The Ancient Burmese City of Bagan Struggles for International Recognition

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Khin Maung Win / AP

Sunrise in Bagan, central Burma, on Jan. 25, 2013

Propped up on bamboo scaffolding, two artisans are gently applying a dissolving solution to an arched ceiling inside Ananda, a signature temple of the ancient Burmese city of Bagan. They are removing layers of a white coating that served as a rudimentary protective barrier against abrasive rain and insect infestations but also concealed pictorial details. To one of the workers, a pious Buddhist, removing this veneer to expose the original 12th century fresco is spiritually fulfilling. “Each time I uncover an image of Buddha on the wall, I feel delighted,” he says. The care given to restore Ananda to its original form is the exception, however. Hundreds of other monuments in the area have been subjected to what conservationists regard as historical treason.

Though Bagan is less famous than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Egypt’s Luxor or Peru’s Machu Picchu, its historical treasures are no less impressive. Some 3,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas stretch across a 26-square-mile plain. From the 9th century to the 13th century, the area was the capital of a kingdom that consolidated and controlled most of modern-day Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and served as a hub of Buddhist scholarship. To this day, Bagan remains a centerpiece of national pride and religious devotion, which explains in part why the country’s recent rulers have been keen to make their mark on it.

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Their so-called beautification projects have been controversial, though, because hundreds of ancient sites were shoddily recast — with materials and designs that differed from the originals — rather than authentically restored. Burma’s dictatorship insulated itself from criticism, but their imprudent stewardship of Bagan may stand in the way of the country’s bid today for the ancient city to receive World Heritage status — a gold standard of sorts for historical sites — from the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO.

The Southeast Asian country is in the midst of democratic reform to move away from military rule and, in the process, is pursuing the trappings of international legitimacy. Though largely symbolic, winning World Heritage status is the sort of incremental achievement the new government seeks to solidify Burma’s new place in the world, as an open country with endorsements from international institutions. Unesco’s Heritage badge could also bolster Burma’s emerging tourism sector, which in 2012, for the first time attracted more than a million foreign visitors in a year.

But in their bid, Burmese officials must contend with the work of their country’s former leaders. After a major earthquake in 1975 toppled many of Bagan’s already crumbling structures, the ruling junta ordered widespread reconstruction on the site, which was hastily carried out, and even commissioned the construction of new monuments within the designated historical zone. State-run media lauded the projects as tributes to national dignity and Buddhist piety.

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Experts scoff at the contention by Burmese officials that most reconstructions were faithful. Pierre Pichard, a French academic who made regular visits to Bagan in the 1980s and ’90s to catalog its structures, says most “repaired” temples were not rebuilt according to their original form but were modeled after one of a few temples that remained intact. “The result is terrible uniformity,” he says. Sun Oo, vice president of the Association of Myanmar Architects, says that such shoddy refurbishments resulted in many sites having “no historical, architectural or artistic value.” Indeed, UNESCO, citing the prevalence of inauthentic restorations, declined Burma’s 1996 application for Bagan to join the World Heritage list.

But many lay people in Burma, a Buddhist-majority country where religion plays a prominent role in daily life, see the crude refurbishments not as desecration but as practical updates to accommodate Bagan’s function as a living and breathing pilgrimage site. Mahabodhi Paya, a 13th century temple, for instance, includes a number of the contemporary amenities that trouble conservationists. Though its pyramidal tower is well preserved, its interior floor is covered with modern tiles and carpet, and its altar is adorned with neon lights. The tiles and carpet are more comfortable than the original sandstone to walk and kneel on, and the lights “make it easier to concentrate on Buddha,” says Than Maung, a 75-year-old local man who prays there most days.

Officials say they have made do with limited resources. “We have some funding, but it’s not enough,” says Naing Win, director of the government’s Department of Archaeology in Bagan. Indeed, the current project in Ananda is a rare case. Engineers from a New Delhi–funded organization, the Archaeology Survey of India, are overseeing a trained crew of a couple dozen Burmese workers to slowly restore the temple’s original details. Otherwise, because of Burma’s political isolation, Bagan had received little outside funding or technical assistance. More typical, then, are the repairs carried out by a lone woman on a nearby pagoda: her only experience, she says, is with construction crews on normal houses, and she has been assigned (for a couple dollars a day) to add mortar to crevices in a thousand-year-old wall.

Most conspicuous is a 200-ft. viewing tower built in 2003 that hovers higher than any other temple in the area. It was commissioned by Tay Za, one of Burma’s most notorious tycoons, and visitors are charged to view from its imperious heights. That its construction amidst ancient structures was permitted will likely be among the principal examples raised against Burma’s new application, submitted in January, for Bagan and a string of smaller associated sites in central Burma to be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

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But even experts who lament past mistakes in Bagan say there are compelling reasons it deserves — and needs — the World Heritage nod. Elizabeth Howard-Moore, an art historian at the University of London who served as a consultant for Burma’s recent UNESCO application, says the official recognition would attract much-needed scholarly attention to Bagan, where few excavations have been carried out. Sun Oo, the architect, says the designation comes with international scrutiny that would inhibit officials from carrying out misguided reconstructions in the future. And both say Bagan is in dire need of the management guidelines imposed by UNESCO on the sites it consecrates, as little has been done to accommodate and control the influx of visitors to Bagan.

Others say Bagan simply no longer meets the bar. “Burma is a sovereign country and can do what it wishes with its monuments,” says Donald Stadtner, an author on ancient Burmese art and architecture. “But it should not … expect the international community to endorse restorations which have so gravely violated basic archaeological principles.” He worries, though, that the goodwill engendered by democratic reforms will interfere with UNESCO making an objective assessment.

Debates between specialists over authenticity will probably feel remote to visitors. As the sun sets over the ancient city, the details that perturb conservationists are veiled by the low light of dusk. From a distance, recent embellishments like metallic spires atop the temples go unnoticed and modern amenities like smooth floor tiles are unseen. Under the orange glow of dusk, monuments spanning a vast vista blur into a legion of mesmerizing silhouettes. “It has changed,” says Kyaw Swe, a longtime tour guide. “But it is still Bagan.”

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