The Broader Picture: The plundering of the temple

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE ANCIENT capital of the Khmers, established at the end of the ninth century, centred around a great complex of Hindu temples called Angkor. It has been decaying for centuries, a martyr to Cambodia's history. Today it is not rot, but free enterprise that is destroying one of the world's most extraordinary and enigmatic monuments.

Wealthy collectors are buying up the sculptural masterpieces of Angkor one by one. They don't come cheap: a fine 2ft high statuette may command more than pounds 200,000, and even a badly damaged carving costs tens of thousands. Availability, however, is not a problem: thanks to Cambodia's freelance heritage exporters, good antique shops in the Far East, (such as the one in Singapore in the bottom left picture), are well stocked with desirable pieces. Some of the shops can show their clients video catalogues of figures still in the temple complex: 'You choose and we deliver,' is how one dealer phrased it to a reporter posing as the agent of a rich collector. It's a bit like buying through a mail order catalogue.

The Angkor temple complex covers over 80 square miles and contains 50 temples - though hundreds of related buildings are found scattered over a far wider area. The most famous of the temples - and one of the most glorious - is Angkor Wat. It was the epicentre of the Angkor empire which in the 12th and 13th centuries stretched from the East China Sea to Burma. Successive kings vanquished their neighbours and built temple after temple in honour of the Hindu gods.

In 1432 the Khmer built a new capital at Pnom Penh, and the temples of Angkor went into a long, slow decline. Buddhist monks moved in, living in huts in the temple grounds. But slowly the jungle took over, the roots of huge silk-cotton trees fastening round the masonry, water eroding the stonework, lichen eating into it. The first looters arrived.

In the middle of the last century a French botanist, Henri Mouhot, discovered and marvelled at the temples, and subsequently the Ecole francaise d'Extreme- Orient commenced the task of restoration - work that continued until the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk and the outbreak of civil war in 1970. Since then the invasions of nature and human greed have resumed without check.

Today, the task of protecting Angkor seems to be beyond the impoverished fledgling authority in Pnom Penh. Various defensive ploys have been attempted. Hollow concrete replicas of heads of deities were set up in place of the real ones, which were put in storage; but the ruse was exposed when one took a bullet in the brow during fighting and the shell went straight through (as seen in the main picture). An armed guard now keeps watch over particularly valuable pieces in a conservation depot in Siem Reap, where 7,000 artefacts are stored - but the few guards, such as those pictured here, are no match for the bandits, who carry grenade launchers and machine guns. Three raids have been carried out on the depot since November, with the loss of 30 objects.

Last year Unesco declared Angkor a World Heritage Site and drew up a master plan for an area of 2,000 square miles. A plan is what it remains. But optimists might draw hope from the words of certain soothsayers of Pnom Penh. In 1969 Han Suyin, the Chinese writer and Cambodia enthusiast, heard them predict invasion, massacre and the exile of Prince Sihanouk, descendant of the Khmer kings, a full year before the disaster began to unfold. The same seers went on, however, to predict Sihanouk's return, the coming of peace, and the restoration of Angkor to its ancient glory. So it has come to pass. In part.-

(Photograph omitted)

Comments