MORE THAN two years have passed since the floodwaters receded from the historical temples of Ayutthaya, a World Heritage Site, but the damage they left in their wake is taking longer, much longer, to disappear.
The capital of Siam for more than 400 years, much of the city's former grandeur was immersed in floodwater up to two metres deep for almost two months. But this once prosperous city is not about to concede defeat and thanks to the efforts of the Fine Arts Department and the people of Ayutthaya, the old ruins are still standing tall.
Chaiyanand Busayarat, director of the Ayutthaya Historical Park, points out that floods are nothing new. In fact, the former capital was flooded every year right from the time it was first settled under King U-thong or Ramathibodi I. The kingdom's first ruler deliberately chose the flood plains for the capital, reasoning that the soil would grow richer in nutrients as more sediment was deposited with each flood and that the floods would also prevent enemies from setting up campsites around the city.
"Of course, back then the period of flooding was shorter and the water levels not so high. In 2011, the ground took more than two months to dry out and because of the amount of water and the long period of time, all our historical ruins, artefacts and murals were affected. The bricks at the base of the old ruins absorbed too much water so some of them started to dissolve. Moreover, the weight of the water that was absorbed by the porous bricks affected the base structure of the ruins," says Chaiyanand.
"We have received help from the USA and Germany to restore and conserve some of the affected archaeological sites. The US is helping us restore the footing at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, which has required the services of structural engineers with specialist experience.
"Germany is helping us restore the stucco and brick structure at Wat Ratchaburana. We are lucky to have Dr Hans Leisen, professor for Conservation Science at Cologne University of Applied Sciences, assisting us in studying and restoring the brick and mortar used in the Ayutthaya era.
"My team has gained a lot of knowledge and hands-on experience from the American and German teams. That sharing of knowledge is valuable to all of us," Chaiyanand adds.
Art historian Dr Santi Leksukhum agrees that fixing the structural problems is important but stresses that the restoring of historical ruins requires the expertise of an art historian to ensure adherence to the artistic techniques and the stories behind the paintings and the stuccos.
Unlike in bygone days when both rain and river water was clean, the 2011 floods brought with them soluble salts from the soil along with mud and grease, all harmful to murals and other historical artefacts.
Kwanjit Lertsiri, a Paintings Conservator from Fine Arts Department's Conservation Science Division, admits that the restoration and conservation historical objects and murals has been a daunting task. The restoration team had to clean all the mud and grease then investigate the condition of the murals before starting a timely programme of restoration.
"It was an urgent mission because the salts in the floodwater from the soil led to blisters, flaking and scaling and the disintegration of the lime plaster."
"The best thing to come out of the flood is that we have found many unlisted historical artefacts in many old temples. At Wat Choeng Tha, for example, apart from stunning mural paintings, we found beautiful Thammas, a sermon seat and a Sangkhet, the long seat used for giving sermons. All of them were covered in dust, mud and feline excrement. When the big flood came, hundreds of cats and lots of mice used this Sala Kanparean, the sermon hall in the monastery, as their sanctuary. They were here for almost two months so you can imagine how nasty this place was at the end of it.
"Cleaning a house after a flood is hard but cleaning and restoring these precious artefacts is much more challenging. We cleared out the cats by asking for people to adopt them then cleaned up all their mess. Things started to get trickier when we had to lay our hands on the murals, thammas and sangkhet since we needed to research the artistic techniques used on each object as well as identify materials that matched the original object."
"Another thing the flood taught us was that we really needed a coherent plan for handling disasters that would impact on our valuable historical ruins and objects. Today, we have such a plan along with the practical procedures to follow. We have learned a lot from this disaster and we are also communicating much more with the community so they understand our work, value the historical artefacts, buildings and ruins. They are now much more willing to help us take care of these national treasures."
Kwanjit compares conserving and restoring murals to taking care of a terminally sick patient. Even without flooding, murals deteriorate each day from such natural factors as ground moisture and sunlight. Salts from the soil are transported by the moisture and accumulate in the walls. These salts increase in quantity and even if removed simply crystallise again in relation to variations in the relative humidity, thus accelerating decay.
Kwanjit underlines the need for the community to understand that the restored murals will require periodical treatment and as soon as deterioration is observed, the Fine Arts Department should be contacted without delay.
The practice of opening windows and doors of buildings that house the murals as well as flash photography are also harmful, as heat and light speed up the chemical reactions that cause deterioration.
"The public has to understand that restoring historical sites, artefacts or objects doesn't mean making them look brand new. The conservators try their best to maintain the current condition. They are not here to mould a new head to a headless Buddha statue. Their mission is to preserve those statues," Santi says.
"Kwanjit had done a great job in restoring murals, Thammas and Sangkhet at Wat Choeng Tha. She has tried her best to use the old artistic techniques. All shiny new materials have been dulled down to blend in with the original materials on the artefact. The best restoration is not to make it noticeable that the objects went through any restoration at all," he concludes.