Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Maintaining and conserving sacred monuments is the highest priority, along with preserving the secular buildings as well, but funding is always needed.For Wat Xieng Thong, a contribution of some US$330,000 came from the United States Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation in Vientiane, the current capital, and made possible vital repairs during an eight-month project between 2012 and 2013. At Wat Pak Khan repairs and restoration were funded by The Badur Foundation and carried out by the The Buddhist Heritage Project under the auspices of the The Lao Buddhist Fellowship together with the Department of World Heritage.
Wat Xieng Thong, which dates back to 1559, needed immediate attention and the project involved the conservation of architectural surfaces of the main sim, the assembly hall, and its roof and the preservation of supporting structures within the complex. The temple, the finest example of religious architecture in Laos, had to have many roof tiles replaced and its intricate gold stencils restored. The sim has characteristic successive cascading and telescoping roofs that sweep down almost to the ground and completely dominate the entire structure, like a huge, elaborate crown, with a golden decoration featuring 17 parasols, the dok so faa, in the middle. If more than 12 are Luang Prabang Temple Renovation present, this denotes a temple built by a king. The dok so faa symbolises Mount Meru, abode of the gods, the axis mundi, centre of the world, surrounded by the seven mythical chain of mountains of Hindu mythology. In Laos, religion is syncretic, incorporating Hindu, Buddhist and animistic references. Cho faa, finials in the form of nagas, the serpent of Hindu mythology, now freshly painted in turquoise, rear up at the triangular tip of each roof, as if to raise them up again. Although colours are now, somewhat controversially, brighter than before, the repairs were sympathetic to the original designs.
The tiles all had to be carefully numbered when removed to ensure that they would each be put back in their original places. Damaged pieces were replaced, ensuring matching colours and materials, and attached using traditional techniques that had been employed when the temple was built. The edging of the roof is covered with golden motifs, foliage and flowers, while the inner, underneath section is deep red and covered with more gold dharma wheels which were restored. Golden, carved eave brackets support the lowest roof which is edged with delicate golden pointed leaf-like forms.
The temple was built by King Setthathirat, who ruled from 1548- 1571. It has always served as the traditional coronation site for kings as well as the focus of several annual festivals honouring the Buddha and various folk spirits. King Setthathirat created it in memory of the legendary King Chanthaphanith, whose stories are depicted in golden stencilled imagery inside the main sim. Traditionally wats were grouped around royal residences, built with royal patronage or by affluent individuals, as funding the building of a wat gains merit in Buddhism. The king employed master craftsmen and architects, specialists in ivory, wood, gold or silver, carving and stencilling, and monks themselves worked as carpenters, sculptors and painters. The upkeep of most wats, and that of the monks living within them, is entirely dependent upon donations from the community. But supporting the monastery and giving alms to the monks also brings merit to the donors. Always well maintained, Wat Xieng Thong, much admired and described in detail by French scholars during the colonial regime, survived the ravages of wars and depredation and inspired UNESCO to make it – and eventually the entire city of Luang Prabang – into a World Heritage Site.
Situated at the tip of the promontory of Luang Prabang, where the Nam Khan river flows into the Mekong, the site is, so legend relates, where a golden boundary stone was laid to demarcate the territory of the city by two hermits who were brothers. They became its tutelary spirits. Wat Xieng Thong – Xieng meaning city and Thong meaning bodhi tree (sometimes also described as a copper tree) was known as Temple of the Golden City and was considered a gateway to Luang Prabang. Set in a peaceful compound, among ancient banyan trees, palms, frangipani and blazing scarlet and purple bougainvillea, this graceful, classical style wat, with all its shrines and chapels, radiates serenity and is especially atmospheric in the late afternoon, as the sun drops behind the wat, when its gleaming gables and golden stencils shimmer beneath the cascading roof.
Cleaning these first was necessary, an exacting task, with careful redrawing of the images which had faded badly was carried out by master craftsmen using lacquer and paper thin wafers of gold leaf as well as gold paint. The external walls of the sim have a sumptuous jewel box appearance, a riot of ornate gold stencils of deities, mythological animals, floral motifs and lotus flowers. At the top of the outer walls, flying kinaree, mythical part-bird part-human divinities, interspersed with small and large dharma wheels, fill almost every space in harmonious patterns. Deities are surrounded by images of the Buddha in meditation and small flying apsaras, female celestial dancers, and divinities. In the centre, apsaras, in gold costumes and holding lotus flowers stand gracefully on mythological lions whose backs are covered with decorated textiles with their tails curling upwards to end in lotus flowers. At the lowest level are smaller images of local people walking in a row, some touchingly fragile and bent with age, holding walking sticks, rather dwarfed by the celestial imagery above them as they approach the Buddha to give offerings and prayers. Thus, the wall of the sim presents the worshipper with notions of the mundane and the transcendent, the human level and the higher realms, and the three worlds of Buddhist cosmology, the traiphum.
