Restoring destroyed historic sites


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A FEW decades back, our understanding of conservation was confined to its literary meaning, i.e. an attempt to prolong the life of material remains of heritage that had decayed as a result of natural and man-made causes. Philosophers like Ruskin in the late 19th century advocated that the monuments of the past belonged both to those who had built them and those yet to be born. These ‘materialistic’ approaches to heritage conservation have now begun to change drastically. Such changes are complemented by an expanded understanding of ‘heritage’.

Identified as a non-renewable resource, it is argued that once destroyed, cultural heritage cannot be recovered. If one totally relies on this notion, any discussion on restoration of historic places will turn meaningless. Paradoxically, however, there have always been attempts to restore (or recreate, regenerate and so on.) lost heritage in diverse contexts. Among them are a few success stories. It is therefore a subject worth discussing, particularly at a time when we are seeing an unprecedented attack on the work of our own ancestors.

‘Restoration’ is considered to be a highly technical and controversial topic within the subject of conservation, at best applicable to limited occasions. Therefore, I propose to broaden the topic to discuss ‘interventions in destroyed historic sites’ while retaining restoration as the key theme.



I argue that restoration (or other types of intervention) of destroyed heritage sites is determined or directed by forces emerging at local/national (and even international) levels, drawing on its cultural meaning as influenced by socio-cultural, religious or political responses to a given situation. This is necessarily a bottom-up approach to conservation in contrast to what is being practiced by most professionals. The top-down decision-making we practiced was influenced by our colonial legacy, western concepts of conservation, and the definitions of heritage which we have studied and followed for many years.

Over the last three decades, the meaning of ‘heritage’ has altered radically. Conservation theories and practices have evolved in response to the new meanings of ‘heritage’ advanced by international initiatives such as ‘World Heritage’. Changing views of ‘heritage’ and ‘conservation’ should therefore form the very foundation of this discussion. In justification of my argument, several examples of destroyed heritage sites will be discussed, for instance the destruction and post-destruction stage actions around Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, the Buddha statues in Bamian, Afghanistan, and the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka. These examples reflect a multiplicity of causes both for their destruction as also post-destruction stage interventions and demonstrate the rationale behind national/local level actions as influenced by social, religious and political pressures in the respective cases.

Heritage has been the preserve of at least two (in addition to museums) distinct groups – archaeologists and conservators. Archaeologists study and interpret material remains of the past, while the conservators are more concerned with their values and protection. As in other disciplines, the development and ownership of these fields too was defined by our western colleagues whose formulations of heritage, its relevance to society and its protection were emulated in our part of the world.

Some archaeologists in the West argue that the dominant nations interpreted the past of poorer or less influential countries in their own ‘generalized, rationalized, scientized terms.’ They believe that the time has now come to ‘recognize the historical and social role, the political context of archaeology, and thus make archaeological studies relevant to the wider community.’



These attitudes have a profound effect on defining the heritage of different cultures. Similarly, conservators who are proud of having developed conservation into a discipline, with its own history and theory, recognise the need to change and look for new directions. They realise the need to change the concept of cultural heritage from ‘monuments and sites’ as appears in their bible, the Venice Charter, and instead favour an anthropological approach to ‘heritage’ which leads them ‘to consider it as a social ensemble of many different, complex and interdependent manifestations, reflecting the culture of a human community.’

These developments have to an extent compensated for the ignorance or non-recognition of the views on heritage that exist in other parts of the world. The so-called indigenous communities and traditional societies (such as ours in Asia) have their own meanings and purposes of heritage. Heritage is now viewed as any tangible or intangible remains of the past with cultural or other significance, including use value, to a given community. Together with this, the continuity between the past, present and future is recognised, thus placing some responsibility on the present generation to maintain its heritage. Cultural diversity among countries and within societies has also been recognised. These new definitions of heritage are more acceptable to a larger community and have the ability to accommodate many of the views that exist in many countries.



Attempts to adopt a uniform and a non-flexible set of conservation theories without recognising the broader meanings of heritage and cultural diversity have led to much confusion among the heritage professionals. Authenticity of materials, form and design of a heritage property that we endeavour to protect was the key consideration of western conservation philosophy. It was this test of authenticity that had to be passed in order for a site to be inscribed in the World Heritage List. Essentially a European concept, not found in any Asian cultures, it created confusion among professionals and led to a redefinition of the meaning of authenticity through the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994).

The diversity of cultures and their heritage has now become the guiding force behind the development of this document in which the ‘culture context’ of a given heritage receives prominence: ‘All judgements about values attributed to cultural properties, as well as the credibility of related information sources, may differ from culture to culture, and even within the same culture. It is thus not possible to base judgements of values and authenticity within fixed criteria. On the contrary, the respect due to all cultures requires that heritage properties must be considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong.’

