It’s 1970 in Siem Reap: War is spreading and moving closer to the Angkor temples. Bernard-Philippe Groslier, Angkor conservator, realized that restoration work on the Baphuon temple may have to be abandoned.
In 10 years of work, each section of the Baphuon had been completely dismantled—stone by stone. Workers had been able to rebuild half of the temple’s first tier and partially reinforce the second tier.
But nothing had been done to the third level. Fearing a hasty departure, Groslier told workers to build a laterite cover to protect the top of the temple and a portion of the second level from the elements.
Around 1972, the team of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient—which had been in charge of restoration and research since Angkor Conservation was founded in 1908—left the Angkor park, although some members of the team stayed in Siem Reap town until the Khmer Rouge take complete hold over the country.
In 1975, as Khmer Rouge forces closed in on the capital, the EFEO office in Phnom Penh was ransacked and all records on the Baphuon project disappeared.
More than two decades later, in 1995, EFEO architect Pascal Royere found himself in the middle of one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles in restoration history. About 300,000 of the Baphuon’s dismantled stones Baphuon laid over 10 hectares of jungle.
“The stone field was drowning in vegetation,” he said.
In addition, a portion of the temple’s second and third levels on the west side had collapsed during the years of neglect.
Workers in the 1960s had “temporarily” stocked the stones and numbered them according to their own methods. But with records destroyed in the 1970s, reassembling the temple was a mystery when work began again in the 1990s. As with any puzzle, each of the 300,000 stones could only fit in one spot.
“This is an architectural tradition in which there is not a square centimeter of stone without decoration,” Royere said.
One stone misplaced, he said, and the whole sculpted surface of the temple would be impossible to restore.
The 11th century Baphuon was built by King Udayadityavarman II, and was located near the royal palace of the time. It was still centuries away from being surrounded by the city walls of Angkor Thom.
The Baphuon was the largest temple of its time, and only Angkor Wat, built in the following century, would surpass it. It was surmounted by what was described as a “bronze tower” by the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor at the end of the 13th century.
“It’s a very important temple in the history of Khmer art,” said Son Soubert, a member of the Constitutional Council and a professor of archaeology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “There is a style that bears its name—the Baphuon Style —and sculptures from that period are very distinctive.”
The mountain temple—which these days stands at 34.8 meters high, and no longer holds the bronze tower—went through a major reshaping project, probably toward the end of the 15th century, Royere said.
Originally built as a Hindu monument dedicated to Shiva, it was converted into a Buddha temple in a spectacular way. A reclining Buddha was built on the second level of the west side.
The sculpture is nearly 9 meters high and stretches over 70 meters and was created by demolishing some sections of the temple so that workers could use the loosened stones to carve the Buddha. This is probably how the 8-meter bronze tower on top of the monument vanished, said Royere.
This Buddha aggravated a problem that had afflicted the monument from the start, he said. The three-tier pyramid had been erected using sand as a filler. This was a technique that Angkor builders had used successfully in the past, Royere said. But the Baphuon—which at ground level is 130-meters long by 104-meters wide—was the largest structure built up until that point in time.
“With it, they reached the limits of what the technique could handle, and ended up creating one of Angkor’s biggest, but also most fragile, monuments,” said Royere.
The instability of the sand fill, due to its weight and the rain filtering through the stones, caused portions of the temple to collapse. Throughout the Angkor era, some work was done to prevent the building from caving in, but to no avail. By the late 1400s, it had probably deteriorated further, which might explain why builders of the time had no qualms about demolishing some sections to build the Buddha, Royere said.
When the EFEO decided to tackle the Baphuon in 1960, its restoration called for drastic measures. Its team decided to use anastylosis, which consists of taking a monument totally apart and rebuilding it in a way that will stabilize its structure.
The technique had been perfected by the Dutch on restoration projects in Indonesia, said Vann Molyvann, a senior government adviser, architect and former director of Apsara Authority.
“The EFEO had sent architect Henri Marchal to Java to look into the technique,” Vann Molyvann said.
Marchal used it for the first time at Angkor during the restoration of Banteay Srei temple in the 1930s, he said.
The Baphuon and the Borobudur monument in Java are probably the two biggest structures in Asia to have been restored by anastylosis,
said Royere. The dismantling of the Baphuon