Academic journal article Change Over Time

LEARNING FROM LOCAL LEADERS Working Together toward the Conservation of Living Heritage at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Academic journal article Change Over Time

LEARNING FROM LOCAL LEADERS Working Together toward the Conservation of Living Heritage at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Article excerpt

The Conservation Of Our Cultural heritage, and the retention of its authenticity,1 is more likely to meet with success when we understand and evaluate the nature of change and its positive and negative effects on the resource. Conservators may develop methods and materials that can enable them to limit the detrimental effects of change based on the vision that this understanding implies. The professionals responsible for the custody and conservation of cultural heritage come from different fields, but the understanding and, when necessary, mitigation of damage brought on by change is a common factor that crosses disciplinary borders and brings them together with a common aim. Just as stone conservators must have a good grounding in the complex mechanisms associated with the alteration of natural stone if they are to find an appropriate therapy for the limitation of the progression of that alteration, the same is true for professionals responsible for urban conservation or the conservation of icons.

Of course it is not just changes in physical or chemical parameters that can upset the delicate balance that determines the future of our heritage; social, historical, and religious changes also play an equally important role in conservation, changes that only too often bring on waves of iconoclasm, as the new order tries to cancel the old through the elimina- tion of cultural or religious symbols.

Though Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu by King Surya- varman II, its religious practice, like the rest of the temples in the kingdom, changed to Buddhism under Jayavarman VII in the late twelfth century. Fortunately Buddhism is one of the more tolerant religions and has rarely, if ever, been responsible for iconoclasm; so while there were some physical changes, there was no wanton destruction. The same could not be said for the later King Jayavarman VIII, who reimposed Hinduism and brought about a vicious and systematic campaign of destruction in which hundreds of thousands of Buddhist images were removed from the temple, and in some cases, the figure of the Buddha was recarved to take the form of a Shiva Linga. While this does help historians to date parts of temples, the loss was extensive.

When the great post-Angkorian Kings Ang Chan and Satha returned to Angkor to reestablish it as their capital in the sixteenth century, they began an extensive campaign of restoration focused almost exclusively on the temple of Angkor Wat. A number of inscriptions bear witness to their efforts to restore the temple to its former splendor. The king had a political motive for his actions: he hoped to acquire, by associati°n> tne temporal and mystic authority of his royal predecessors who had built Angkor. But it is also interesting to note that, rather than trying to destroy the symbols of those of a different religion who preceded him, he intended to complete their work. The rather poorly carved reliefs in the North Eastern Galleries at Angkor Wat, which complete the cycle of Hindu epics started under Suryavarman II, were finished during the reign of Ang Chan in the sixteenth century. Ang Chan also commissioned the restoration of the towers, applied stucco and gold decoration, and certainly brought a large number of sculptures from other sites to Angkor Wat, which partly explains the large quantity of sculptures from later periods that still stand in the temple.2

When His Majesty the great devotee rose to the throne as protector of the royal line, he sought to elevate the religion of the Buddha in truth by restoring the great temple of Brah Bisnolok [Angkor Wat]; stone by stone, he restored its summit with its nine pronged spires, embellishing and covering it in gold.3

Another inscription describes this restoration process in which Mahakalyanavatti Crisujata, the mother of the King Satha, proudly recounts how she

was struck by the work of my royal child who, filled with devotion, has restored the Brah Bisnolok of the Ancient Cambodia in its true ancient form. …

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