Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Going Back Once Again - Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm - August 10, 2007

Ta Prohm - November 4, 2014

Ta Prohm - 14 December 2016

The decisively characteristic thing about this world is its transience. In this sense, centuries have no advantage over the present moment. Thus the continuity of transience cannot give any consolation; the fact that life blossoms among ruins proves not so much the tenacity of life as that of death.
— Franz Kafka

Ta Prohm - August 10, 2007

Ta Prohm - November 2014

Ta Prohm - 14 December 2016

International Tourism to the Angkor Wat region has dramatically increased from 2006 when approximately 900,000 tourists visited. In 2016 the number of foreign tourists was 2,205,000.  Tourism to the region increases each year and naturally they all typically end up touring the ruins.

The ruins are mainly constructed from sandstone.  Millions of footsteps each year on and across the sandstone blocks cause both erosion and stress on the blocks. The material eventually breaks down sooner than if they were just exposed to natural forces. Just as wind and water can wear down rock, so can pedestrian traffic but quicker.

Millions of footsteps on the ground surrounding the ruins also damages the roots of the trees.  Damaged roots lead to diseased trees which collapse and cause additional damage to structures.  Compacted soil around the ruins affects the drainage of the area which affects the stability of the ground beneath the structures.

The international community, for various reasons and motivations, has sponsored and supervised the restoration of many of the temples.

Carving of Devata at Ta Prohm

Buddhism teaches that all things that are dependent upon something else or affected by something else are in flux, changing and not permanent but is impermanent.  The temples of Siem Reap are roughly a thousand years old - a very long time in human terms and perspective but they are far from permanent.

Many of the temples have strangler fig trees, sprung trees, and silk-cotton trees growing in them.  The roots of the trees grow over the tops of the structures, first starting in small crevices between the building blocks and as the roots increase in size - growing deeper and larger separating the building blocks and eventually contributing to the collapse of the structure - a process that ran pretty much from the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century to the 20th century intervention by the Europeans.

The 21st century has ushered in accelerated efforts by nations such as The People's Republic of China, Republic of Korea, and India to "restore" and "save" the wonders of the region.

India sponsored and supervised the "restoration" of the famous "tree" temple, Ta Prohm.  Ta Prohm besides being known a s the Khmer temple ruin with the trees growing on top of it and was also the location for several scenes of the Angeline Jolie film "Laura Croft, Tomb Raider".

The restoration project lasted from 2003 to 2014.  The restoration and conservation effort involved installation of boardwalks and a railing system to control access by visitors as well as to minimize the impact of visitors on the site.

Conservation efforts also included efforts to repair and protect the trees from the stresses induced by visitors, fungal attacks, and instability due to pour drainage at the site.  It had been determined necessary to ensure the health of the existing trees in and on the structures to safeguard the structures.  For many of the structures the flora and the ruins had become inextricably one - literally and figuratively.  The tree root systems in many area support the structure and what would Ta Prohm, "The Tree Temple", be without the trees?

"A man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest"  paraphrasing Paul Simon.

So it is with the ruins of Siem Reap area and I am fairly confident of any other 1,000 year old ornate structures built by man.

At first glance and typically during the first visit, the majesty and complexity of the structures are over whelming.  The grandeur of man's works is astonishing.  However a more relaxing pace or second visit reveals that all is not what it originally appears to be.  There is often a hodgepodge of discontinuous carvings, shapes, ill matched textures, ill fitting block work, filled in window openings as well as filled in doorways. This reality was missed by our mind's desire to fill in the blanks when first viewing the massive ruins.  We want the ruins to be what we want them to be and our minds suppress processing the realities that do not fit into our desired interpretation of what we see.

Upon seeing these discontinuities, you are able to be aware that the ruins for a large part have been reconstructed by man.  The ravages and onslaught of time and nature have been mitigated by men far removed from the original builders.  Newer blocks and bricks along with recreations of portions of carved murals have been included into the modern ruins.

Part of the Indian restoration of Ta Prohm involved reconstructing a gallery that had collapsed.  For other structures, the reconstruction involved dismantling the structure and reassembling it in a more stable configuration.  Structures that were heavily braced by large timbers in 2007 are now free standing in 2016.

One of my favorite photos of our 2014 visit is of a gallery at Ta Prohm that I did not remember from our earlier visit in 2007 ... a collapsed gallery in 2007 that is now rebuilt as part of the 21st century restoration.

Ta Prohm Gallery - November 20114

The ruins of Cambodia are changing, constantly changing from the forces of nature, time, gravity and man - well intended or not.  The ruins of Cambodia are impermanent just as all other things, that are affected or dependent upon something, are impermanent.

Our trip back to Siem Reap was not going back in time because changes have made that impossible.  The ruins are no where near what they were one thousand years ago.  The ruins are not what they were just nine years ago.  They are not what they were nor are they what they will be.

However, Duangchan and I were able to experience and to enjoy the ruins with a different perspective.  We were able to embrace and accept the ruins as they were ... December 2016.

Although this was our third visit to Ta Prohm, and many changes had occurred since our first visit, there were sights there that had been there all the time ... only to be revealed to us on a third visit.

A carved head surrounded by a tree

Our experiences of this trip has left me wondering though.  I wonder about the futility and cost of restoration programs.  The intervention of man against nature and time will not stop changes.  At best the intervention will delay the manifestation of major change but never prevent it.  At its worst, man's intervention to stop change will create unnatural change or worst of all obliterate the spirit of the original object.  At what point is the original object destroyed leaving only the restorer's vision or interpretation to remain?

We were able to thoroughly enjoy our trip because we were able to appreciate and experience the changes ... to experience the ruins as they are.

Although major restoration work has subsided at Ta Prohm , conservation efforts related to vegetation continues.  Outside the main temple area in a field of moss covered stones distributed among the trees, Cambodian workers continue the effort to document the ruins.  The debris had unique identifying numbers painted on them.  Due to rain, moss, and intense sunlight, many of the stones were losing their identity.  A team of workers were cleaning the areas where the identifications were located and repainting the unique letter/number combinations with white paint.

Restoration work - repainting identification of stones

Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled "You Can't Go Home, Again"

Quoting from the novel ""You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory"

We were not able to go back in time but it was a pleasant as well as rewarding journey, once again, to Ta Prohm. It was an opportunity not to see it as it originally was but how it is today.


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