Doorways on either side of the back of the sim, the western end, also needed restoration of the golden images, which include Rama, hero of the Ramayana, known in Laos as the Phra Lak Phra Lam. The western end of the sim has a shimmering inlaid glass mosaic created in the 1960s by a local artist, Thao Sing Kèo, of the tree, the Thong, the bodhi tree, after which the temple was named, with a red background and details in silver, turquoise, blue, purple and green. The Thong symbolised the initial boundary pillar planted by the two holy hermits and, according to the Lao legend The Myth of Khun Burom resembled a tree from the celestial city of Indra with innumerable flowers that blossomed eternally. The tree can also be interpreted as a Tree of Life, resonant with notions of cosmic unity, as the roots reach down into the ground and the branches stretch upwards to heaven. The tree-of-life motif recurs throughout Southeast Asia and is an archetypal cosmological symbol of the axis mundi, the link between the heavens, the earth and the underworld.
Surrounding the sim, the rest of the compound contains four other chapels and several stupas, as well as a drum chapel and monks’ quarters, kutis. Some of the kutis were also restored, with repairs carried out to the walls, some of which had to be replaced, and roofs, and included the installation of electricity. Restoration was done to one of the historic octagonal stupas, involving special cleaning of the glass inlays and replacement of those which were too badly damaged to be rescued.
Across the main road from Wat Xieng Thong, on the tip of the peninsula, lies a smaller temple, less visited and much quieter, Wat Pak Khan. Being less significant than its celebrated neighbour, it had fallen into a state of dilapidation until renovation started this year. Its name derives from its location at the tributary of the Nam Khan and Mekong. Built by Phagna Chanthep under King Inta Som, who ruled from 1727-76, it was reconstructed in the early 20th century during the French protectorate. Now this peaceful wat has been meticulously restored and embellished under the auspices of the Department of World Heritage and The Lao Buddhist Fellowship, with works carried out by The Buddhist Heritage Project, funded by The Badur Foundation. The Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organisation was established in 1976 and aims to manage, develop and educate Buddhists so that its members can observe and respect the laws of the country. With branches in every province of Laos, it currently incorporates 8,796 monks, 13,376 novices, 450 nuns and 563 sanghali in 4,937 temples around the country. Supporting the conservation of the temples reinforces its raison d’etre. As in many other Buddhist countries, education in Laos was conducted in monasteries, where monks were trained and educated for years and then taught and advised the members of the Sangha, the holy community, as well as lay people. A wat therefore has several functions. It is a site for religious worship, a community centre, a place of education and of healing, and all young Lao men spend at least a few months of their lives as novice monks in a wat.
Wat Pak Khan, dating from approximately 1773, is noteworthy because of its age and location. In particular, the attractively carved door panels and window shutters have been carefully renovated and in their pristine state are a perfect example of the gentle, understated sacred art of Luang Prabang.
The sim has a two-tiered tiled roof, independent of each other, and newly painted white walls and four windows freshly painted red on either side with simply carved wooden eave brackets in the form of nagas. The eastern entrance has a main door with two smaller doors on either side. Of note are the two elegantly depicted images of Rama in gold on the central panels of the main doorway. Each has a serene smile and radiant expression, with a tall pointed crown and a halo and two sets of arms, revealing his divine status, with an elaborate close fitting costume, poised like a slender dancer with long legs in graceful movements and delicate hand movements, above an image of Hanuman, the monkey general, who is on bended knee, with similarly dancerly grace. They are surrounded by gilded lotus flowers and curling floral motifs in curvaceous abundance that is carefully contained within the parameters of the rectangular door. On the window shutters the figures of divinities have hands joined in prayer carved in high relief, an unusual feature, and faces that radiate sweetness and tranquillity.
The cleaning and restoration of these doorways and windows have enhanced the carvings to show the sensitivity and refinement that artists brought to their sacred imagery. Never monumental or overwhelming, the size and proportion of Lao temples have a human scale which establishes an immediacy of contact between the pilgrim and the sacred space, creating an intimacy where the worshipper is not overawed. This creates an atmosphere of calm and acceptance that are the essential spirit of Buddhism.
Support for these two projects has been invaluable as Laos is still a cashstrapped country with little industry apart from tourism. The US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has, since its creation by the US Congress in 2001, generously provided financial aid for a total of 13 projects in Laos over the past 11 years, in addition to more than 700 cultural preservation projects in more than 100 countries, representing a contribution of nearly US$33 million towards the preservation of heritage worldwide. These have included support for The Traditional Arts and Enthnology Centre in Luang Prabang, a museum dedicated to ethnic minorities, in order to document the cultural practices of the Katu ethnic minority group of southern Laos and to promote pride within Katu communities of their artistic legacy. The Fund also supported conservation and restoration of artefacts at Wat Visoun in Luang Prabang, which has a remarkable collection of Buddha statues, as well as funding for the preservation of fragile palm leaf manuscripts at the National Library in Vientiane.
These projects funded by the Badur Foundation and the US Ambassadors Fund nurture and enrich the city for the pride of its citizens as well as promoting it internationally. They highlight it as a place of oustanding artistic and historic interest, a centre of religious worship and a living museum of incomparable cultural heritage to be preserved for future generations.
Credit: Denise Heywood, Asian Art