Vietnamese, Indian experts at odds over restoration of UNESCO relic

By Doan Loan, Dac Thanh   May 5, 2018 | 07:00 pm PT
Vietnamese, Indian experts at odds over restoration of UNESCO relic
Two of the three temples of My Son Sanctuary in central Vietnam that are under restoration by Indian experts. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh
A Vietnamese expert says Indian archeologists entrusted with restoring a Cham temple complex have been careless.

An Indian project to preserve and restore My Son Sanctuary, a UNESCO heritage in Vietnam’s central province of Quang Nam, has been judged as “careless” and “unprofessional” by a Vietnamese archaeologist after his visit to the site in late April.

Dr. Nguyen Tien Dong, a senior official from Vietnam’s Institute of Archaeology, said the tower temples built between the 8th and 15th centuries have not been properly restored.

The Hindu temple cluster of My Son in Duy Xuyen District that used to be home to the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom is divided into 14 groups.

Three of them were damaged during the wars and are now put under restoration by Indian experts in line with an agreement signed between Vietnam and India in 2014.

The common ground for restoring a relic is excavating the site first and then using all ancient items found at the site for restoration, Dong said.

But from what he has observed at My Son, Indian experts have been excavating and restoring at the same time.

“There should have been a study after excavation before moving on to restoration,” he said, adding that the area for excavation has spread to thousands of square meters but there is no ‘do-not-cross line’ surrounding the site.

Ancient items were found all over the place and layers of structures built in the 12th and 13th centuries had been removed along with the sediment layer, he said.

“What they have been doing is careless and unprofessional, and that can’t be allowed in archaeology,” he said.

"If the project goes on like this, valuable items for further research cannot be preserved and later generations cannot know what the structures of the past used to look like."

He said the method that Indian experts are applying will put the temples at risk of collapse during the rainy season.

“If they have not found any effective solution, it would be better to leave the rest of the relic deep underground,” he suggested.

Yet that is not everything he has noticed. The Vietnamese expert also pointed out that his Indian counterparts have been using new bricks and cement to cover the yard and the path leading into the temples, which he described as “violating the original state of the relic.”

In this case, stones and bricks found after the excavation process should have been reused and workers must use mortar, just like Cham people had done, instead of cement.

In response to Dong’s criticism, Varadaraj Suresh, conservation engineer from the Institute of Archaeological Survey of India, said his team has restored My Son relics with lime, brick powder and oil extracted from dipterocarpus alatus, a tropical plant.

He said his team did use "a little cement" to mix with lime for one temple but they just applied that mixture outside the temple for the drainage system.

He said that My Son is a UNESCO site and thus the restoration process has been carried out in line with the U.N. organization's criteria.

Suresh also explained that his team had to remove 20 big trees that grew above one of the three temples during their excavation stage. As such, experts also had to remove some of the temple’s bricks first and that’s what the Vietnamese expert had witnessed.

“We removed the old bricks and then reused them. We do not use new bricks for that temple.”

As for another temple, its foundation has been completely damaged and the team had no other option but to replace the ancient bricks with new ones, he said.

A worker rebuilds the foundation of a temple with new bricks. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

A worker rebuilds the foundation of a temple with new bricks. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

“Temples of My Son are almost the same as those in India so we have applied the same method of archaeology and restoration,” Suresh said.

Phan Van Cam, director of Quang Nam relics and tourist attraction administration center, who is in charge of the restoration project at My Son, said Indian experts had visited the site five times for research and built a detailed plan on what they would do before starting the project.

The project has been going on without participation of a Vietnamese expert because of the deal, in which India only requested an architect that can speak English, an interpreter and an official working in the archeology sector that can speak English.

Explaining the absence of a do-not-cross line, Cam said the restoration area has already been surrounded by four walls so there is no need for such a barrier.

“Everything is being done in accordance with the plan and the agreement between Vietnam and India. There is no such thing like destroying the sanctuary,” he said.

The project, which was started in 2016 and is expected to complete in 2021, costs over VND60 billion (around $2.7 million), with India funding VND50 billion and the rest coming from Vietnam.

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