Ancient Temple in Bagan Collapses After Heavy Rain

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 11 August 2015

RANGOON — Nearly a dozen temples in Bagan are in urgent need of protection due to recent rains, Burma’s Ministry of Culture said following the collapse of one such structure.

Temple No. 1752, which is believed to have been built in the 13th century, buckled on Saturday after being pounded by weeks of unusually heavy rain, the ministry said. Only about 20 percent of the original structure remains.

The temple had previously been damaged by an earthquake in 1975, but a 2003 renovation to the tune of 2.5 million kyats (US$2,029) apparently did little to address structural degradation.

Kyaw Oo Lwin, director of the ministry’s Department of Archaeology, said other temples could suffer the same fate If they are not immediately tended to.

“The recent rain is unusual in Bagan,” Kyaw Oo Lwin explained. “Rain went inside the cracks and the bricks yielded, so it collapsed easily.”

The director said a team of archaeology department staffers have been deployed to examine small temples and assess structural threats. Nearly a dozen of Bagan’s some 3,000 temples were found to be in critical condition.

The Bagan area spans about 42 square kilometers (16 miles) peppered with ancient temples built between the 9th and 13th centuries, when some 55 Buddhist kings ruled the Bagan Dynasty. The central Burma town is one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, charming visitors from across the globe with 360 degree views of ancient Buddhist relics dotting the horizon.

The Bagan Archaeological Zone is one of 14 sites in Burma to be nominated for inclusion on the Unesco World Heritage List, and experts envision that its status will be approved within the next few years.

Previous bids, made by Burma’s former military regime, fell flat due to a lack of international support. One point of contention was shoddy restoration work that one Unesco expert described in The New York Times as “A Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites.”

Thousands of temples in Bagan have been renovated since the early 1990s, often using techniques that were harshly criticized by experts. Calling on citizens to donate and assist with labor as a religious duty, the regime carried out controversial whitewash treatments and arranged them in what some say are inaccurate reconstructions.

In anticipation of an Unesco listing, the Ministry of Culture has teamed up with the Association of Myanmar Architects (AMA) and the Myanmar Engineering Society (MES) to survey the zone and carry out more professional restoration work.

Sun Oo, chairman of the AMA, said that while recent rains may have exacerbated structural weaknesses, the temples have already withstood centuries of volatile weather and should be carefully restored after comprehensive review.

“We’re now carrying out assessments in line with Unesco standards,” he said. “In the past, ministries didn’t follow the rules about how to maintain old temples, that’s why some of them have collapsed.
“Preparing to maintain temples is urgent, but it should not be done hastily. It needs to take time.”