The goal of maintaining the wilderness charm of Ta Prohm, the hope of limiting the ongoing invasion of the jungle—which continues to intertwine with, and threaten, the much-loved temple’s walls and statues—and the desire to restore the temple, or just save it from collapse, are all competing for the future of Ta Prohm.
How far should temple preservers go in leaving nature unchecked? That is the dilemma, according to Ros Borath, Apsara Authority’s deputy director general for monument and archaeology.
“Ta Prohm is known around the world for the trees that intertwine with its stones,” he said. “It must keep its romantic personality, its mystery.”
But the temple, exposed to the elements for centuries, is quickly eroding. In May, a portion of a gallery’s arched-shape roof caved in. A few weeks earlier, a falling branch created a large dent in a stone wall.
Last year, the government asked India for help in saving Ta Prohm. A formal agreement was signed during Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit in April, and work should begin sometime this year.
The project will be discussed next week at the annual meeting of the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor. About 15 countries and international organizations taking part in Angkor preservation will be represented at the Siem Reap meeting, said Unesco program specialist Tamara Teneishvili.
An Archaelogical Survey of India restoration team worked on Angkor Wat from 1986 to 1993.
“It was painstaking work,” Indian Ambassador PK Kapur said. There wasn’t the same availability of technology and tools back then. But restoration teams today can use computer software to help with measuring and mapping, he said.
“The restoration was done in the circumstances and with the techniques of the time,” Teneishvili said. Those techniques and procedures that were later eliminated, according to famed architect and former Apsara Authority president Vann Molyvann.
Vann Molyvann said the Indian experts came to Angkor Wat “in extremely difficult circumstances, when no one else was willing to help.”
The team repaired steps, removed roots that were damaging walls, sealed supporting stone beams and cracks in bas-reliefs, rebuilt the roof and supporting columns of the Samudra Manthan Gallery and restored the surface and naga balustrade of the esplanade.
For example, restorers have since found that using sealing glue in a pillar or a wall can cause cracks to form elsewhere, he said. The ICC has used these lessons to form today’s restoration standards.
Ta Prohm will be challenging, since the work must be done without disturbing the trees that have grown into and out of the temple, Kapur said. But the Indian restorers have worked on similar monuments built during the same period in India and in a similar climate, Kapur said, and that could enhance their work on Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm is one of the four most popular temples in Angkor Archaeological Park, along with Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Banteay Srei. Some 1,000 people visit Ta Prohm daily during the dry season, Apsara estimates.
The Buddhist temple was built by King Jayavarman VII—the great builder who surrounded his city of Angkor Thom with walls and gateways, and constructed the Bayon at its center. According to text written on a temple column at the time of its construction, nearly 80,000 people were assigned to service Ta Prohm.
In his 1944 book on Angkor, Maurice Glaize noted that the King may have expanded a structure already in place. Some sections of Ta Prohm recall Angkor Wat, which was built during the first part of the 12th century, while others are in the style of the Bayon, constructed toward the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th century, Glaize wrote.
Glaize, who directed temple restoration at Angkor in the 1940s, wrote that only extensive research after the removal of trees would give an answer to this.
Ta Prohm was never fully cleared from vegetation by restoration workers in order to keep the temple in its nature setting so that visitors could experience the wonder Western explorers felt when they stumbled upon Angkor in the 19th century, said Glaize.
The French Institute for East Asian Studies, which managed Angkor restoration for a half a century, cleared a path to the temple, but left most of Ta Prohm untouched because it was “one of the best absorbed by the jungle to the point of becoming an integral part of that jungle,” Glaize wrote.
The Indian specialists will preserve this “beautiful marriage of tree and stone,” Kapur said.
One of the first tasks will be to identify areas that could become a danger to visitors because of the weakened state of the structure, Ros Borath said. There are already a number of warning signs around Ta Prohm that tell visitors which areas are risky to walk through. The restoration team will also take an inventory of stones that have fallen from the temple, Ros Borath said.
The $5 million project may take five to 10 years, Kapur said. The Indian experts will train Cambodians in restoration techniques so that they can continue work on the project and manage the preservation of the temple in the future.