From Ruins to Ruined

Times Staff Writer

The bricklayers are paid $1.35 a day to rebuild the ancient ruin: a small, 13th century temple reduced by time to little more than its foundation.

But they have no training in repairing aged monuments, and their work has nothing to do with actually restoring one of the world’s most important Buddhist sites. Instead, using modern red bricks and mortar, they are building a new temple on top of the old.

They work from a single page of drawings supplied by the government. Three simple sketches provide the design for a generic brick structure and a fanciful archway. No one knows, or seems to care, what the original temple looked like. Nearby are two piles of 700-year-old bricks that were pulled from the ruin. The bricklayers use them to fill holes in the temple.


Known as Monument No. 751, the structure is one of hundreds of new temples that have popped up all over the ancient city of Bagan, which ranks with Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex as one of Asia’s most remarkable religious sites. Once the scene of an international rescue effort, Bagan is now in danger of becoming a temple theme park.

The late Myanmar historian Than Tun called the restoration “blitzkrieg archeology.”

“They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy,” said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. “It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there.”

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is ruled by a military government that has been cut off from the West for more than a decade because of its brutality toward its people. Since 1988, the generals who run the country have killed thousands of democracy activists and imprisoned thousands more. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been detained for nearly 11 of the last 17 years.

The government has been almost as ruthless with its monuments.

Myanmar is advertised to tourists as the Land of Golden Pagodas. Bagan’s largest temples rival the cathedrals of Europe in size and age, but rather than being scattered across a continent, they are concentrated in an area about the size of Santa Monica.

By some estimates, there were as many as 13,000 temples here during Bagan’s peak in the 13th century. Today, the Bagan cultural heritage zone has more than 2,200 temples, along with 2,000 unidentifiable mounds and ruins.

Despite the new construction, Bagan remains awe-inspiring. Climb up on one of the larger monuments and the temples seem to stretch across the dusty plain as far as the eye can see. Some of the larger monuments soar as high as 20 stories; many are decorated with tiers of stone spires and ornate carvings. Some of the largest temples house giant statues of Buddha covered in gold leaf, and some still have original frescoes depicting the life of Buddha.

Scattered among the large monuments are temples as small as a one-room hut, often with a statue of Buddha inside, and squat, circular pagodas with a conical stupa on top and no entryway.

Many of the temples were damaged by a major earthquake in 1975. The military government at the time accepted international assistance, and experts from around the world spent years restoring some of the most important temples. Major temples restored after the quake remain in good condition.

But after a new clique of generals came to power in 1988, interest in upholding international standards for historic preservation vanished. The regime rejected offers of continued foreign assistance and eventually dropped its plan to seek Bagan’s designation as a World Heritage site, leaving one of the world’s premier archeological sites without U.N.-protected status.


The government decided instead that turning Bagan, also known as Pagan, into a tourist destination could bring much-needed foreign cash. The generals set about making the archeological zone more appealing to visitors, particularly tourists from neighboring countries such as China and Thailand that are not so critical of the military government. Few Western visitors come to Bagan because of calls by the opposition for a tourist boycott.

One of the regime’s first steps was to uproot all 3,000 residents who lived within Old Bagan’s historic walls and move them to New Bagan a few miles south.

“We were very angry,” said one man who was 15 when his family had to pick up and move its small wooden house. “The older people were very sad. We had been there many generations.”

Where the homes used to be, the government began building hotels and restaurants. Much of the work was done with forced labor, a form of exploitation for which the regime is notorious.

As in every aspect of society here, decisions on historic preservation are made by generals with no special expertise or training. Government archeologists say privately they have no choice but to go along.

“If we disagree,” one said, “they will send us to prison.”

Untrained workers began covering old walls with plaster, obliterating the original contour of the brick. Statues were removed and replaced with no attempt to make accurate copies. The damage has been greatest to the medium-sized temples, many of which were neglected after the earthquake and then damaged by subsequent restoration work, said French architect Pierre Pichard, one of the foremost experts on Bagan.

“The monuments have lost a great part of their authenticity and individuality,” said Pichard, who worked extensively at Bagan after the 1975 quake and wrote an eight-volume catalog of the monuments published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Their missing parts, especially their upper superstructures, have been rebuilt without evidence of their former shape.”

