Banteay Chmar, the last and one of the largest of the magnificent temples built by Jayavarman VII during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, is in a state of collapse. It has also been seriously looted. Among its glories is the series of almost 800 yards of relief carvings covering the exterior of the high enclosure wall of the central complex. Many of the scenes depict historical events, portraying battles, processions, massed troops and individual warriors, while some show mythological tales, all sculpted with a dynamic sense of movement and offering valuable historical insights. More than half of the sequence is buried and much of what still stands is in danger of collapse. Its rescue is urgent, not just because invading vegetation is quickly penetrating and undermining the structure but also because a new road from the Thai border to Siem Reap is almost completed and will stimulate greatly increased tourist visitation. While such tourism greatly benefits Cambodia, it also entails wear and tear on the monuments, so Banteay Chmar must be stabilized to withstand the strains.
FOKCI is proud to be part of this important conservation effort. Under the umbrella of Global Heritage Fund’s overall project, we are supporting SACRA (South Asian Conservation and Restoration Agency). We are particularly happy to support this group, which is training seven technicians to work on the reliefs, because it is the first group where Cambodians are training fellow Cambodians. The gifted and experienced leader is Long Nary, who led the successful restoration effort in the Southwest and Northwest pavilions of Angkor Wat (also funded by FOKCI). Nary was trained during the German APSARA project at Angkor Wat by the noted stone expert Simon Warrack, who remains as a consultant for the current work. This is an exciting contribution to the goal we all share, namely, the ability of Cambodians themselves to protect their extraordinary heritage.
The training program has offered the seven participants preliminary historical and theoretical background and has given them hands-on experience while observing experts in many restoration techniques with diverse materials. The trainees have become aware of what an important role they will be able to play in the continuity of their ancient culture. They have responded enthusiastically to site visits, inspecting different restoration methods and learning how each site requires a specific understanding of the materials involved as well as the architectural techniques employed. They have also benefited greatly from theoretical instruction. A recent excursion to the East Mebon temple, where a lion mended in the 1930s with Portland cement and iron dowels had to be re-conserved to remove these elements before they split the sculpture. They learned how dangerous salination and destruction can follow the use of unsuitable materials. Other visits offered insights into varying bonding methods, a skill that will be vital in the restoration of the Banteay Chmar reliefs.
A conservation manual in Khmer – and important first – is being prepared. Study will include comparative analyses of stone types and repair methods to see which will be applicable in the context of the Banteay Chmar site. The thoroughness of the training has been praised by many experts in the field and soon the team will be ready to apply their knowledge at the temple itself. Much of the funding has been spent within Cambodia, an economically sound basis for the disbursement of foreign aid and in harmony with FOKCI’s commitment to strengthening Cambodia’s ability to manage its cultural resources independently.
With a Banteay Chmar Conference in 2008 and a follow-up international conference in 2009 in Sisophon, participants discussed how to coordinate best the activities of those taking a role in the investigation and conservation of the Banteay Chmar temple complex and its immediate area. The conference was funded by the Friends of Khmer Culture and GHF as part of our project and training programs in Cambodia, and sponsored by Banteay Meanchay Province, UNESCO, and The Ministry of Culture.
FOKCI is grateful to Tourism Cares for its generous support of this project. We also thank the many individual donors who have responded to the worthy cause of helping to preserve one of Cambodia’s most important temple complexes.