Putting the World’s Biggest Jigsaw Puzzle-Angkor’s Baphuon Temple-Back Together Again

It’s 1970 in Siem Reap. The war is spreading throughout the region and Bernard-Philippe Groslier, Angkor conservator, realizes that the Baphuon site may have to be abandoned.

Half of temple’s first tier has been restored, the second tier partially reinforced, but nothing has beendone to the third level. Fearing a hasty departure, Groslier makes workers build a laterite envelope to protect the top of the temple and a portion of the second level.

About two years later, the team of the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, which had been in charge of restoration and research at Angkor since Angkor Conservation was founded in 1908, leaves the Siem Reap area. In 1975, as the Khmer Rouge forces close in on the capital, the EFEO office in Phnom Penh is ransacked and all records on the Baphuon project disappear.

Twenty years later, Pascal Royere, EFEO architect, found himself in the middle of one of the biggest jigsaw puzzle in restoration history. About 300,000 stones of the 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.

The temple had been dismantled in the 1960s, and stones “temporarily” stocked based on the logic of workers long gone, and numbered according to work plans that were never recovered. 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,” said Royere. One stone misplaced and the whole sculpted surface of the temple would be impossible to restore, he said.

The Baphuon dates from the 11th century. Built by King Udayadityavarman II, it was located near the royal palace, part a city plan of Angkor that was centuries away from being surrounded by the city walls of Angkor Thom with its Bayon in the middle.

The Baphuon erected around 1060 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 archeology 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 stands 34.8 meter high without the tower that has disappeared, went through a major reshaping project probably towards the end of the 15th century, said Royere. Originally built as a Hindu monument dedicated to Siva, 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, which is nearly 9-meter high and stretches over 70 meters, was created by demolishing some sections of the temple to use the stones. This is probably how the 8-meter 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 on a giant sandpie as fill. This was a technique that Angkor builders had used successfully in the past, said Royere. But the Baphuon-which at ground level is 130-meter long by 104-meter wide-was the largest structure they had so far worked on. “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 probably was in poor shape, which might explain why builders of the time had no qualms about demolishing some sections to build the Buddha, said Royere.

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 completely taking a monument apart and rebuilding it in a way that will stabilize its structure.

The technique had been perfected by the Dutch on restoration projects in Java, said Vann Molyvann, a senior government advisor, architect and former director of Apsara Authority. “The EFEO had sent architect Henri Marchal to Java to look into the technique.” Marchal used it for the first time at Angkor during the restoration of Banteay Srey 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 went according to plans in the 1960s, and in 1995 Royere inherited the task of putting it back together without a blueprint.

The work includes two major steps. First to stabilize the sand fill, three huge rectangular boxes made of concrete are poured on top of each other, the bigger one at the bottom and smaller one at the top, pyramid style. Then the stones are put back in place, completely hiding the concrete-box structure.

To lighten the weight of the pyramid, only the stones of the Buddha’s outer shell are installed, said Royere. Laterite will replace standstone for the backing. In addition, the workers built a slab held by stakes reaching into the ground to support the sculpture, he said. This measure was suggested by Cambodian engineers of the Technical Institute of Cambodia who studied the matter at the request of the EFEO.
To reduce rain damage, a drainage system is being set up and the original stones protected from any contact with the concrete, which releases salt when wet.

Once the structure is in place, there remains the task of putting each of the 300,000 stones where they belong. Royere spent the first two years of the project trying to figure out how the “field of stones” had been organized and the best way to deal with the situation.

There were three points in his favor. Jacques Dumarcay, the EFEO architect who had supervised the Baphuon project in the 1960s, had since retired but was eager to help to see the work completed, said Royere. “In addition, about 30 Cambodian workers, who had worked on restoration projects at Angkor in the 1960s and 1970s, spontaneously came to us.” Mith Priem, for instance, who now supervises a team at the Baphuon site, had worked on the restoration of Angkor Wat in the 1960s. “He knows how to recognize patterns on stones and how to manage stone research teams,” said Royere. This provided him with a group of specialized workers who could train others and help organize the work. With the scientific memory of Dumarcay, an authority on restoration and Angkor history, and the technical memory of the Cambodian workers, the project became manageable, said Royere. “Without one or the other, it would have been very difficult.”

Finally, written notes may have been lost, but there still were photo records of the monument. Since the very beginning of their work at Angkor, the EFEO researchers had taken photos of monuments, keeping one print of each at the National Museum in Phnom Penh and sending a duplicate to their head office in Paris. As a result, there were in Paris 940 photos of the Baphuon dating as far back as 1910. This has enabled Royere to see what moldings and other sculpted patterns look like, and which portions of the pyramid were already missing, not to send workers search for stones that were never there, he said.

Royere recreated each section of the temple-height, patterns, number and size of stones-from these visual archives. Armed with the information, workers have been walking the field searching through thousands and thousands of stones for the ones that were put side by side a thousand years ago. “We may find a stone in 10 minutes, or it can take 15 days,” said Royere. All it takes is infinite patience.

By now, Royere, his French assistant Jean-Claude Prigent, and the 200 workers have the work well in hand. Restoration may be completed towards the end of 2004, as long as unforseen difficulties such as torrential rain do not hamper the work.

The project, which is funded by France, has a total budget of about $37 million, said EFEO director Jean-Pierre Drege. Why taking over the Baphuon’s restoration after nearly 25 years of interruption? “It was a moral duty,” he said.

For French Ambassador Andre-Jean Libourel, it goes without saying that France had to complete the project. “The monument was in the process of collapsing- and you always must finish what you start.”

Vann Molyvann sees France’s continued involvement at the Baphuon as part of that country’s tradition. “They did it in Egypt against all odds and historical upheavals.”

During his stay in Paris in the mid-1995, Vann Molyvann visited French President Jacques Chirac, he said. They had first met in 1991 when Chirac, then mayor of Paris, had come to Cambodia. “(Chirac) told me he wanted the Baphuon’s restoration to be completed before the end of his term in 2002 so that he could preside at the site’s closing ceremony,” said Vann Molyvann.

The end of the restoration project may be a couple of years away. But then, Chirac’s latest mandate will end in 2007.

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