted six arms. The approach satisfies Buddhists' desire to gain religious merit by remodeling old shrines, as well as the government's parochial assumption that all tourists prefer timeworn buildings that look spiffy and new rather than, er, timeworn.

Cultural scholars can only weep. "Blitzkrieg archaeology," charged one Burmese historian, now retired. Restore the Sistine Chapel like this, and Adam would be sporting tattoos and a nipple ring.

UNESCO, which for 20 years assisted in the conservation of the Pagan monuments, is not associated with the restoration, their offers of corrective assistance disregarded by the Myanmar authorities.

What's worse, the junta is now saddling the sacred site with a divided highway, a golf course (!), and a 200-foot-high (61-meter-high) observation tower. The tower is already under construction, despite critics' objections that it is out of scale and visually intrusive.

Myanmar authorities offer the thin excuse that the tower will keep tourists from climbing on the monuments to get a view. Imagine, it's a military dictatorship, and they can't keep nitwits off the temples?

Whether to visit repressive Burma at all is a contentious issue, with good arguments on both sides. But among those who do go, certainly no honorable traveler or tour company should patronize a tower that despoils a spiritual and historic site.

The dictators should emulate the wise decision in 2000 to demolish a similarly intrusive observation tower on the other side of the world. That 307-foot (93.5-meter) eyesore loomed for 26 years over a different kind of sacred ground: Gettysburg.

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