Restoration may have disfigured Buddhist monastery, a world heritage site

Restoration may have disfigured Buddhist monastery, a world heritage site
PHOTO: Dawn/Asia News Network

TAXILA, Pakistan: The Buddhist monastery of Bhamala, which was declared a world cultural heritage site in 1980, may have been disfigured during restoration and preservation work.

According to sources, local stone hewers engaged by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa carved fresh figures at the Bhamala Complex at the 4th century world heritage site, some 25 kilometres from Taxila Museum.

Unesco had declared the monastery, which sits on a natural mound near the Khanpur Dam, a world cultural hertigate site in 1980, meaning it required protection.

Officials alleged the hewers imposed fake Buddha statues on the walls of the monastery with a mixture of stucco and Plaster of Paris to depict the Gandhara period. But their craftsmanship instead tampered with the centuries-old structure.

The Bhamala site has its own significance and importance in the Gandhara Civilisation. Its stupa, shaped like a cross, resembles the Aztec Pyramids. Such constructions have been found only in Kashmir. These kind of stupas usually contain Buddhist relics of spiritual significance.

The remarkable discovery of Maha Puri Nirvana (death of Buddha) statue, measuring 14 metres in length was made at Bhamala. That made it the largest statue depicting the death scene in the Gandhara Civilisation finds.

Inside sources say officials of the KP archaeological department initiated their multi-million rupees "restoration and preservation" project without taking approval from international organisations and relevant authorities.

Ordinary stone hewers were hired who crafted nine Buddha statues at the monastery's outer walls of the excavated chapels of the votive stupa in place of original stucco statues removed by treasure hunters and illegal excavations at the site.

Under the Unesco's charter on conservation and restoration of ancient sites, also known as World Heritage Convention 1972, of which Pakistan is a signatory, only mortar should be used to renovate ancient sites.

But the addition of the new Buddha heads has lost Bhamala authenticity. "Now, much less an expert, even a lay visitor to the site cannot put faith in what is truly original there," said one source.

Obviously, to the keen eye the nine fresh Buddhas created on the outer wall by men with little knowledge and expertise of the techniques and archaeology, do not conform to the style and shapes of the masters of Gandhara period.

Asim Meer, president of a culture-related non-government organisation, said any part of heritage is considered to be of outstanding universal value for its exceptional qualities and as such worthy of special protection.

He referred to Article 6(3) of the World Heritage Convention which forbids "... any deliberate measures that directly or indirectly damage the heritage".

Similarly, Article 4 of the convention says: "Each state party to this Convention recognises that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission of cultural and natural heritage to future generations and the cultural and natural heritage belongs primarily to that State."

And section 172 "invites the state parties to the convention to inform the world heritage committee of their intention to undertake or to authorise in an area protected under the convention major restorations or new constructions which may affect the outstanding universal value of the property."

When contacted, Dr Abdul Samad, Director Department of Archaeology, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told Dawn the Harris Matrix method of archaeology is utilised while the site is being excavated and preserved.

This method, he said, clearly illustrates the schematic history of an archaeological site, based on the archaeologist's interpretation of the structure seen in the excavations.

Questioned about the alleged tampering with the Bhamala Buddhas, the director said: "It is not tampering but consolidation."

In archaeology, he explained, the term consolidation applies to using certain chemicals or products to prevent further loss or damage to a structure or sculpture.

"Any intact sculpture, which is exposed after burial for centuries, is in a fragile condition. So to preserve them these Buddha statues were consolidated," he said.

However, one of his predecessors, Dr Fazal Dad Kakar, differed with him.

Dr Kakar, who is president of the Pakistan chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), said that no consolidation has been carried out. Instead nine Buddha statues were "re-carved", along with chapels, is sheer violation of World Heritage Convention.

Icomos' website describes the organisation as the only global NGO that works to conserve architectural and archaeological heritage through scientific techniques and strives to uphold the principles enshrined in the 1964 International Charter on the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, also known as the Venice Charter.

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