The regime also began a building program that is changing Bagan’s skyline.

On the eastern edge of the cultural heritage zone, the government recently built a 154-foot observation tower that resembles a grain silo and sits alongside a new resort complex and golf course. For $10 -- two weeks’ salary for a teacher here -- visitors can take an elevator to the top, have a drink and watch the sun set over the temples.

In Old Bagan, workers have built a massive archeological museum and have nearly finished a huge palace designed in 19th century Mandalay style -- not 12th century Bagan style. Both grandiose structures seem out of place on the plain of temples.

Pichard, contacted at his home in Bangkok, Thailand, said the regime’s building spree in Bagan was reminiscent of the monuments built by Mussolini during his fascist rule in Italy.

“The more oppressive a regime the more prone to build this kind of huge, useless and ridiculous structure,” he said. “They are terribly offensive to the landscape and were certainly not needed. To use so much money for these useless buildings in a country where most people do not have schools for their children, electric power, roads and other facilities is, I think, a crime.”

In Bagan, like the rest of Myanmar, the influence of the outside world is minimal and the archeological zone seems stuck in the past. Women carry goods in baskets on their heads, and oxen pull heavy loads, such as bamboo for building houses. Cars are few, and many people get around by bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The few decrepit buses are so overcrowded that many passengers sit on the roof.

At many temples, residents volunteer to guide tourists, then plead with them to buy trinkets. Souvenir markets have been set up inside some of the biggest temples, where anxious vendors call out to customers, wave their merchandise and sound their gongs, resulting in a round of clanging and shouting every time a tour bus arrives.

For Myanmar’s elite, Bagan has become a valuable source of good karma. Many Buddhists believe that those who contribute to the construction of a temple are rewarded with “merit” that improves their fate when they are reincarnated. Generals and top government officials have been among the largest donors.

At the Archeology Department office in Bagan, officials keep a list of hundreds of temple ruins ready for rebuilding, and a price list showing how much donors would have to give for each one. The amounts range from $700 for a small pagoda to $275,000 for a large temple. Most are between $2,000 and $30,000.

The department is eager to accept donations and welcomed a recent visitor who inquired about the program. Staff members provided a tour of two temple ruins. One was available for $800, the other for $2,400. All that remained of the original structures were walls 1 to 2 feet high.

Plans were already drawn up for replacements. The original walls would be demolished, the old bricks discarded and new materials used. The larger ruin would be turned into a 30-foot-high temple, the smaller a simple pagoda. The new temples would cover the footprints of the old.

Government archeologists acknowledge that no one knows what the original structures looked like and say their designs are a calculated guess based on other buildings that survived. Even so, the design for a new temple can be changed at a donor’s request.

The ancient bricks and mortar were more durable than those used now. Even today, the old bricks are stronger than the new ones. Bang one of each kind together and it’s the new one that breaks. But officials said it would be too costly to copy the old materials.

The original bricks were made with clay and rice husks and, according to legend, kneaded by elephants. The mortar was made of molasses, buffalo leather, cotton and fermented peanut oil, archeologists say. The old mortar was put on as thin as superglue; the modern cement is laid on thick.

To make the new temples look more like ruins, the bricks are coated with brown paint made from ground-up ancient bricks. The idea is to have them look like old structures that have lost their stucco. It doesn’t take long, however, for the paint to wash off.

“The new brickwork, therefore, clashes with the aged appearance of the surviving temples, the new monuments appearing like plucked, pink chickens amidst the ancient shrines,” American archeologist Donald Stadtner writes in his new book, “Ancient Pagan, Buddhist Plain of Merit.”

In addition to their reward in the next life, donors get a plaque outside their newly built temples. Existing signs bear the names of generals and ministers as well as donors from such places as Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Switzerland.

Pichard and other Western experts say the rebuilding program has caused irreparable harm to Bagan. Stadtner says the damage caused by the 1975 quake was “benign” compared with the reconstruction of the last 15 years.

“Up to 1990, Pagan was one of the best preserved sites and cultural landscapes in Asia, with a perfect blend of the rural life where peasants, villages and well-cultivated fields surrounded the monuments without any harm,” Pichard said.

“Now all actions result in disfiguring the site and endangering the ancient buildings. Sorry for the cliche, but Pagan is becoming a Disneyland, and a very bad one.”