Thousand-year old engravings on an ancient stele in Ha Nam Province were severely damaged when a team of workmen were hired to hastily restore the structure so it could be officially recognized as a national treasure.
Attendees at a ceremony held last Friday at the Long Doi Son Pagoda were greatly dismayed to find it had been severely marred by amateur efforts to restore it.
Built in 1121 during the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), the Sung Thien Dien Linh stele was among the additional 37 artifacts recognized as the national treasures by the nation's Prime Minister late last year.
During a ceremony held in Duy Tien District on the morning of April 18, the stele was said to have been badly damaged.
“The national treasure has been destroyed,” said researcher Tran Trong Duong at the Hanoi-based Han Nom Institute.
According to Duong, local residents reported that a group of workers hired by the district culture department used a grindstone, sandpaper and iron brushes to ‘clean’ moss from the stele's surface.
“It was their ignorance that destroyed the treasure,” he said.
Many smaller stelae in the area have been damaged by similarly slapdash efforts.
Part of the flawed process involved removing a protective fence amid protests from the pagoda's management, VOV Online quoted monk Thich Thanh Vu at Long Doi Son Pagoda as saying.
Since the fence's removal, the monk has noted new graffiti carvings on its surface.
Long Doi Son Pagoda was built in 1054, under the reign of King Ly Thanh Tong, and was expanded in 1121 during the Ly Nhan Tong Dynasty.
It measures 2.88m in height and 1.40m in width and is famous for fine carvings of dragons, clouds and water, which were characteristic features of the art of Ly's reign.
According to Pham Van Anh, of the Literature Institute, King Ly Nhan Tong visited the site in 1118 and decided to build a large tower there called Sung Thien Dien Linh Bao Thap. After work on the tower finished, the king assigned two high-ranking mandarins, Nguyen Cong Bat and Ly Bao Khung, to carve a stele to place inside the tower.
Prior to the shoddy "restoration," the stele’s face featured more than 4,000 carved Chinese symbols describing the life of King Ly Nhan Tong, his propagation of Buddhism and the process of building the Sung Thien Dien Linh Tower.
The top features text by Ly Nhan Tong based on phi bach, a type of ancient calligraphy popular among the Ly’s noble class. The stele has proven a crucial resource for scholars of calligraphy.
“It is considered the best stele in Vietnamese history. It is a unique historical document from King Ly Nhan Tong, who was also described as the country’s first musical composer, an outstanding calligrapher and the founder of water puppet performance,” researcher Duong said.
Duong added that the Sung Thien Dien Linh also features important historical documents, including notes on the construction of Dien Huu, or Mot Cot (One Pillar) Pagoda (now in Hanoi) and the Dam Pagoda now in Bac Ninh Province.
It also contains notes on the production of warships during the Ly Dynasty, and battles against the northern invaders.
The back of the stele contains scripts featuring major political, historical and cultural events during the Ly Dynasty which were engraved under Ly Nhan Tong’s successors.
Restore the stele impossible
Associate Processor Tong Trung Tin expressed surprise at the methods used to “clean” the Sung Thien Dien Linh stele.
“The stele was badly damaged by the use of caustic cleaning objects. If you want to remove moss or preserve the stele, you must consult experts,” said Tin, a member of the Science Council that approved the recognition of Sung Thien Dien Linh as a national treasure.
Pham Van Anh at the Literature Institute said soft towels would have gotten the job done.
Architect Le Thanh Vinh, head of the Relics Preservation Institute, said the cleaning process should follow a careful and multi-step process..
“We must analyze the types of fungi on each stele so that we can use appropriate fungicide,” Vinh said.
Regarding a way to restore the stele, Vinh said: “It’s impossible to restore the stele as its surface was deeply marred.”