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Right in the center of Yaśodharapura (Angkor), the second capital of the Khmer empire, stood Baphuon temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva and consecrated in 1060 with an installation of a shivalinga in the central tower, Baphuon was the state temple of King Udayadityavarman II (1050-1066). Measuring at 130-meter long by 104-meter wide at its base, Baphuon was the largest temple in the empire at the time of its completion, making it the largest temple on mainland Southeast Asia, until one of the king’s successors out-built him a century later.
Baphuon was a favorite of Zhou Daguan, the Chinese emissary to the Khmer court in 1296-1297. Zhou described it as “the tower of Bronze, higher than the Golden Tower (the Bayon), a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.” Built in the Khmer temple-mountain style, five tiered pyramid in sandstone, Baphuon’s central pyramid soared at 50-meter high. Built on an unsteady foundation of sandy soil and coupled with the temple’s massive weight, Baphuon became unstable for most of its history. Throughout the Angkor era, regular maintenance had been done to prevent the temple from collapsing in. After a period of political and civil unrest combined with attacks from recent migrations from Southern China, the empire came to a close in 1432, which also gave rise to Theravada Buddhism in the country. The Buddhists, led by monks, damaged some Hindu temples including Baphuon. Near the end of the 15th century, they tore down the central tower and some sections of the temple. The stones were used to build a 9-meter high by 70-meter long reclining Buddha on the second level of the west side. The weight of the Buddha exaggerated the problems that the temple had been facing from the start. The Buddha sculpture was never finished and the temple was abandoned.
When the French arrived in the mid-19th century, Baphuon was just a collection of crumbling structures covered with vegetation. From 1908 to 1914, massive work was done to clear the area. Aside from small repairs from 1916-1918, no major works were undertaken to restore the temple. Bernard-Philippe Groslier, Angkor’s conservator and a team from the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), decided to restore it using anastylosis in 1960. Three years later, about 300 workers dismantled some 300,000 stones, numbered according to position and laid them out over 10 hectares of the surrounding jungle. By 1970, when the war escalated, half of the temple’s first tier had been restored, the second was partially reinforced, and nothing had been done to the third tier. Fearing a hasty departure, Groslier made the workers build a laterite envelope to protect the top of the temple and a portion of the second tier. Two years later, the restoration team left Angkor. After the country fell to the Khmer Rouge, the Phnom Penh office of EFEO was ransacked and all records, including those on the Baphuon project, were destroyed.
A second restoration project was launched in 1995, headed by an EFEO architect Pascal Royère. With a blueprint, a numbering system, and all documents pertaining to the first restoration destroyed, Royère was facing what archaeologists referred to as the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. On top of that, a portion of the temple’s second and third tiers on the west side had collapsed in the years after the first project was abandoned. The process was made up of two steps. First, to stabilize the foundation, three big concrete rectangular boxes were poured on top of each other in pyramid style. Then, the stones were put back in place to hide the concrete-box structure. To lighten the weight of the pyramid, only the stones of the Buddha’s outer shell were installed. For the backing, sandstone was replaced by laterite. Workers built a slab held by stakes reaching into the ground to support the sculpture. A new drainage system was added to reduce rainwater damage. Once the structure was reinforced, the last task was to put those 300,000 stone blocks back where they belonged. Royère spent the first two years trying to figure out how the “field of stones” had been organized and the best way to deal with them, included using a computer program. Ultimately, 250 workers divided up the puzzle and tried to fit the pieces together the old-fashioned way. “This is an architectural tradition in which there is not a square centimeter of stone without decoration. One stone misplaced and the whole sculpted surface of the temple would be impossible to restore” said Royère. There is no mortar that fills the cracks, which means that each stone has its own place. You will not find two blocks that have the same dimensions. So workers carefully weighed and measured each stone block and relied on archive photos stored in the EFEO’s Paris office, drawings, and the memories of another EFEO architect Jacques Dumarçay and some 30 workers from the first project.
In April 2011, after 51 years, the renovation and restoration of Baphuon temple was concluded, with more than 10,000 stone blocks left over to litter the jungle floor. The renovated temple was formally reopened to the public with an inauguration ceremony on July 3 of that same year.
Credit: Christophe Loviny