When all is said and done, there are really only two kinds of temple in my mind; a functional, employed temple and a ruined or derelict one. While the usable buildings hold a huge draw for me, aesthetically there is something compelling about a ruin. To me it is a thing of mystery. Somewhere imagination and romantic notions combine with the dilapidated walls to create a beautiful, an inspiring place that can lift you from the mundane into the realms of fantasy.
During the early part of the 20th century, the archaeological mode was to try to fully restore buildings to their former glory. This was particularly evident in places like Knossos in Crete, where Arthur Evans completely ‘restored’ whole sections of the ancient palace and sanctuary. The main problem, is that the site is from multiple eras and there is no ‘true’ rendition one could give. Evans effectively forced his interpretation and vision of Knossos on the world and everyone has to accept his rendition.
As a teenager, I was passionate about archaeology. My mother is Cypriot and I spent most of my summers tearing around ruins in Cyprus. I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in an excavation of a 5th century Christian basilica in Kourion. Seeing the ancient temple come to life as more columns were exposed from the sand was amazing, but even more so was the image in my head. Had the church been fully restored, it would not have allowed me use my imagination and would have been a much less vibrant place.
By heavily restoring or reconstructing a site, you are effectively calling the shots on what it looked like. You are not allowing others to make up their own minds. This is the case with a great many of the temples in Bagan, Myanmar. The whole plain is fabulous and wonder-filled, but the heavy handed restoration work done by the government of the time was more damaging in the long run, than the earthquake that triggered the renovations. Many buildings were stylized uniformly to fit into a romantic notion of how they once looked, so as to create a ‘golden era’ for political consolidation.
When you rebuild a building that has been ruined, you are changing the energy of a site. You fundamentally alter its essence and damage the remains in situ. Further investigative work of the ruins is rendered useless, as what you have built is not ancient; it is not a thing of the past and critical information can be lost by over-zealous reconstruction. Sometimes, partial reconstruction of a site that has been totally decimated, such as the great pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, is acceptable in order to show the glory of what once stood there. The caveat must be that the entire site cannot be recreated and what remains, remains as it was found.
Ruins are so much more enchanting than intact buildings. Take Ayutthaya in Thailand for example. There are more than 400 temple ruins in Ayutthaya, of which perhaps 10% have been restored and cleaned up. I had the very great privilege of exploring some of the lesser known and more neglected temples of the once great Thai capital with Ken May and Tricky Vandenberg of Ayutthaya Historical Research. What Ken and Tricky don’t know about the temples and history of the area isn’t worth knowing. In my time there, I was able to visit numerous temples buried deep in jungle undergrowth, reclaimed by snakes and other creatures. These are some of the most beautiful, spiritual and powerful places on the planet. My months in Ayutthaya with those men, among those great abandoned temples really helped shape my burgeoning obsession.
Aesthetically speaking, ruins have always appealed to us. The wonderful gardens of Italy are filled with ancient Roman or medieval ruins. They are purposely maintained in an unruly state and if they were simply buildings, they would not have any of the beautiful jagged edges and overgrown buttresses that are so pleasing to our eye. The Japanese ideal of Wabi Sabi extols the virtues of imperfection. The belief, which is closely tied to Zen Buddhism, is that nothing can be perfect and that tiny flaws can heighten the beauty of an object.
When governing bodies have actively taken the decision to retain some natural coverage of a temple site, the place can become an outstanding sight. The conservators of Ta Prohm in Cambodia made the choice of leaving it partially uncleared so that visitors could share some of the experience that the initial explorers had. The result is a simply delightful symphony of ancient Khmer architecture and nature’s seal of tall banyan and silk cotton trees. The combination of the buildings and the jungle in symbiosis with each other far outweighs what one would be without the other; it is more than the sum of its parts.
Angkor gives us other great temples and the temple of Baphuon is a good example of how a site can be reconstructed from the remaining stones. Once described as the greatest jigsaw on the planet. The temple is almost fully reconstructed from the stones that lay scattered around the site. This, in my mind, is fine, as you are not adding or taking away. You are merely putting the pieces back in the puzzle, much like the great staircase of Copan in Honduras. The same can be said for critical repairs to buildings in immediate danger of destruction. Borobudur in Indonesia has been repaired several times and luckily remains due to the good work done by previous generations of preservationists.
While reconstruction or preservation is one route, you could also argue for the Buddhist ideal of impermanence. When the Afghan statues of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in the early 2000s, a part of world history was obliterated. While this was a tragic loss, Buddha himself would not have seen it as so terrible. It is almost a perfect example of impermanence. Nothing can last forever and the fact that these statues were destroyed utterly, simply reiterates Buddha’s own teaching.
Weighing up all of the situations, it is really a matter of personal preference, but for me, I love to see a good ruin. What you like is up to you, but next time you see a dilapidated site you should ask yourself whether it would really benefit from restoration, or is it best left as it is; scarified (and to me beautified) by the ravages of time?