Saving a Buddhist treasure trove

Inventory of Monuments at Pagan, Volume 8
June 20, 2003

Pagan (pronounced Pah-gahn) was once the capital of the early kingdom that flourished between the 11th and 13th centuries in the Burmese dry zone. During these 300 years more than 2,000 monuments, including temples, stupas and monasteries, were built and dedicated to the Buddhist religion within an approximately 25-square-mile area. Judging from the inscriptions that explain the purpose of these gifts, the donors were concerned not only with generating enough merit to become enlightened and reach nirvana, but also with ensuring that in their future lives before enlightenment they were felicitous, virtuous, wealthy and of high social standing. The merit produced by sponsoring a building would assist in causing their wishes to transpire.

The impetus for the Inventory of Monuments (vols 1-8) lies with the earthquake of July 8 1975 that damaged and destroyed many buildings at Pagan. After the disaster, site surveillance, restoration and conservation work started with help from a variety of countries and the United Nations.

Part of the stated purpose of this inventory series was to encourage regular conservation by assessing the situation and establishing priorities for such work. Because of the seismic activity of the central Burmese area, this is highly necessary, as are disaster plans for future earthquakes.

Although it is to be regretted that the survey was not carried out before the 1975 earthquake, it is fortunate that it was completed before the current, extensive restorations at Pagan. This programme of "rejuvenation" of the buildings is controversial. The poor quality of the workmanship and the standardisation being imposed on the site are damaging to art-historical and archaeological work, but the donations are evidence of Buddhism in practice. Many people have made gifts of money, labour and materials to have the monuments restored for similar reasons that caused their construction nearly 1,000 years ago.

Volume eight of the inventory follows the same format as the other seven, with each monument clearly identified with its new number and old (from the 1901 survey, as relevant), its location coordinates and general location, an architectural plan, outside pictures from a number of angles and, if applicable, a variety of inside photographs. This volume does not include images for most sites numbered 2412 and higher, as these monuments are now in total ruin. Only brick mounds remained at these sites while the inventory was being compiled, but as the foreword mentions, since 1995 the Department of Archaeology at Pagan has cleared many of the monuments, revealing foundations of specific types of buildings. Thus more detail is available today by visiting the sites than is recorded here, but this does not significantly detract from the value of this volume.

Textual information about the buildings is categorised into ten parts, including a general description of the monument, its plan, upper parts, construction, present condition, images, interior and exterior decoration (this also includes a percentage estimate of the paintings remaining), epigraphy, a bibliography of articles and books in which the building is mentioned, and finally its construction period. A detached map of all sites in the Pagan area is included at the back of the book.

This volume is the final one of the series focusing on the art and architecture of the ancient city. Originally the survey was to encompass nine volumes, but this has been reduced to eight, leaving some of the analysis, slated for part nine, unpublished. Regardless, the amount of data presented in the volumes is still vast, and the systematic information provided is essential for scholars of Burma. It also prepares the ground for much-needed academic studies of Pagan's architecture and art specifically, and Burmese art and archaeology in general. With the information availablein the eight inventory volumes, it is possible to analyse the changes in art and architecture that occurred at Pagan, as well as use this information as a benchmark against which to compare earlier and later material.

Pierre Pichard and all those who assisted him in this endeavour are to be commended for the completion of such an important and useful series of volumes. It is to be hoped that such surveys can also be funded for other areas of the country - for example, Sagaing, Ava, Amarapura, Mrauk-U, the less well-known sites of Anein and Amyint villages in Sagaing division, and the 300-plus monuments at Pakhangyi, among others.

Alexandra Green is curator of Asian art, Denison University, Ohio, US.

Inventory of Monuments at Pagan, Volume 8

Author - Pierre Pichard
ISBN - 92 3 103789 7
Publisher - Unesco Publishing
Price - £90.00
Pages - 375

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