Luxan (2000) rightly considers that, ‘The Nara document introduces a form of compensation for certain relativism of concepts by the universal requirement for explicit reference to the values that a cultural property represents in the eyes of the human community concerned.’

Today, conservation has gone beyond providing protection to the material remains of the past, decayed by natural causes and human actions, for the benefit of future generations. Retrieval or retention of cultural meaning is added to the concept. New Zealand’s ICOMOS charter recommends that, ‘The purpose of conservation is to care for places of cultural heritage value, their structures, materials and cultural meaning.’ Conservation of cultural meaning or significance, therefore, plays a major role in modern conservation theories and practices.



Like cultural diversity, many historians and theorists of conservation have either ignored or are unaware of the practices that existed in indigenous and traditional societies, some of which fell under the shadow of colonialism. As much as the past was part of the present, caring for the past was an integral part of the social process. The principles and practices behind the restoration of the stupas in Asia, the restoration of Shinto temples, the continued care for numerous living religious places in India and other parts of Asia, and the practices which exist among indigenous communities, have yet to receive their due attention from the professional community. Only then is greater understanding of conservation likely.

Within the broader context of conservation, a variety of actions (interventions) are being initiated to safeguard the materials and the cultural meanings of heritage buildings and sites. In conservation vocabulary, they are called preservation, consolidation, restoration, rehabilitation and reconstruction.



Restoration is one of the interventions that has been debated over the last 150 years, mainly on the basis of its English and French ‘meanings’ (and primarily in relation to European monuments), and not in its applicability to a wider variety of heritage properties. In particular, Asian professionals have done little to relate its meaning to the work they have undertaken. We had our local synonyms like patisankarana which was applicable to the care of monuments for thousands of years.

There is an entire chapter devoted to restoration in the 6th century Indian treatise on architecture, Mayamatha. ‘Those temples whose characteristics are still (perceptible) in their principal and secondary elements (are to be restored) with their own materials. If they are lacking in anything or have some similar type of flaw, the sage wishing to restore them must proceed in such a way that they regain their integrity and are pleasantly arranged (anew); this (is to be done) with the dimensions – height and width – which were theirs and with decoration consisting of corner, elongated and other areas, without anything being added (to what originally existed) and always in conformity with the initial appearance (of the building) and with the advice of the knowledgeable.’

Conceptually these principles echo those developed in the last 100 years. Incidentally, similar principles were applied to religious buildings built over the last 2500 years and which guarantee their existence even today. For instance, the stupas of Sri Lanka built from the 3rd century BC onwards, enshrining the relics of the Buddha, still survive as a result of the continuous restoration work carried out by the rulers. Such work reflects high levels of professionalism, and engagement and support of the religious communities and political leadership.

Although these practices began to disappear under colonial rule, restoration efforts by the people themselves continued in our countries. This can be illustrated through the work of ‘Restoration Societies’ in Sri Lanka in restoring ruined or neglected Buddhist stupas in the late 19th century as a way of regaining cultural meaning conducive to liturgical activities. The societies even related their activities to the struggle for independence.



Though the colonial government supported restoration, it tightened the process through legislation, labelling the public who restored religious buildings as ‘pious vandals’ in the early and mid-20th century. Nevertheless, the term ‘restoration’ was incorporated in legislation that was brought in to control destruction. As a result, principles and procedures for restoration were developed. The following principles were adopted by professionals 14 years before the birth of the Venice Charter: ‘Moreover, it has to be kept in mind that the proper restoration of an ancient monument is a work of highly specialised nature, requiring in the person who carries it out a thorough knowledge of evolution of art, architecture and culture which produced it and a feeling therefore, often acquired by a lifetime devoted to it. Modern technical and scientific developments have also to be called into aid if such restoration is to be carried out efficiently, without endangering the ancient fabric’ (Paranavitana 1947).

Internationally, the debate on restoration first began in England with the activities of the Camden Society (1834) formed by Cambridge University students who believed that the architectural fabric of the medieval period had been spoilt by additions and alterations and, as such, was antithetical to the appearance essential for the required ecclesiastical activities. They believed that the religious symbolism attached to the churches had been lost and, therefore, needed to be brought back. In order to recreate the lost medieval environment, they began to remove later additions and bring back the ‘original’ form. Vandalism was the term used to describe their actions by philosophers like Ruskin (1890s) who called restoration a ‘lie from the beginning to the end.’



