Jun 05 2011
Sometimes we forget about the little things, and too often we’ve no idea of the loss we’ve incurred by doing so. Case in point: a recent visit to Bakong temple to attend a ceremony marking completion of a project to restore paintings on the inner and outer walls of a small pagoda within its grounds.
It would be easy for visitors to this especially beautiful temple to overlook the diminutive looking pagoda beside it. The pagoda is a working one, in constant use by villagers from nearby, attended by the monks who live and work here. Completed in the 1930s to 40s, the series of paintings here recount the Buddha’s life as is customary in Cambodian pagodas. A year ago however, the pagoda was in a terrible state: dank, dark, dusty, full of water, and it was almost impossible to decipher the artist’s work.
The restoration project took just over a year to complete, bringing together a team of French, Thai and Cambodian restorers, even as the Thai and Khmer governments were lobbing invective and missiles across the border at Preah Vihear. That did not bother the artists though. “This is a problem of governments, not of people,” said one of the Thai members of the team in a real example of how art bridges divides.
But that’s not all that makes this project unique. Restaurateurs sans Frontières (Restorers Without Borders) is the organisation behind the restoration work. A French NGO based in Bangkok, this is their first project in Cambodia, and enormous care was taken to respect traditional culture.
This was difficult even before the start. According to Buddhist beliefs, when things die they should be reborn again, a principle that flies in the face of ideas about conservation or restoration. The compromise here was to restore the work, but to also make the pagoda look like new again.
The series of panels have been restored in traditional Khmer style, with soft, luminous colours, rather than the very garish colour one may find in other pagodas. This pagoda is now one of only 30 in the country that has been restored to Khmer style. To step into the soft gloom of the pagoda is to have your breath taken away.
An odd feature to keep an eye out for is behind the statue of the Buddha. If you look up, you’ll see a simple painting of World War II planes, in fact Japanese and French ones. According to the project team, the painter was taught by a Frenchman, who is depicted in a number of the pictures (for instance below the fighter planes, kneeling before the Buddha to receive his wisdom).
This Frenchman no doubt fought in the war and came back with stories to his protégé, who reproduced some of the imagery in his interpretation of Buddha’s life. Integrating everyday life into images of Buddha is an integral part of Buddhist art. The trick for you now is to find in which “mise en scene” the painter included another plane.
To find the pagoda, you need to visit Bakong temple, which is park of the Angkor Park — you’ll need your pass to gain entry. The temple, which is under-visited due to its distance (14km) from Siem Reap, is truly worth the trip. Spotting the pagoda, which is on the east side, should be quite easy. There are actually three buildings on the pagoda site. For comparative purposes, take a look at the building that is open-sided and looks out on to the Baray. This was restored previously, and in the Indian style, with lots of bright, garish colours.
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