Indian Ambassador to Cambodia PK Kapur sounded like an environmental activist defending tree rights. “There will be no cutting or chopping,” he said. “If it is necessary to preserve the health of a tree, this will be done by the Indian team in cooperation with Apsara Authority, but it is essential not to chop branches.”
Kapur was talking about the trees that, for centuries, have slowly swallowed up portions of Ta Prohm temple in Angkor Archeological Park, weakening the stone structure to the point of collapse in many sections.
The Cambodian and international experts listening to Kapur, whose lives are spent painstakingly preserving every centimeter of the monument, were in this case also on the side of the trees.
The ambassador was speaking at the Ta Prohm Symposium on Feb 5. The Indian government had organized the event to submit its rescue plans for the temple to the International Coordinating Committee of Angkor and to the Apsara Authority—the Cambodian agency in charge of the Angkor park. The Archeological Survey of India, which has been managing India’s monuments for more than a century, brought in a team of experts to discuss preservation strategy with the ICC.
Few temples at Angkor have provoked such passion. Last year, when a journalist wrote that the Indian team had suggested cutting some trees at Ta Prohm, people living as far away as New York offered to launch an association in defense of the trees, said Azedine Beschaouch, scientific secretary for the ICC. Beschaouch had assured them that the cutting would not happen.
This international fascination with Ta Prohm—which is one of the four most popular temples in the park along with Angkor Wat, Bayon and Banteay Srei—is easy to understand, said Beschaouch.
Unlike some temples that tower over visitors, challenging them with hundreds of steps to climb or scores of galleries and terraces to tour, Ta Prohm welcomes them with a veritable walk-in-the-park. Ta Prohm is filled with romance, Beschaouch said.
After crossing Ta Prohm’s main gate, visitors stroll down a peaceful trail through the jungle and the only signs of life are the traditional Cambodian musicians whose music follows from the gate. As the jungle closes in, shading the road, Ta Prohm’s entrance tower suddenly appears, nestled in vegetation.
One feels transported a century back in time, as amazed by the silent beauty of the sculptures as the first French archeologists to see the temples in the late 1800s may have been.
Early on, the French archeologists decided to leave the temple to nature to allow visitors the opportunity to feel for themselves the exhilaration that had gripped early explorers. Ta Prohm was picked because it was “one of the best absorbed by the jungle, to the point of becoming an integral part of that jungle,” wrote Maurice Glaize in his 1944 book “Angkor.”
Although the jungle hides the fact, Ta Prohm is one of Angkor’s largest temple complexes, covering nearly 70 hectares that, according to an inscription at the temple, once housed 80,000 people.
The 1186 inscription attributes the Buddhist temple to Jayavarman VII, the builder king who erected Angkor Thom—a 9-square-km fortified city with the Bayon temple in the center.
Indications suggest that he built Ta Prohm over existing structures, and that construction at the site may have spanned decades, said Glaize. This theory could be clarified by clearing up and digging at the site, he said. But such a proposition is out of the question.
“Some monuments are just ruins, but Ta Prohm is a beautiful ruin,” said Michel Verrot, a French advisor to the Apsara Authority.
Throughout the centuries, the jungle has relentlessly tried to reclaim Ta Prohm’s territory, tumbling its stones and dwarfing its structures. Trees, standing 45 meters high in some cases, have nearly swallowed the carved stone galleries and towers, engulfing them in giant roots and creeping their way inside walls.
Still, for visitors this temple in the jungle has become one of Angkor’s most unforgettable sights, Kapur said. “Millions of people all over the world associate Cambodia with those trees,” he said.
Keeping the temple from crumbling further will take all the expertise of the Archeological Survey of India. The organization has sent specialists in soil mechanics, foundation and structural engineering and hydrology to study the situation. They have prepared a six-phase program, to be conducted over 10 years with a $5-million budget.
Among other measures, the Indian team has recommended restoring the temple’s original drainage system to control water damage. Vann Molyvann, who attended the symposium as King Norodom Sihanouk’s special envoy, applauded the plan.
ASI also intends to create a database that will include the history and health diagnosis for each tree in order to care for them and anticipate any damage to the temple caused by branches falling or tree deterioration.
But will the trees cooperate? John Sanday, the Angkor field director of the World Monuments Fund, who is grappling with aging-tree problems in the restoration of Preah Khan at Angkor, said that recently, while ICC members were touring Ta Prohm on a sunny day without even a breeze, a branch fell.
“Those trees are the devil in disguise,” Sandy said. “And yet, I’m the first one to want to hug a tree,” he added.
On the same visit, Shym Singh, ASI chief horticulturist, was asked how to stop further damage by a tree that had incorporated itself into the temple.
“The tree is not damaging the structure at all, he said. “It’s actually holding the structure.”
It’s all a matter of perspective.