Wat’s the good word for India
By Devirupa Mitra - SIEM REAP ( CAMBODIA )
Published: 29th Jul 2012 09:16:16 AM
The narrative arc of redemption is a favourite trope in fiction. It can now also apply to Devendar Singh Sood, a 56-year-old official with the Archaeological Survey of India, posted here for last five years to lead India’s conservation efforts in the Angkor complex in Cambodia.
Now a team leader, Sood was one of the junior members of the ASI’s team that had been in charge of conservation of emblematic Angkor Wat, beginning from 1986. He was then only a 29-year-old, stationed in the years when the impoverished country was emerging from its Khmer Rouge era of isolation.
But, in the years after the project ended in 1993, ASI had come in for scathing criticism for their techniques used for conservation, mainly from French archaeologists who considered Angkor as part of their sphere of influence.
About two decades later, Sood is back again—the only one of the original ASI team—at another iconic monument in Angkor, Ta Phrom, the tree temple. He does not explain it in so many words, but it was also a mission to redeem ASI’s international reputation after its evisceration—an opportunity created after Prime Minister A B Vajpayee first offered India’s services in 2002.
Ask him about the criticism of ASI’s work at Angkor Wat, Sood pointed out that the working condition was very difficult, when no other country was willing to spare their experts to go to the war-ravaged nation. “It was not safe. There were live mines everywhere. We could only go out with our security personnel,” he remembers of his stint from 1986 to 1988.
“We could not get any proper material from anywhere. We did what we could with what was available at hand,” says Sood, who held the position of senior conservation assistant.
He remembered how after years of civil war, there were hardly any men available for the heavy work. “Our workers were mostly women from the nearby areas, ” Sood said.
After six years of painstaking work at Ta Phrom, Sood is now basking in whole-hearted approval of India’s conservation plans at Ta Phrom temple.
“We were given this temple deliberately,” Sood believes, noting that there had been a lot of skepticism even amongst the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) which supervises the preservation and restoration of the world heritage monument.
If it had become a failure, it would have been a highly visible one, as Ta Phrom is the second highest visited temple after Angkor Wat—visitors drawn to its iconic trees, winding and breaking through the ancient stones, imparting an eerie atmosphere to the ruins.
And ASI’s hard work has been paying rich dividends. There have been three unprecedented discoveries in Ta Phrom, which are held up by experts as showing that Angkor can still throw up surprises. In September 2010, two large headless stone statues of Buddha were found buried inside the complex.
But, one of the most exciting ones took place this year, when a gold head ornament, weighing about 100 greamm was dug out from the ground in February.
Now, Sood proudly brings out documents of the plenary meetings of the ICC-Angkor, pointing out to specific lines of appreciation from experts for ASI. “I am fully satisfied,” said Sood, who has only returned to India for less than a month in the last five years.
The redemption becomes even sweeter, with 14 countries from France to China and North Korea present in Angkor conservation efforts. Sood asserted that it was a “team effort” that led to the success, not just of ASI, but also of the locally trained officials.