FEATURE: South Korea’s contribution to preservation of Laos’ cultural heritage

CHAMPASSAK, Laos (Vientiane Times/ANN) - Laos and South Korea’s bilateral cooperation in the field of cultural heritage preservation started over five years ago and is steadily blossoming. 

This achievement not only strengthens the generous friendship and mutual understanding between the two peoples, but also safeguards the common global heritage as well as enhancing tourism promotion at the international level.

Korea is among the potential partners to support the preservation of Laos’ tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

During past years Korean Official Development Assistance (ODA) has provided an important contribution through various platforms including human resources capacity building, networking, technical training, workshops and the provision of heavy equipment for monumental restoration.

Under this framework, the Project for Preservation and Restoration of the Hong Nang Sida Hall within the Vat Phou World Heritage Site in Champassak province is considered as a pilot programme implemented by the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration and Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, which has fulfilled its first phase with great success.

Vat Phou Champassak was reputed as the cradle of the Holy Land inspired by Hindu cosmology, prevailing from the 5th to 12th centuries AD. Many vestiges of the ancient settlement including city walls, and monuments made of brick and sandstone, formed a large landscape spread over nearly 400 sq km, occupying both banks of the Mekong River, centered on a sacred hill known since ancient times as Lingaparvata.

Since its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001, there has been an urgent need to safeguard most of these ancient monuments. Under the patronage of UNESCO the international community has provided valuable technical assistance, especially from France, India, Italy, Japan and the Republic of Korea. 

The Project for Conservation and Restoration of Hong Nang Sida was initiated in 2013, supported by the Government of the Republic of Korea. During the pre-restoration feasibility studies, archaeologists unearthed many important discoveries which impressed all of us.

They included many key architectural and decorative elements as well as worship relics, some of which represented a masterpiece of the Vat Phou Site Museum Collection. The newly discovered miniature snanadroni measures 63 mm in height and 76 mm in width on each side, with a spout exceeding 26 mm. It was cast in a single piece of bronze and has an outer gold-plated surface.

There are five small holes with a diameter of 3.5mm on the top, but unfortunately the upper part was missing. The snanadroni (ablution basin) is a sanskrit term to specify a combination of shivalinga erected on a pedestal. 

The shivalinga is a non-anthropomorphic form of the supreme Hindu god representing a cosmic pillar erected on the yoni of the goddess Shakti, the consort of Shiva. It forms a pedestal and ablution basin with a long spout on one side, always orientated to the north, for the flow of lustral water used in the ritual washing of the linga, which is destined to bring rain and fertility to the land.

The two symbols together represent the eternal process of creation and regeneration, the union of the male and female principles, and the totality of all existence. Shiva is the supreme god among Brahma and Vishnu which formed the Hindu trimurti.

Despite its missing top part – the shivalinga, which is usually erected on the top of the ablution platform - the circular central hole surrounded by four smaller holes is evidence of the presence of panchalinga or the five linga, which could have been made of precious objects and mounted separately.

According to Hinduism, the panchalinga symbolises the quintuple prime elements of nature by each shivalinga – earth, water, air, space and fire. The stylistic design of this artefact may be dated back to the pre-Angkorian period or over one thousand years ago. It is relatively rare of its kind, in particular the bronze iconography with gold gilded during such an early period.

The Project for Conservation and Restoration of the Hong Nang Sida Hall is located about 1 kilometre on the southern tip of the Vat Phou temple complex, and stretches along the ancient royal road leading to Angkor Vat. 

The upper structure of the Nang Sida monument has completely collapsed and a colossal mound of stone blocks has been buried for a long period of time, although its foundation seems to be fairly stable and holistic architectural elements supposedly remain under the ruins.

The first phase of the project spent about US$7 million, on technical feasibility studies, trainings of personnel, provision of necessary facilities and equipment, creation of a stone hospital as well as partial anastilosis of the eastern part of the monument - Terrace and Mandapa. The central part or Cella is expected to be accomplished during the next phases.

The first phase of the Project for Conservation and Restoration of Nang Sida Hall (2013-18) is a pilot project which has contributed a very valuable output not only for monumental conservation but was also involved in supporting international coordination for Vat Phou, as well as knowledge transfer to Lao staff for their long term professional practice. 

Under this framework, three Lao students received master’s degrees from Korean universities, and six other people underwent 3-5 months training programmes on cultural heritage related skills in Korea.

In association with the above mentioned programme, Korea funded projects via different UNESCO affiliated offices such as the Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific, Korean National Commission for UNESCO, and the UNESCO regional office in Bangkok, which have effectively achieved significant outputs. 

Some of the examples are the safeguarding of ICH in Vientiane and Luang Prabang and more recently the successful inscription of the Megalithic Jar Sites in Xieng Khuang province on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Lao people acknowledge the generous and valuable support from the people of Korea and highly esteem the great success of bilateral cultural cooperation between the two countries.

We do hope to maintain continuous support and step forward to the future stages of preserving our common heritage. Appreciation through the wider tourism promotion to connect other world heritage destinations in the region and beyond will bring benefits for our peoples.