Historians of conservation argue that the work of people like Ruskin showed insufficient regard for the cultural meaning of monuments that shaped modern conservation theories. The debate on restoration took a new urgency in Europe after World War II, particularly in cities destroyed by war. As a result, the Venice Charter of 1964, the most respected doctrine on modern conservation, devoted considerable space in its text to restoration. The aim of restoration was to bring back the particular historic phase of a monument and had little or no reference to regaining the lost cultural meaning.

Over the last two decades, regaining cultural meaning has also been added to restoration. The New Zealand Charter makes reference to regaining the meaning in its definition of restoration: ‘Restoration should be based on respect for existing material and on the logical interpretation of all available evidence, so that the place is consistent with its earlier form and meaning. It should only be carried out if the cultural heritage value of the place is recovered or revealed by the process.’



Although the purpose of restoration is to help regain the cultural significance, its application has been made technically difficult by stipulating further rules. One of them prohibits the use of new materials. To compensate for this, another intervention known as ‘reconstruction’ is advocated. Though also meant to regain cultural meaning, reconstruction is distinguished from restoration in permitting the introduction of additional materials where loss has occurred. ‘Reconstruction may be appropriate if it is essential to the function or understanding of a place, if sufficient physical and documentary evidence exists to minimise conjecture, and if surviving heritage values are preserved.’

Restoration is recognised as a sophisticated process of intervening in destroyed heritage sites and demanding greater understanding of the nature of the heritage, materials, form, function, etc. as well as its cultural significance by relying on authentic information. However, if no new materials are permitted in restoration, it will remain only as theory that can never be put into practice. It is a theory that will support the materialistic approach to restoration. This is an area where we need to further deliberate, taking existing practices into account as also the need to regain overall cultural meanings of a monument.

However, restoration is neither demanded nor relevant at all times. It is more applicable when the demand is to gain the overall form of a heritage property which reflects a significant cultural meaning, and when it is still in use for its original function. Other destroyed historic places need solutions based on their cultural or other significance and the demand from the local/national and even international communities.

Closely related to restoration or other types of intervention is the reference to ‘communities’. Community participation is seen as an essential component of conservation and management of cultural heritage. This has major implications for the post-destruction intervention stage. Community participation needs to be understood in the broadest possible manner, and not limited to local communities around any heritage site. The interest in and relevance of heritage sites to the communities may vary from local to national and even international level.



Today we can identify at least four types of warfare by human beings against heritage sites: economic, ethnic, religious and political. These actions raise a range of issues to society in general and to the professionals involved in conservation in particular.

Economic war is perhaps the worst since it impacts on the heritage of all countries. In this war, the rich offer money to the poor in exchange for heritage. The art market is booming with illicit imports. As a result, looting continues and monuments and sites are brutally destroyed. The second category covers ethnic wars which aim to destroy economic, social and religious targets in addition to human lives. This has not only affected many heritage sites but also converted living religious complexes into war zones. The spirituality that once suffused these places has disappeared as they have become highly secure tourist destinations. The Temple of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka falls into this category.

Religious wars are another phenomenon that has come into force in the form of religious fundamentalism to destroy heritage sites. The destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fanatics is a classic example. Similarly, the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamian through reinterpretation of the Islamic religion also falls into this category. Political wars too continue to destroy heritage. The destruction of heritage in Iraq, and the continued destruction of Israeli and Palestinian heritage places are cases is point.



We noted that the destruction of Bamian statues was motivated by religious extremism with the support of the then political leadership. The international community, led by Unesco, failed to stop the destruction. It was impossible to judge the level of support or opposition at local/national levels that existed for destruction in this almost totally Muslim country. Even had the local or national community wanted to protect them, the political leadership may not have allowed it. At the post-destruction stage, there were no local or national forces working towards any intervention.

Once the political leadership in Afghanistan changed, Unesco and other international organisations undertook the protection of the site and initiated work on the statues. However, the Unesco-led conference in Afghanistan concluded that the statues could not be restored since there was no demand or pressure from local or national levels to bring back the statues to their pristine condition based on their cultural significance. Though the cultural meaning of the statues has been lost to the Buddhist community, no restoration was demanded in this case. Since the international community had no prior experience of such complex situations, they played safe and limited their action to the protection of the ruined site with its material remains.

The prevention of such destruction through respect for cultural diversity within a county is the most relevant factor in this case. The society of all countries gets stratified into cultural layers evolving over the years. In addition to the other cultural layers, Afghanistan, at an earlier period of history, was a country with an enormous Buddhist influence. This is well reflected in the remains of Buddhist sites such as Bamian, though currently Islamic culture dominates the manifestations of the Buddhist cultural layer. This suggests the need to evolve strategies to protect all cultural layers of a given country as an urgent task for the international community.



