Amidst a pile of debris at the Entri Sam Virak pagoda, the painted, smiling faces of the Buddha and a cohort of angels peer out. The mural is on a wall that was, until two weeks ago, part of a vihear, or monastic temple, cherished by historians and visitors, in part, for its unusual paintings.

Unlike many monastic temples in Cambodia, this one built in the province of Kampong Thom survived the civil war and the Khmer Rouge’s atheistic destruction, only to be demolished on the orders of its abbot, Seang Sok, who did not ask for permission or inform local authorities.

About 20m from the debris, a group of workers are fixing into place a billboard showing the blueprints for a new 38m-tall temple, as a layperson nearby calls for donations for the new religious sanctuary.

Built in 1948, Entri Sam Virak’s central structure was certainly not old by Cambodian standards, but historians recognised it for being representative of the architectural period under French protection leading up to the Sangkum era (early independence, 1953-1970), and for its murals documenting the political climate of the period. In 2007, it was declared a national heritage site by Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

Temple cherished for its unusual ancient paintings destroyed

Residential quarters for monks behind the remnants of the Entri Sam Virak pagoda.

The news of its demolition has gone viral on Facebook and sparked an outpouring of criticism. Among the first to call attention to it was Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who commented on his Facebook account that the chief monk ordered the destruction without any regret (though the abbot has since issued a formal letter of apology). Many other users reprimanded Sok for not considering its value, while others blamed the authorities for their lack of oversight.

When the news reached Michel Tranet, an expert in Cambodian history and culture, as well as the former Deputy Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, he says he broke down in tears.

It was terrible news, Tranet says. “All my life, there is nothing I love more than Cambodian culture, and now an important part of it is gone forever.”

Locals, too, wept. Noun Nang, 73, a Kampong Thom native, says he had visited the temple since he was a child.

“I was born into a Buddhist family, and we usually came to this pagoda to pray and offer food to the monks. The temple gave me a perfect, peaceful atmosphere for meditation,” he says.

For Sam Bopha, a 54-year-old businesswoman, the temple was more than just culturally and historically important. It was the last place where she saw her father before he was killed by Khmer Rouge cadres in 1977.

“My father was arrested and sent to that pagoda, which was used as a prison at that time,” she says. “I secretly followed him, and saw him being pushed by Pol Pot’s soldiers into the temple. The next day, he was no longer there.”

Painted Politics

Tranet remembers visiting the temple as a young man and falling in love with its architecture and paintings.

“Apart from ancient temples, I love studying monastic temples because they describe Buddhism, a big part of Cambodian culture, in different stages of history,” he says.

According to him, the structure was built to represent Khmer religion with influence from French architecture, an aspect found especially in monastic temples constructed between the 1940s and 1960s.

One of the paintings, completed in the early 1960s, depicted an array of historical figures receiving blessings from Buddha. Among them, the young King Norodom Sihanouk, alongside People’s Republic of China founder Mao Tse Toung, former Indonesian President Sukarno, former Burmese Prime Minster U Nu, former leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and former US President John F. Kennedy.

Sombo Manara, another prominent Cambodian historian, sees the murals as being representative of Cambodia’s foreign affairs in the 1950s. Although he does not know who painted or commissioned them, to him it is clear that that person was faithful to King Sihanouk’s policies.

“The king tried to keep the country neutral and peaceful by keeping equal ties with all foreign powers,” he says. “There are almost all forms of ideology in the painting. Even the communists and the liberals are seen together, receiving blessing from Buddha.”

Danielle and Dominique Guret, an anthropologist couple who have documented Cambodia’s monastic temples, say that the overall architecture is nothing original but they highlight the paintings, both religious and historical, as standing apart.

The mural, they say, is not just a historical loss but also “a loss of the sentimental attachment on the part of the loyalists towards Sihanouk”, they write in an e-mail.

Temple cherished for its unusual ancient paintings destroyed

Thorn says the reason for the demolition was the vihear’s fragility.

No Easy Fix

When we approached the pagoda last week, Abbot Sok declined to answer questions and instructed the pagoda’s monks to prevent reporters from speaking with the laypeople.

But according to Chan Thorn, 56, a builder who oversaw repairs to the temple before it was torn down, the abbot had a valid reason to demolish the structure: its fragility.

Thorn says that at first Abbot Sok only wanted to fix the roof. While doing so, however, workers discovered cracks in the walls and columns, and, afraid that the temple could collapse, the abbot decided to knock it down.

There were hundreds of bats living in the temple, Thorn says. They came in through the holes in the roof, and their guano weakened the structure of the temple.

Thorn says that although the structure had been a heritage site since 2007, there had not been an official ceremony or documents from the Culture and Fine Arts Ministry, and the abbot and local people did not realise its status until it was demolished and the news went viral.

He adds that Abbot Sok should not be blamed since the demolition was to prevent a collapse.

His account, however, differs from that of the provincial Culture Department. Sorphorn, the Kampong Thom deputy Culture Department head, claims that inspections had been made by his working group suggesting that the structure of the temple, with the exception of the roof, was still pretty sturdy. However, he admits officials could not inspect the structure often because they were busy with other tasks.

Last Wednesday, Abbot Sok posted a letter of apology on Facebook, asking for the public’s understanding.

“After being informed that the monastic temple was a listed national heritage [site] … I was deeply regretful and gravely upset, for I should not have been so careless and ignored the value of the national heritage,” he wrote.

Abbot Sok also blamed himself for not waiting for advice from the ministry. He asked the people and authorities to let bygones be bygones and promised to make up for what happened by putting his efforts towards preserving existing national heritage.

According to provincial culture official Sorphorn, the incident at Entri Sam Virak should serve as a lesson in protecting the country’s inventory of heritage. In Kampong Thom alone, there are 440 such sites.

However, the Gurets express concern that many significant religious buildings fall under the radar. Many other sanctuaries have disappeared without being declared national heritage structures even though they had heritage value, they write.

The historian Tranet suggests the ministry set up clear regulations and penalties for such destruction. Meanwhile, he calls for legal action against the abbot.

“If our ancestors had been easy on destroying what their ancestors built like that, we would not have Angkor Wat right now,” Tranet says. – The Phnom Penh Post/Asia News Network