After earthquake, Bagan knuckles down on restoration and heritage bid
BAGAN’S ancient religious heritage is at risk because of a combination of natural disasters, botched repairs and neglect, experts are warning. The city’s 3000 ancient pagodas, temples and other religious buildings risk further damage unless urgent action is taken.
Bagan is also a major asset for tourism, one of the country’s main foreigncurrency earners.
More than 30 pagodas, including Ananda, That Byin Nyu, Pyathagyi and Buu Payar, sustained serious damage in the 1975 earthquake that registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, said U Than Tin Aung, a visiting professor at Yangon and Mandalay Technology Universities who is involved in restoration work.
“The Bagan pagodas are built with bricks nearly 1000 years old, and whose resistance to shock was already reduced when the earthquake struck,” he said in a recent interview.
The year after the earthquake, UNESCO sent experts from France to work with the ministries of construction and archaeology, and local architects, on repairing the damage, he said.
“The UNESCO experts produced documentation which was very important to the renovation work. It helped us restore the Ananda Pagoda, which was built as a Kwan Taung [pyramidal spire on a square temple] to its original form,” said U Than Tin Aung who has more than 30 years’ experience.
In 1988, the then-military regime permitted renovation work that deviated from UNESCO standards, causing damaged to more than 600 pagodas, architecture expert U Sun Oo told The Myanmar Times.
“The resulting structure had nothing in common with the original Bagan era culture. It has no heritage or architectural value. Since the renovation was paid for with public money, that represents both a financial and a historical loss,” he said.
Renovation work should be carried out by masons experienced in ancient architectural techniques, and cannot be rushed, said U Than Tin Aung. “Ordinary masons cannot do this work unless they have been trained in ancient archaeological techniques. All the work we have done employs these experienced masons,” he said.
When another quake struck on August 24, causing further damage, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi warned that a proper renovation would take time.
At the time of the earthquake, the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library had been supervising the renovation of already-damaged pagodas on a tender basis. Some experts have criticised the quality of the work, calling into question the qualifications of the masons. Where the work was estimated to cost less than K5 million, Professor the archaeology department would undertake the renovation itself, said U Zaw Zaw Tun, director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.
“Some pagodas are renovated with donor funding [if the estimated cost exceeds K5 million]. We would invite companies to tender for the work, in accordance with all the necessary rules and regulations,” he said.
According to the archaeology department, the August quake damaged about 400 pagodas, including 56 ancient buildings with murals.
“Luckily, the collapse did not destroy all the murals in these 56 pagodas. Just the edges sustained damage,” said U Thein Lwin, deputy director general of the archaeology department.
UNESCO is conducting the renovation of those pagodas, with the more than K2.3 billion received from donors as of September 15, said local MP U Win Myint Khaing (NLD; Nyaung-U 1).
“The Mandalay Region chief minister said all the funds collected from public donors must be applied toward repairing the damage, and should not be used for departmental budget support.
“That’s why we’ve withdrawn only K30 million for immediate repair work,” he said.
The archaeology department had intended to apply for World Heritage Status at the end of 2017, a decision that has called into question the status of hotels built in the historic zone. The question of renovation funding has shed new light on the sometimes uneasy relationship between historical conservation and the demands of tourism.
The ministries of Religious Affairs and Hotels and Tourism had allowed 45 hotels, including 25 still under construction, to operate for the next 15 years in order to ensure the return of their investment. After that, they have to move their hotel out of the heritage zone, said tourism minister U Ohn Maung on September 20.
“Some of the entrepreneurs concerned have bank loans at 13 percent interest. We will let them operate for 15 years, but then they have to leave the zone,” he said.
Tourism sources say the August quake did not make much of a dent in visitor figures. Though some of the most famous pagodas had to be closed temporarily, no booking cancellations were reported. Tour operators factored in other, undamaged, pagodas, as well as trips to local villages, said tour operator Daw Sabei Aung.
“The tourists were happy even though they didn’t get to see some of the pagodas,” she said.
But the August damage could delay the application for World Heritage Status, said Daw Ohnmar Myo, a coordinator at UNESCO Myanmar.
“We are still working on the heritage status despite the damage caused,” she said.
According to the master plan by the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library and UNESCO experts, the application will be followed by an expert inspection in 2018, and the decision on whether or not to accord heritage status will be made in 2019, said U Aung Aung Kyaw, directory of the archaeology department.
‘Ordinary masons cannot do this work unless they have been trained in ancient archaeological techniques.’
U Than Tin Aung
Soldiers and volunteers clear up rubble at Lawka U Shaung Pagoda in Bagan on August 25.