angkor temples, Siem Reap province – Any visitor to Ta Prohm temple knows it’s all about the trees.
The trees—stretching skyward, their massive roots hugging the moss-covered stone of the temple’s walls—make visiting Ta Prohm unforgettably romantic. It’s the trees that make Ta Prohm one of Angkor’s most popular sites.
And it’s the trees that are strangling and cracking the sprawling temple—sparking a controversy among the international experts who oversee Angkor: Should they stay or should they go?
“The roots are spreading into the structure and in some cases coming out of the structure, creating cracks,” said Dr AC Grover of the Indian Archaeological Service, head of the Ta Prohm restoration mission.
“Because of this, certain structures are falling down. Even in the last year we have seen two instances” of falling walls or doorways.
Grover’s presentation of the restoration work on Thursday to the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor was matter-of-fact. The Indian team’s work on the temple is in an early stage, he said, and no decision about the trees has been made yet.
“At present we have not considered harming any of the trees. But we will have to make some difficult decisions,” he said.
That noncommittal remark was interpreted by the international experts to mean that some of the trees would eventually have to go. And it sparked an uproar.
Azedine Beschaouch, a Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization official who heads the international committee’s secretariat, passionately lauded the “poetry and harmony” of Ta Prohm in its current state.
Pointing to one of the monumental trees, he said, “People have painted this, photographed it; writers have written about it. It is engraved in the memory of people all over the world. How can we cut it? How can we destroy that memory?”
A murmur of assent greeted this speech. Publicly, Grover accepted the remarks and repeated the official line that individual trees would be evaluated and decisions made on a case-by-case basis. But privately, he said, “In due course they will have to be cut. If not by us, then in 10 or 20 or 30 years, by the next generation.”
Ta Prohm itself, he said, must be the first priority. “The temple is immortal,” he said. “Trees, like humans, are mortal.”
Grover was not totally alone in his stance. Michel Tranet, an undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Culture, responded angrily to Beschaouch’s romanticism. “There is no poetry here, only culture,” he said.
“Like you, I like poetry, but I like the temple more. The life of the temple must come first.”
But most of the delegates at the committee’s semi-annual meeting were adamant that the trees must be preserved along with the stone. “It is like a painting—a composition of nature and man. When one visits [Ta Prohm], one feels very strong emotions,” Apsara Authority Deputy Director-General Ros Borath told the committee on Friday.
“It is not an issue of time or money. It is an issue of culture,” he said. “The work carried out must not trivialize this.” He urged the Indian team to hold regular consultations with national and international experts.
Giorgio Croci, an Italian expert with the International Scientific Committee for Analysis and Restoration of Structures of Architectural Heritage, said that not a single tree must be cut. “The temple is exceptional in the world. They must find an exceptional solution,” he said in an interview. “They can find a way.”
However, there are no easy solutions, said John Sanday of the World Monuments Fund, who heads the restoration team at Preah Khan, Ta Prohm’s sister temple.
Sanday would not comment directly on the Ta Prohm situation, but he noted that Preah Khan has the same arboreal problems. The team there employed a forestry expert to draw a risk map of all the trees and determine which ones most threatened the temple.
“We had several fall without any indication,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to tell” which trees are an immediate danger. “It’s certainly not as easy as everyone makes out.”
The Preah Khan team has removed some trees without causing any concern. But Ta Prohm is a higher-profile site, and its trees are totemic in a way that Preah Khan’s are not. Some delegates also admitted privately that the Indians may be in for an unusual amount of attention and pressure because of their track record.
In the 1980s, before Angkor was a World Heritage Site, an Indian team worked on the restoration of Angkor Wat, using methods now anathema to restorers—including using poured concrete to fill in cracks and shore up structures. The concrete remains a problem for the many restorers who work on Angkor Wat today.
So the international committee is keeping a close eye on the Indian team at Ta Prohm. On Thursday, Indian Ambassador PK Kapur insisted that the furor over the trees was not a controversy. “It is just a matter that arouses very strong emotions in people,” he said.
But another delegate half-jokingly compared the issue to “a war.”