On July 3, 2011, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon were in Siem Reap for a special ceremony to mark the official opening of the restored Baphuon temple. The opening was the culmination of nearly 100 years of work, punctuated by wars, conflict and occupation, made possible by the tireless dedication and optimism of the workers. The final stage, over the last 16 years, has seen a 300-strong team tackle what had become the largest three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in the world.
Baphuon temple, though less famous than Bayon, was once described in terms that totally outshone its more famous neighbour; Bayon clearly has a better PR team. Zhou Daghuon, the 13th century Chinese emissary on whom we count for so much information about Cambodia’s history, talked of a “tower of bronze, higher even than the golden tower [Bayon]; a truly astonishing spectacle”.
Unfortunately, by the time the early French explorers were setting about recording and restoring Angkor, Baphuon had entirely lost its lustre. Overgrowth, collapses and a remodelling in the 16th century had left the temple looking like little more than a misshapen, grassy mound of which, one commentator noted, “so little of orderly beauty remains that many slight it”.
The principal difficulty with Baphuon was the limitations in the knowledge of those who originally constructed it. A temple mountain composed of three increasingly tall layers should have been constructed with increasingly thick walls in order to hold in the sand at the core. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was difficult to get the thicker stones needed up as the temple grew in height to its final 34m height, the walls became thinner, and the seeds of Baphuon’s fall were sown.
In the middle of the last century a new restoration technique was introduced to Cambodia. Anastylosis involves carefully taking a structure apart, marking and recording the location of every single piece, thus allowing the core to be strengthened before it is all reconstructed once more.
The French team involved in doing this worked through most of the 1960s and up to the early 1970s. But war intervened and they were forced to leave Cambodia in 1972. In 1975, as the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia, the offices of the Ecole Française de Extrême Orient were ransacked and the plans for Baphuon’s reconstitution were destroyed.
Twenty years later, a new team headed by a young French architect, Pascal Royère, found themselves facing a pile of rocks and stone, surrounded by a forest in which lay 300,000 pieces of the temple they were tasked with rebuilding. The job was already a daunting one, made all the more so with no key to where anything went, and with no real idea of what the temple would look like when it was finished.
Not only was the scale of the job huge, but it had to be undertaken with meticulous care. Not one single outfacing stone in the temple was uncarved, and every one had to go back to where it was before. The carvings proved helpful in putting the jigsaw back together again, and as they were, they started to tell their own tales from the ancient Hindu myths. The carvings are considered amongst the finest at Angkor.
Visitors to the temple approaching from the east side may find themselves under the false impression that the restoration cannot be complete as it appears that many galleries are missing, but this is thanks to a 16th century remodel, which occurred after Buddhism had taken real hold in Cambodia. Devotees took apart the galleries and recycled the stones to construct the reclining Buddha on the west side of the temple, one of the largest in Southeast Asia.
When Royère was asked if he ever felt daunted by the scale of the task facing him in 1995 he said no, never. “You cannot look at it as a whole,” he said. “With such a big task, you can only take it piece by piece, and resolve each one as you go along.” Wise words.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 31st January, 2015.