Japanese techniques saving murals in Myanmar’s ancient temple complex

Asahi Shimbun
KAZUTO TSUKAMOTO
March 19, 2014

A temple in Bagan, Myanmar, where murals have sharply deteriorated. Paint and plaster have peeled off in places, exposing the bricks underneath. (Eijiro Morii)

A temple in Bagan, Myanmar, where murals have sharply deteriorated. Paint and plaster have peeled off in places, exposing the bricks underneath. (Eijiro Morii)

BAGAN, Myanmar–Japanese specialists who helped restore murals in ancient Japanese tombs are working with Myanmar to preserve centuries-old Buddhist images at the sprawling Bagan temple complex here.

The site ranks alongside the grandeurs of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia.

Of the many thousands of Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries, more than 3,000 survive in Bagan.

Richly colored murals have deteriorated in many places due to rain seeping into cracks in walls caused by earthquakes and weathering. This has damaged the plaster on which the works were painted.

Myanmar is working with the Japanese government-affiliated National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (Tobunken) in carrying out repair and preservation work.

The institute repaired murals in the Takamatsuzuka and Kitora tombs, both located in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, and constructed from the late seventh century to early eighth century.

Special permission is needed to enter the structures in Bagan as the entrances are usually locked. Even local people are restricted from entering them.

The inside of a pagoda I visited was in complete darkness. Corridors spread from the 10-meter-high domed tower that formed the core of the structure. Murals of Buddhist images were drawn in vivid blue, red and yellow.

But cracks ran across the faces and bodies of the depictions of Buddha. Murals had peeled off in many places, exposing bricks.

According to the Department of Archaeology and National Museum, which is under Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture, many murals are in a fragile state.

Entrances and windows are not fitted with doors or glass, which means murals are exposed to wind and the elements.

Because the climate is relatively dry, mold is not a major concern although there is some damage because of it. Of greater concern are bats’ droppings, insect nests and graffiti.

Abeyadana Temple stands in Myinkaba village, a southern neighbor of so-called Old Bagan, the central area of the Bagan archaeological site. Built in the 11th century, the temple is known for its murals themed on India’s Hinduism.

A calcium-like white liquid oozing from the ceiling covered parts of the murals. The problem was blamed on past slipshod preservation efforts.

Buddhists in Myanmar tend to regard pagodas as religious structures they depend on in their daily lives rather than as cultural properties. Many people regard constructing and repairing pagodas with their own funds as their biggest virtue.

People often apply white lime on murals to draw over them.

With tourism booming in tandem with Myanmar’s growing economic development, the Department of Archaeology and National Museum feared that many murals could begin to deteriorate even faster.

Three years ago, the department started emergency repair work at 100 places where there was extensive damage.

In the case of pagodas, however, it is preoccupied with mending cracks. For this reason, it has made no headway in improving the quake-resistance capabilities of those structures.

In the past, Myanmar cooperated with the international community to carry out repair work. In the 1990s, for example, the Rome-based International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property restored a number of wall paintings.

But the work ground to a halt under the subsequent military junta.

International assistance in the economic and cultural fields poured in after Myanmar’s transition to a democratic government in 2011. That same year, the Indian government started work to repair and preserve murals at Ananda Temple in Bagan under a seven-year project. Team members use surgical blades to remove white paint to expose murals underneath.

China and South Korea are also planning to assist Myanmar with restoration work.

In the case of Japan, Tobunken started a project in Bagan last autumn to share its restoration techniques with Myanmar. The program is part of the Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency’s efforts to promote international cooperation in the field of cultural properties.

It has set up weather observation equipment in pagodas to measure humidity, rainfall and wind direction. Through its restoration work, Tobunken shares its knowledge with researchers in Myanmar, including officials of the Department of Archaeology and National Museum.

In February, Tobunken invited some of the members to Tokyo and held training sessions for them.

“We want to develop a Bagan-style restoration method with them so that they can continue to repair murals by themselves with materials that can be obtained in Myanmar,” said Wataru Kawanobe, director of Tobunken’s Japan Center for International Cooperation in Conservation.

“We want to work with them for at least 10 years so that all of the murals (in Bagan) can be restored,” he added.

Naing Win, director of the Bagan branch of the Department of Archaeology and National Museum, said, “We need to make a list that records all the details of deterioration and damage to the murals in Bagan. Murals are hugely important to our people. We can save these paintings if we learn Japan’s careful mural restoration techniques.”

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