Traveling on the “Magic Ship” in 1926, Rabindranath Tagore saw the grandeur of the vast culture of south-eastern and eastern Asia. At Borobudur, Bali, Java, Thailand and Cambodia, he was struck by the deep and enduring affinity that these countries had with India. In mellifluous verse, Tagore captured in his poem ‘Sagarika’ the rich and vibrant past which bound these nations together.
Trade took in its wake, the culture of India to her eastern neighbors. The temples of southern and eastern India bear close resemblance in style and inspiration to those of south-eastern Asia. India too was enriched by the cross-fertilization of ideas from these societies. Hinduism, Buddhism, art, sculpture, spices, silk, gold and pearls traveled in “the jeweled ships” which Tagore mentioned in his poem.
This rich and peaceful intermingling was destroyed in the middle ages when various invasions disrupted these societies. The jeweled ships ceased to sail and the great monuments chiseled into splendor were abandoned and covered by forests.
As in India, so too in Cambodia, officers of the colonial era chanced to discover the forgotten treasures in stone. As Burgess discovered Ajanta so Henri Mahout discovered Angkor Vat four centuries after it fell to the forests. It took another century before earnest efforts were made to restore the grandeur of Angkor Vat. The Ecole Francaise Extreme Orient was established in 1900 when the French archaeologists in Indo-China took up conservation of this vast temple complex, utilizing the documentation done in earlier decades. The onset of civil strife in the l970s disrupted the French restoration efforts. In 1980, Prince Norodom Sihanouk made appeal to the comity of nations, seeking assistance for restoration of Cambodia’s greatest architectural treasure.
Cambodia had emerged from colonial and civil wars and wanted this temple complex to be restored since this monument is the national symbol of Cambodia. Responding to this appeal, the then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi offered to send experts to assist in the effort to preserve Angkor Vat. After preliminary explorations and investigations, the assessing team made its recommendations for the conservation of Angkor Vat. The entire project was financed by the Ministry of External Affairs under its ITEC Programme and the work was done by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The conservation programme was an endeavor spread over seven years in which various teams of the ASI worked at various seasons from 1986 to 1993. The Archaeological Survey of India had undertaken conservation works in Barniyan (Afghanistan) and in Angola but neither was comparable in scope to the work in Angkor Vat whose restoration is yet another great achievement of the Archaeological Survey of India.
In a way, it was a great adventure overseas, not unlike the ones undertaken by scholars, artists, merchants and princes who crossed the eastern seas in the early Christian era to trade spices, gems and ideas with their counterparts in Cambodia, Java, Bali and Siam.
Angkor Vat temple-complex in Cambodia, symbol of Khmer genius in creating a micro-cosmic universe is world famous, and has rightly been inscribed on the list of World Heritage Monuments by the UNESCO. However, due to innumerable reports appearing in the western media appreciating as well as criticizing the principles and methodology adopted by the Archaeological Survey of India in conserving the great heritage of Cambodia. Angkor Vat has been in limelight again particularly since 1986, the year from which the Archaeological Survey of India started the conservation of the monument as part of the bilateral agreement between the Governments of India and Cambodia. Unfortunately, however the work undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India has been misunderstood rather than appreciated. This is obviously due to lack of effort on the part of the Archaeological Survey of India to counter the criticism by giving wide publicity to the conservation works carried out by the ASI in Angkor Vat. One could perhaps understand this since the Archaeological Survey of India in its long history of more than one hundred and thirty years has never tried to give publicity to the enormous and varied works done for the conservation and preservation of the monumental heritage of India. This has obviously been due to the feeling that the systematic and sustained work being carried out by it will speak for itself. However, it is now necessary, under the present circumstances, to document the works and publish it, not only for silencing the critics, but also as a document for the posterity.
I am greatly indebted to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Secretary, Department of Culture, Ministry of Human Resource Development, on behalf of the ASI and myself, for having full confidence and entrusting the prestigious work of conserving Angkor Vat.
I am thankful to (late) Shri K.P. Gupta, SM B.S. Nayal and Shri C.L. Sun, who had successfully led the conservation teams from 1986-87 to 1989-90 seasons, and for supplying all relevant information and documents which helped in writing this report. I am also thankful to members of the successive teams whose devotion to duty despite the most difficult and adverse situations made it possible to achieve success in conserving the magnificent temple-complex.
I am beholden to the State of Cambodia, on behalf of successive team leaders and myself, for the full cooperation extended in executing the works, in spite of the extremely difficult times and financial constraints faced by them, and to the staff of the Conservation D’ Angkor, who not only helped in all possible manner in the execution of work, but also looked after the comfort of the successive teams, while staying in Siem Reap. My thanks are also due to the hundreds of laborers for their whole-hearted efforts in executing the works.
We could not have achieved the desired result in conserving the Angkor Vat without the active participation of the Indian Embassy at Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I must mention specially, my gratitude’s to Shri C.M. Bhandari, His Excellency the Ambassador to Cambodia, for taking keen interest in the works and for going out of his way to look after the safety and comfort of the teams. I am also grateful to all the staff members of the Embassy.
My grateful thanks to the publication section of the survey for making valuable suggestions and corrections as well as for the trouble taken in bringing out this beautiful publication within the shortest time possible. Thanks are also due to Shri M.S.R.K Prasad, Draughtsman and his colleagues for finalizing the drawing for publications. I am also thankful to Sarvashri Rajbir Singh, Sovan Chatterji and B.S. Rajput photographs of the directorate for providing excellent photographs for illustration. Thanks are also due to Shri S. Murlaidarna for neatly typing the manuscript.
I would also like to thank M/S Bengal offset works have done a commendable job in bring in out this volume nicely in a short time.
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