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CALLING UP THE PAST

- Conservation as soft power

Between 1986 and 1993, a team from the Archaeological Survey of India struggled in civil war-torn Cambodia on a project to save the Angkor Wat. Large portions of the famed temple were in imminent danger of falling down due to long years of neglect and later, active abuse at the hands of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had been expelled, and a new government installed, with Vietnamese support, but Cold War calculations decreed the rejection of that government by most of the international community. Cambodia would remain long without friends or funds.

Unable to safeguard its priceless heritage on its own, Cambodia invited India, one of the few countries to have diplomatic relations with it at the time, to take up the stabilization and restoration of Angkor Wat. India readily accepted the task under its technical cooperation programme and assigned the necessary funds and personnel for the purpose. Working conditions were murderous. The temple zone was heavily mined, Khmer Rouge guerrillas were dispersed but not wholly neutralized, necessary material supplies were hard to organize. For the Indian team members, day-to-day survival was as much of a challenge as the restoration job they were handed. They employed conservation techniques and material available at the time and completed their task in seven years. The ASI considered the Angkor Wat project a milestone in its long history of conservation efforts.

Once Cambodia made its peace with the world, and archaeologists’ teams from other countries found their way into the Angkor Archaeological Park, an area of some 400 square kilometres dotted with hundreds of Khmer empire-era temples, a whispering campaign began denouncing the ASI’s work at Angkor Wat and accusing it of having caused irreparable damage — through use of inappropriate material and chemicals — to Cambodia’s archaeological crown jewel. The French, strangely possessive about Angkor, explained by their past colonial association with the land, and with an unshakable faith in the superiority of their own conservation techniques, were the most vociferous, but others, too, enthusiastically joined in. What should have been a moment of triumph for the ASI was turned into a frustrating running battle to defend its record at Angkor Wat at international cultural fora for years.

The modern prescription for conservation of places of cultural significance is precise and exacting. The aim is to stop over-enthusiastic restoration work that may destroy the true historical significance of the object. Authors of a series of international charters, under the guidance of the Unesco, have developed and codified what can be called the modern conservation philosophy. The main principles are: minimum intervention, maximum retention of material of cultural heritage value, reversibility (so that any errors made today can be rectified later), legibility (meaning replacements must be distinguishable from the original), and sustainability (so that what is being conserved can be handed down safely and authentically to future generations). The Nara Document on Authenticity defines ‘conservation’ as “all operations designed to understand a property, know its history and meaning, ensure its material safeguard, and, if required, its restoration and enhancement”. Yet another document, the Hoi An Protocols for Best Conservation Practice in Asia, lays down that safeguarding the authenticity of an object is the primary goal of its conservation. While working at a heritage site, a conservation team has to address issues of identification, documentation, safeguarding and preservation, in that order.

Two things are noteworthy. First, conservation is no longer the physical repair and reinforcement of old, but is a knowledge-based discipline necessitating the induction of historians and cultural scholars as much as of engineers and technical experts. ‘Understanding’ the object of conservation in its historical and cultural contexts through research and investigation, planning and documentation is as important as the act of physical intervention.

Secondly, any intervention has to be kept to the minimum. To illustrate the point, at Ta Prohm (the tree temple), the ASI’s second project in Cambodia, the Indian team was asked to restore only a few small portions of the ruined structures, leaving the rest as found. The temple has huge trees growing out of the stones. Though originally not part of the temple, the trees have come to be considered today as an integral component. The Indian team was asked to save and protect the trees too.

This is a kind of ‘window to the past’ approach. A future generation has to accept the reality of the ruined condition of the monument, but at the same time, is able to visualize its past glory by looking at the restored parts. The research and documentation are designed to give scholars the history and cultural significance of the monument, besides as complete a picture as possible of conditions at the start of the project to help in future conservation efforts. Every fallen stone is accounted for, numbered, photographed, and an attempt is made to correlate it to the monument in the area where it is found.

Conservation — a legitimate area to project a country’s ‘soft power’ — is an increasingly competitive field today. Even if funding is wholly the concerned country’s contribution, accountability for the project being undertaken is far greater now: supervision and standardization by an international overseer such as the Unesco means intrusive scrutiny of work. In following the course of the ASI’s Ta Prohm project and the work of conservation teams from other countries in Cambodia, I was fascinated by the politics of one-upmanship. A readiness to belittle the work of another seemed to be an essential rule for establishing one’s own excellence. No wonder the ASI’s ‘past crime’ at Angkor Wat kept making an appearance every now and then.

The Ta Prohm project was still in progress when I left Cambodia in 2008. The ASI team had done some excellent work on physical restoration and repairs, but the scholarly aspect of conservation somehow seemed to elude it. In presentations at the periodic meetings of the Unesco’s co-ordinating committee, the scholarship and meticulous research on display from some of the conservation teams from other countries were far more impressive.

This was surprising. Heritage sites in Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar — countries where the ASI has been engaged — with their Hindu/Buddhist character and a residual influence of Indian culture and temple architecture (a Cambodian minister once described the Angkor Wat, originally dedicated to Vishnu, as the grandest Hindu temple that India never had) should have been familiar ground to our archaeologists, giving them a head-start over competitors not enjoying a similar advantage. But that did not prove to be the case.

I believe it is on this intellectual dimension of the job that the ASI needs to work harder to be in accord with the modern philosophy of conservation. One hears of the ASI’s lack of funds, infrastructure and staff, forcing it to “‘drag on a melancholy existence” (in the plaintive words of a retired senior official). For an overseas project, funds should not be the ASI’s worry, but finding the right combination of engineers and scholars could be. A simple solution would be to co-opt qualified experts from other heritage bodies such as the Intach, if only turf considerations can be overlooked.

The ASI’s projects in the neighbouring region open up exciting opportunities. Cambodia’s temples, for instance, are rich in their depiction of Indian mythology in exquisitely inscribed panels; there is also comprehensive documentation in stone of life lived by ordinary people in the shadows of the once-mighty Khmer empire about a thousand years ago. Studying the history, culture or the social mores of people in the extended region will enrich our scholars’ understanding of India’s political, social and cultural outreach in bygone centuries. It is this serious scholarship, mandated in the modern guiding principles of conservation, complementing our archaeologists’ acknowledged skills at physical restoration that can give the ASI the edge and the pre-eminent status that it deserves to have in the field of conservation. Only then can India’s overseas conservation projects translate to India’s soft power.