• The two intertwined trees growing in Wat Krachee chedi./Photo courtesy of UNESCO
  • Artisans at work on restoring the temple.

Two trees and a chedi

lifestyle October 17, 2018 01:00

By JEREMY WALDEN-SCHERTZ
SPECIAL TO THE NATION

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The work currently being undertaken on Ayutthaya's Wat Krachee is a model for cooperative conservation



Wat Krachee is a temple with a stake through its heart. Dating back to the middle Ayutthaya period, approximately 1550 AD, or 2093 BE by the Buddhist calendar, the temple’s chedi has two intertwined trees growing from its main section, pushing the spire precariously off kilter. With the mortar binding the bricks together almost entirely eroded, the structure has shifted and settled to the degree that the original shape of the base is not even sure. 

By any measure, the rescue and conservation of Wat Krachee seems an ambitious undertaking, navigating not only considerable structural complexities but also the social considerations of a project carried out in a community’s backyard. And yet it is also a test case. Having chosen Wat Krachee as a pilot project –admittedly a difficult one – Unesco Bangkok, the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Department of Fine Arts and other partners have brought together a multidisciplinary group of archaeologists, engineers, materials scientists, architects, craftspeople and artisans to develop a plan for Wat Krachee chedi that can address every possible dimension of value-based conservation issues.

This collaborative approach marks a fundamental shift in Thailand’s strategy to protect its cultural heritage. Jumphot Trassiri, a former FAD civil engineer, has watched that process evolve over the course of his career. 

“There’s been an enormous change in the working method. When I first joined the Fine Arts Department in 1978, it was a small group of people who went to a site and all the decisions were taken by just that little group,” Jumphot recalls. “We began to move towards doing more studies and finding evidence before coming up with a conservation plan. Now we’re getting to the point with this project where we have all of these different disciplines involved, which allows us to have a more comprehensive approach to the restoration work and, in my opinion, moves towards more international standards.”

Specialists from different fields also bring multiple perspectives to the philosophy of conservation for each project. Even within Ayutthaya National Park, there is no single standard that is applied to the conservation of sites, although the first considerations are the imminent danger to the structure as well its significance. The latter term, however, can be defined in many different ways, particularly with the participation of so many specialists, and evolving conservation philosophies have expanded beyond the traditional importance assigned to historical, architectural and archaeological definitions. 

Particularly at sites such as Wat Krachee, which is embedded in the Ayutthaya community, conservation is also invested with considerable cultural and religious significance.

“You have to consider the difficulty of doing conservation work on a site in the public,” says Chatchai Raksa, a sculpture and mural conservator with the FAD. 

“People who are visitors have the right to have their own interpretations of the aesthetic, historical value or archaeological meaning.”

In practice, that means taking the local community into account regarding conservation goals. “You need to consider the balance of both sides of the archaeological and historical accuracy and how this can convey the same meaning to the people who come and see it,” Chatchai adds. “As a professional doing conservation work, the goal is to make it look as it was originally, and to stabilise it. My seniors always taught me, the more you change, the less value you maintain; the less you change, the more value.”

That light-handed ethic has not always been the case, as testified by other, more intrusive restorations that covered over original designs and features with new, anachronistic structures. But in Wat Krachee’s case, however, the conservationists’ concern for minimal alterations has to be reconciled with an urgent priority – preventing the chedi from collapse. 

The two trees that sprout from the chedi’s side, just above the long-ago pillaged reliquary, are the most apparent structural threat. For Manop Kuanpoj, a veteran brick mason at the park, however, the trees are not a problem unique to Wat Krachee. One of the most iconic images symbolising Thailand, after all, is that of a Buddha head enveloped in the roots of a Bodhi tree, which comes from Wat Mahathat, another temple situated in Ayutthaya Historic Park. 

Caretakers and conservators have had plenty of experience dealing with unruly nature, which has led to differing opinions whether the trees should be removed from the chedi entirely. “To keep them together, you need to really cut back the tree to maintain a bonsai growth,” Manop says. “But the easier way would be to gradually cut it away and replace it with bricks.”

Even the decision whether to leave the trees raises questions about what conservation approach to choose. The original Ayutthaya period builders clearly did not envisage invasive flora as a feature of the structure and yet, just as at Wat Mahathat, nature has become an integral part of the temple and its historicity. Newer approaches to conservation seek to stabilise a structure, but also document changes over time, including previous deterioration and restoration efforts that sometimes did more harm than good.

Setting aside those considerations, Manop judges that the basic stabilisation project would be more difficult if the trees were allowed to remain, but there are other major structural issues to contend with in any event. “Right now there is no such thing as an assumption design to work on. The difference between other main sites and here is that it is difficult to find the evidence,” he explains. “For example, the trails of the masonry are all collapsed, but at other bigger sites the structure is such that, if I have to fix the bricks, I know where the next brick goes to follow the line. It’s not only about the loss of material, but the loss of the form as well.” In addition to the erosion of mortar, the amorphous structure is also partly attributable to the size of the original bricks, which are thinner than the four- or five-centimetre-thick bricks used in other monuments.

Even as the original form is still being assessed, the emergency repairs require immediate new applications of mortar to strengthen the chedi under the threat of the rains. At some monuments, restoration efforts have in the long-term done more harm than good, using new building materials such as cement that are stronger or have less porosity than the original, which actually accelerates its erosion. Even at Wat Krachee, there is evidence of previous restorations that have not been documented, requiring conservators to distinguish between the newer material and old.

The multi-disciplinary approach is being brought to bear on the problem. Among the experts working at the site is Dr Nuanlak Wadsantachat, a conservation specialist from Silapakorn University’s Faculty of Architecture, whose recent work on the catalysation of mortar involved taking samples from 12 monuments constructed during three different periods of Ayutthaya architecture. 

“I tried to find if the materials were different during each period, but what I found was that it was different even for each period and even within the same monument,” Dr Nuanlak says. 

“That’s why I came to the conclusion that we have to test, categorise and study the materials and construction techniques in every monument on a case-by-case basis.”

Different materials might have been available over the course of construction, which could have taken more than a year depending on the size and importance of the monument. Dr Nuanlak also speculates that aesthetics played a role: if a structural feature is clearly visible, that area was made with quality material, while the hidden bits got the leavings.

As the team of several dozen experts and artisans work on the chedi – mapping and researching, cleaning and reinforcing, formulating the eventual plan – all such considerations have to be taken into account and reconciled. In the Wat Krachee project, there is no single authoritative boss on site, requiring discussion and consensus on each aspect. Engineer Jumphot, reflecting on the project from his vantage point of 40 years of experience, sees only strengths from this approach. 

“It will definitely be slower, but that is not a negative thing as such. Not taking a multidisciplinary approach on the other hand, because of constraints like trying to quickly use up a budget, that’s how you end up with mistakes,” he muses. 

“A lot of times conservation only treats the symptoms, but not the disease, so it’s going to come back.’

And so the work goes on. Having helped to facilitate the coordination of the project and bring the disciplines together, Unesco Bangkok is handing its role over to the Fine Arts Department, in a conservation effort that should become a national model. The consultations will continue to determine the fate of the chedi, not to mention the two trees, while work continues on the foundations and more mysteries wait to be uncovered.

  • Jeremy Walden-Schertz is the Media Officer at UNESCO Bangkok