Sunrise in Bagan, central Burma, on Jan. 25, 2013
Propped up on bamboo scaffolding, two artisans are gently applying a dissolving solution to an arched ceiling inside Ananda, a signature temple of the ancient Burmese city of Bagan. They are removing layers of a white coating that served as a rudimentary protective barrier against abrasive rain and insect infestations but also concealed pictorial details. To one of the workers, a pious Buddhist, removing this veneer to expose the original 12th century fresco is spiritually fulfilling. “Each time I uncover an image of Buddha on the wall, I feel delighted,” he says. The care given to restore Ananda to its original form is the exception, however. Hundreds of other monuments in the area have been subjected to what conservationists regard as historical treason.
Though Bagan is less famous than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Egypt’s Luxor or Peru’s Machu Picchu, its historical treasures are no less impressive. Some 3,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas stretch across a 26-square-mile plain. From the 9th century to the 13th century, the area was the capital of a kingdom that consolidated and controlled most of modern-day Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and served as a hub of Buddhist scholarship. To this day, Bagan remains a centerpiece of national pride and religious devotion, which explains in part why the country’s recent rulers have been keen to make their mark on it.