Archaeologists from Australia’s University of Sydney and the Nan Tien Institute in New South Wales are on a conservation mission to clean and document the hundreds of marble stelae—sometimes referred to as the world’s largest book—at Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar.
Within the grounds of the Kuthodaw Pagoda complex at the foot of Mandalay Hill are 729 stupas, each containing a marble slab 5.02 feet tall, 3.51 feet wide, and 5.1 inches thick, inscribed on both sides with text from the Tipitaka, the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. Work began on the stones on 14 October 1860 and was completed on 4 May 1868. Despite being one of Mandalay’s most visited historical attractions and of significant Buddhist interest, however, the site has fallen into a state of partial disrepair.
A view of Kuthodaw Pagoda. From Wikipedia
Dr. Wendy Reade of the University of Sydney’s Eastern Art and Archaeology department said that Buddhist scholars from the University of Sydney and the Nan Tien Institute aimed to document the stelae photographically and then create a digital archive for scholars.
But first her team must painstakingly clean the marble slabs of the accumulated debris of years of neglect—graffiti, specks of whitewash, dirt, and bat urine. The archaeologists are using toothbrushes, water, and wooden toothpicks to remove years of accumulated grime from the text and cracks in the stone so that the script can be photographed and documented.
“When they whitewashed the pagodas [stupas] they did not cover the stones. So we’ve got spatters. That’s all been cleaned off now but there are still remnants in the text,” said Dr. Reade. “That’s why we are just working with a bit of water and these wooden picks, to carefully remove it without removing the ink or damaging the stone. The pagodas were unlocked, so that’s how people could get in and they’d have picnics and leave their rubbish; they’d write on the stones so there was a lot of damage from people. Now we’ve provided locks for each single pagoda.” (DVB)
One of the stone inscriptions, originally with gold letters and borders, at Kuthodaw. From Wikipedia
She added: “Some of the pagodas near the custodians are unlocked so that if people want to get in and have a close look at the stones they can, but hopefully without damaging them. It’s unfortunate that we have to lock people out but they have caused most of the damage.” (DVB)
Local conservationists are now set to take over the restoration project before becoming the site’s protective custodians to ensure that one of Burma’s most significant cultural landmarks will stand protected for many years to come.
The project was set up by Professor Mark Allon, director of the Buddhist Studies program at the University of Sydney, to preserve the stelae and study this historically significant recension (revision) of the canon, which constitutes the primary scripture of Theravada Buddhism. The scope of the initiative includes cleaning the inscriptions and producing a long-term strategy for their restoration and conservation; digitally photographing all the inscriptions; producing a freely available database of high-resolution images of the inscriptions for historians, textual scholars, and the general public; and transliterating the texts from the Myanmar script to Roman script for reproduction in electronic form.
Some of the 729 stupas at Kuthodaw Pagoda. From Wikipedia
The work has been undertaken in cooperation with Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture, and is funded by a 1.7 million yen (US$13,700) grant from Japan’s Chuo Academic Research Institute of Rissho Kosei-kai.
Kuthodaw Pagoda was built during the 1853–78 reign of King Mindon, the penultimate King of Burma. The gilded 187-foot stupa is modeled after Shwezigon Pagoda at Nyaung-U, near Bagan. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the site in its Memory of the World Register in 2013.