The Babri Masjid, built in 1528 at the site believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama in Ayodhya, was destroyed by a Hindu mob enjoying political support. The Babri Masjid was not only a heritage site but also a holy place for Muslims. On the other hand, beliefs such as those held by Hindus for sacred places remain strong among communities in our part of the world.

We can think of several post-destruction stage interventions. If Muslims are allowed to rebuild the mosque, they would like to restore it to a pristine condition to regain its cultural meaning, and we can use the principles outlined above. In all likelihood such reconstruction would be acceptable to the professional community. Since recent excavations do not conclusively prove any trace of a recognisable previous temple built at the site, as claimed by Hindus, recreating an imaginary Hindu temple would be totally contrary to the principles of conservation or restoration discussed above. Such a recreation would restore neither the form nor the cultural meaning of the temple which purportedly existed. At best it could only serve as a memory to Lord Rama and have nothing to do with conservation.



This case illustrates the complexity of community participation in conservation. What if the local community was to care for the mosque? The level of violence spread after the demolition and its first anniversary did not reflect any form of unity or sympathy among Hindus and Muslims, let alone the local community. Given the complex religio-political atmosphere which exists in the country, local/national level pressure from Hindus is more powerful than from those who owned/used this particular heritage place. Recent indication that the present government will support legislation to construct the Ram temple in Ayodhya, raises a number of new questions. Is the past a prerogative of the powerful? Is it something that can be forcefully acquired by powerful community groups?

The need to protect all cultural layers of a given country applies in this case as well. India is a country with a multitude of cultural layers, and it should be the responsibility of all governments to ensure the protection of every layer. It is unfortunate that even in a country which has a massive programme of heritage protection covering monuments and sites belonging to all cultural layers, incidents of this nature can take place.

Since its arrival in the 4th century AD, the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha has been venerated as one of the holiest objects by the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and is seen as the most powerful religious (and also political before the colonial occupation) symbol of the country. A special building adjacent to the palace was constructed to house the relic and allow public worship. The last of these buildings dating to the 17th century housed the Tooth Relic. It served as a pilgrimage centre for not only the local population but also many Buddhists from other Asian countries. The temple complex was included in the World Heritage List in 1988.

The temple was bombed by the LTTE in 1998 causing immense damage to the complex. Its destruction was considered as a blow to Sinhalese Buddhist identity. Consequently, the restoration of the temple complex to its pristine condition and help regain its cultural meaning became a defining preoccupation for Sri Lankans as well as the international community.



The temple was destroyed 10 days prior to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of independence which was to be held in the premises. Dignitaries who participated in the celebrations elsewhere had no doubt that it should be restored. The chief guest, HRH Prince Charles, while speaking on behalf of all dignitaries, said: ‘All your foreign guests wish you well in the long and painstaking task of restoring the Temple to its original splendour.’

Unlike in the other cases, restoration here was supported by the public, the religious community and the political leadership. A Presidential Task Force, the most powerful political mechanism to deal with any emergency or important matter, was established to restore the temple under the chairmanship of the president. Though professionals were asked to prepare restoration plans, the final approval of each detail was subject to the two chief priests and the lay guardian in charge of the temple complex.

The technical restoration of the temple was not the most difficult issue; rather it was the way in which to maintain a balance between the demands of the religious leaders and conservation and restoration principles. Our task was to restore the temple complex to its pristine condition and regain its lost cultural meaning as a living heritage place. However, this building complex with its origins in the 17th century, had significantly changed over the last 400 years.

The authorities were convinced that the temple should be restored to the condition that obtained on the day (25 January 1998) before it was bombed. We (the professionals) argued that it was a restoration job, to be carried out using all the existing theories and practices supported by flexible principles as stipulated in the Nara Document on Authenticity. If this is not considered restoration, it is time for us to debate this further and develop better theories and tools to deal with such situations.



The above examples illustrate that destruction itself surfaces as a culture driven factor in which lack of respect for cultural diversity within a society is highlighted. They do not demonstrate any set pattern of possible interventions at the post-destruction stage. The levels of interventions were dominated by the local/national level pressures based on cultural determinants, and in some cases were not in the best interests of heritage. Community response and participation in both pre- and post-destruction stages also varied and did not reflect any set pattern. We can therefore conclude that the post-destruction stage interventions are varied and involve a bottom-up approach to decision making. Where restoration was demanded, new views and approaches to heritage and conservation helped to serve the desires of those who use heritage buildings.



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