Hanoi halts unauthorized restoration of thousand year-old pagoda

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Workers work on renovating the Quang Nghiem Pagoda in Chuong My District, Hanoi

Authorities in Hanoi have suspended the unauthorized renovation of a pagoda that dates back to 1185, Tuoi Tre reported Wednesday.

In a written order issued to the Chuong My District authorities, the Hanoi People's Committee demanded strict punishment for all parties involved in the renovation of the Quang Nghiem Pagoda, also known as the Tram Gian Pagoda.

The city authorities issued their order after an inspection team from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism reported that the pagoda's monks and members of the surrounding community had initiated a 100-day-plus renovation without notifying the local authorities.

"They have destroyed the whole ancient architecture and replaced it with a totally new structure," the newspaper quoted one of the inspectors as saying on August 24.

When inspectors arrived, the parishioners had alder destroyed a hall, a tower and the front stairs of the pagoda. The report noted that entirely new structures stood in their places.

Ancient relief murals had been re-painted with industrial paints; statues and altars had been spackle with concrete.

Old bricks were replaced and the wooden columns had been painted over with thick coats of veneer, the report noted.

According to Tuoi Tre, Hanoi's preservation authorities have already dispatched official restoration teams to salvage what they can.

But there seems to be little hope.

In an earlier interview with the newspaper, Chief Inspector Vu Xuan Thanh described the suspension order as a temporary solution.

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"They have already completed their work; there is nothing left to be saved," he said.

The unauthorized restoration could merit criminal charges, Thanh acknowledged. But, he doubted such charges would be filed.

He described the crew's motives as "understandable."

The renovators told inspectors that the pagoda was near collapse. They felt compelled to repair the structure in advance of the upcoming hurricane season.

Tuoi Tre quoted an unnamed representative of the ministry's Department of Cultural Heritage as saying that Hanoi's authorities should take blame for neglecting the site for so many years.

In 2010, a plan to restore the pagoda was approved, but for "unknown reasons" Hanoi's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism never launched it, said Tran Dinh Thanh, deputy chief of the heritage department.

As a result, he noted, the locals had little choice but to take the restoration into their own hands.

He added that the department did not deny its responsibility in the recent debacle, but claimed that they lacked the resources to closely monitor the site.

In his report to Hanoi People's Committee on Tuesday, Vu Van Dong, vice chairman of Chuong My District People's Committee, acknowledged that district authorities and the site's managers had erred. 

He also noted, however, that the ministry and Hanoi's authorities were ultimately in charge of restoring and preserving a site like the Tram Gian Pagoda.

Nguyen Duc Hoa, vice director of Hanoi's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism refused to comment on the restoration fiasco, saying that he was busy, Tuoi Tre reported.

However, Tuoi Tre did cite Hoa as describing the damage as "not as terrible" as many media outlets had made it out to be.

"The pagoda was falling apart, so people need to renovate it to prevent it from collapsing," a newspaper quoted him as saying. "Perhaps the renovation did not follow restoration rules, but it helped preserve the site." 

Le Thanh Vinh, chief of the ministry's Institute for Relics Conservation, said: "Regardless of the purpose of the renovation or who initiated it, it needed to be stopped."

While the renovation probably stabilized the structure, it also totally erased its historical value, Vinh said.

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, former vice chairman of the National Assembly's Committee on Culture Education Youth and Children, meanwhile, said the renovation of the Tram Gian pagoda was "rare, shocking and should be totally condemned."

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