By PHATARAWADEE PHATARANAWIK
“Unauthorised painting of ancient buildings and national treasures violates the law. We will require complicated technology and conservation experts to remove the paint and return the monuments back to their original glory,” Saneh Mahaphol, director of the Department of Conservation Science at the Fine Arts Department told The Nation.
Over the past few years, a group of Buddhists called “Puen Ruam Thang” (“Companion”) took it upon themselves to “renovate” historical temples by covering daubing gold paint provided by the TOA Paint Company on their faded-exteriors.
However, this triggered a controversy last week after a report on historical temples being repainted raised an uproar on social media, prompting the Culture Ministry’s Fine Arts Department to issue a warning last Wednesday. Consent from the Fine Arts Department is required before any historical monuments or sites in Thailand can be refurbished.
“All renovation plans have to be approved by the department first to be legal,” Anandha Chuchoti, the department’s director-general said.
Anandha has assigned chief archaeologists to check historical sites across the Kingdom and stop any unauthorised renovation work.
The volunteers have, so far, painted Wat Photaram and Wat Lao Thong in Suphan Buri, Wat Samosorn in Chai Nat, Wat Lai in Lop Buri and Wat Paknam Joro in Chachoengsao.
However, this controversy doesn’t seem to have dampened the group’s enthusiasm.
Puen Ruam Thang, led by veteran singer Suthep Prayoonpitak, told media last week that it had “renovated” more than 200 temples – including those registered as monuments – across the Kingdom and plan to continue doing so.
“After seeing the state of these old temples, we decided to donate money as well as our time and energy to bring back their beauty. We believe our ‘merit making’ will help preserve Buddhism as well as promote temples as tourism destinations for younger generations. We hope to continue making merit,” he said, adding that the painting had been done with the permission of the abbots. He also said that the group would be happy to discuss the issue with the Fine Arts Department.
TOA has also posted on Facebook that it will cooperate with all related agencies to solve this problem. The company claims its new acrylic paint, “TOA Gold”, contains high-quality gold pigment and it is being promoted with the motto “The Gold Colour of Faith: Preserve Temples for the Community”.
Meanwhile, Saneh admitted that the Fine Arts Department only has 20 experts and limited funds for the conservation of thousands of national monuments across the Kingdom.
“Painting can be done in a few weeks, while the cleaning process can take a few months,” he lamented.
Last year, Saneh and his team successfully cleaned the 400-year-old Buddha statue, “Luang Por Dam”, at Ayutthaya’s Wat Korokoso. Using conservation technology, the team spent a week removing two-layers of paint to reveal the lacquer and gold leaf on the statue.
“Painting old monuments will add moisture and cause damage. If we leave the paint to dry for a long time, the process of removing it will become too complicated. Professional conservators will need specific techniques depending on the age of the delicate antiques to clean them properly. This work cannot be done by just anybody,” Saneh added.
Meanwhile, Asst Professor Pipat Krajaejun of Thammasat University’s Liberal Arts Faculty said this conflict reflects a misunderstanding on the correct way of preserving our historical heritage.
“In capitalism, gold represents wealth, while in Buddhism it symbolises faith, so the group believes painting temples in gold is a way of making merit.
“This has become a trend because temples are becoming tourist destinations. Sadly, we are spending too much time working on Buddhist monuments, instead of practising and deeply understanding the core of Buddhism,” Pipat said.
However, both Saneh and Pipat agreed that educating people on correct renovation methods could help solve this problem sustainably.