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Amateur restoration work threatens historic sites

Update: September, 12/2012 - 10:33

by Le Ha

 

(VNS) The slip-shod restoration of cultural and historical relics throughout Viet Nam is alarming Vietnamese and foreign experts. Phan Cam Thuong, an artist and cultural researcher said that while the State was spending much money on so-called restoration work, many heritage buildings had been replaced partly or almost completeley by new buildings.

Other buildings had lost valuable and ancient carvings, friezes and pillars that had survived for centuries. "Viet Nam needs to have a national strategy on preserving relics. We can build 1,000 modern houses but if destroy an ancient temple, we lose it forever. It is a loss for history and tradition," Thuong said.

Recently, the 900-year-old Tram Gian (one-hundred-compartment) Pagoda was virtually destroyed by "restoration" work. The authoritiers paid no attention to the matter until the media drew attention to the issue. The pagoda, located in Ha Noi's Chuong My District, was built in 1185 on a hilltop during the reign of King Ly Cao Tong (1176-1210).

A year ago, when I visited it, there were piles of new structural timber in the forecourt. Local residents said a nun had bought it to restore the pagoda. Entering the main building, the hoanh phi (horizontal lacquered boards), cau doi (parallel calligraphy) and altars looked too flashy because they had been recovered with industrial paint and fake gold and silver paint. The new work stood out, but for the wrong reasons. Local people contended that most of the interior woodwork was worm eaten anyway and deserved to be repainted.

In fact, none of the new painting or structural replacement work had been approved by relevant authorities. Indeed, it violated the country's Cultural Heritage Law.

Local media reported that the main temple, the two-storey bell tower and steps from the tower to the forecourt had all been destroyed. All the pillars and beams and even the roof tiles had been replaced. The intricately patterned blue-marble steps that had helped support thousands of worshippers of high and low rank had gone and new, unpatterned marble steps were in their place.

The Buddhist nun responsible for the unlicensed work, Thich Dam Khoa, admitted: "It is my fault!" She said she had sent many petitions to authorities asking for permission to restore the seriously downgraded building, but no reply had been received. So, she said, the pagoda management board decided to "restore" the pagoda by itself.

Khoa used VND2 billion (US $ 96,000) from Buddhist followers and borrowed another VND3 billion ($144,000) from neighbouring pagodas to have the venerable pagoda restored. After the People's Committee of Ha Noi suspended the work, the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism said it would co-ordinate with relevant agencies to restore the pagoda as best it could by retaining any surviving original timber and stone features. The Institute for Conservation of Monuments said about 30 per cent of the building's original components had survived and would be re-used, including those for the 600-year-old bell-tower.

Le Thanh Vinh, director of the Institute for Conservation of Monuments, worries that Viet Nam is losing too much of its heritage through ignorance and lack of care. Much amateur restoration work involves new brick and timber materials that dismantle the very history they are trying to save.

Two years ago, Son Tay Citadel in Ha Tay Province, built in the reign of King Minh Mang in 1822, also lost out to well-meaning do gooders. Restoration destroyed its gate and long moss-covered wall made of laterite bricks. Unbelievably, the restorers decided that new bricks looked better.

Leading painter Le Thiet Cuong told Sai Gon Tiep Thi (Sai Gon Marketing) newspaper that many heritage buildings had been damaged during restoration. This was caused by lack of knowledge, carelessness, irresponsible authorities and the disappearance of ancient materials "saved" by collectors. Many ancient statues have been repainted badly, both in terms of colour, paint quality and technique, he said.

"Much of the better restoration work in Viet Nam is carried out by foreign experts. Westerners see restoration as a science. Viet Nam needs to set up schools of restoration science," Thiet said. The Prime Minister has just approved a National Target Programme to restore 1,500 historic buildings, citadels and other structures. They include 300 of great importance that will be repaired over the next three years for a total of VND7,400 billion ($355 million).

But, if the authorities don't use genuine experts, the new programme will be money down the drain – and the permanent loss of genuine Vietnamese history. This writer believes that the damage to the ancient Tram Gian Pagoda serves as a clear warning about the dangers of ill conceived work. It shows that enthusiasm when mixed with ignorance is a potent brew for destruction. The rules must be tightened – immediately! — VNS

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