BANGKOK -- In the northwest Cambodian jungle near here, 12 Indian archeologists and 300 Khmer laborers are working with brushes, cleaners, fungicides and preservatives, slowly bringing back the ancient beauty of Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world.
The painstaking process is turning Angkor Wat's dull black sandstone almost back to its original light gray color. According to official Phnom Penh dispatches monitored here, the magnificent temple will be restored to its full splendor in six years.
Indian team leader K.P. Gupta says some temple walls will have to be dismantled stone by stone and entirely rebuilt.
The project is the first preservation work on the more than 800-year-old temple since French conservators were forced out by the widening war in Cambodia in the early 1970s. The work, planned and funded by India, began just six months ago on the elaborate chapels of the temple's grandest entrance -- the West Gate, where mythological battles between the gods and the demons are replayed in intricate bas-relief carvings.
Already there is controversy over the project.
In some places, the Indians are using cement to fill in holes where the original sandstone is missing and then recarving the delicate figures. But many western archeologists, including French specialists who worked at Angkor before the war, are aghast at the use of cement, arguing that it detracts from Angkor's ancient beauty. They believe the Indians should only preserve the temple against further destruction, not try to restore it by using modern construction materials.
Some foreign archeologists are also upset that India reportedly insisted that the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh give it exclusive rights to restore Angkor. Poland, along with private groups in Japan, France, Canada and the United States, also offered to help, but they were turned down or ignored. Analysts think Phnom Penh rewarded India because it is the only country outside of the Soviet bloc that recognizes the Heng Samrin regime.
But the Indian archeologists working here insist their role is natural. They point out that India's cultural influence dates back more than a thousand years, when Indian merchants and religious teachers first visited Cambodia, and they say the legends and myths depicted at Angkor are similar to those in Hindu temples in southern India.
Angkor Wat, one of the world's archeological treasures, was constructed during the rule of one in a long line of building-obsessed Khmer kings during the 12th century, when Cambodia included large parts of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. In the 15th century, the capital of Cambodia was moved and the temple was gradually taken over by the jungle, until it was rediscovered by the French in the 1860s.
The Indians say they found that the temple had suffered little new damage since the French left in the early '70s. Gupta says that nature has caused the worst damage to Angkor over the centuries. Algae, moss and other tiny plants have grown on the stones and disfigured them, while heavy rainfall has eroded the foundation and the floors and washed away some bas-reliefs. Mounds of bat droppings, which are high in acid content, have eaten away at the stone, and trees have grown in cracks, shifting the huge stone blocks.
Pich Keo, a Cambodian who worked with French conservator Bernard Groslier before foreigners were forced to leave Angkor, says people have also caused serious destruction.
When the Khmer Rouge were fighting to seize control of Angkor from the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in 1972, several shells hit the roof of West Gate, causing some damage. But the reports of fierce battles being fought in the temple after the French left appear to have been exaggerated.
The Khmer Rouge largely ignored the temple when they were in power from 1975 to 1979. Pich Keo says it was overgrown with the weeds and littered with garbage when he returned in 1979 after the Vietnamese invasion.
Vandalism and looting have also caused problems. Japanese visitors carved graffiti into the stone as early as 1692, and Vietnamese and Khmer visitors continue the practice today. Soldiers have also taken target practice at some of the Apsarases, the graceful female dancers carved onto the walls.
Just after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, figures and statues apparently from Angkor and the surrounding temples showed up in antiques shops in Vietnam and Thailand, but experts say most of them were fakes.
Angkor Wat continues to be Cambodia's national symbol today. It appears on everything from cigarette packages to money, and both the Heng Samrin regime and opposing resistance groups use it on their flags.
The Khmer Rouge, like the governments before, have three towers on their flag, which is how Angkor looks from the West Gate. But the Heng Samrin government's flag has five towers, even though two towers are hidden when the temple is approached from its major entrances. Some westerners joke that this flag has "political perspective."
Few foreigners have visited Angkor during the past 15 years. But beginning in March, one Australian and two Japanese travel companies began organizing almost weekly one-day trips to Angkor by way of Ho Chi Minh City -- formerly Saigon -- in Vietnam.
Local Siem Reap officials charge the tourists a fee in U.S. dollars, which they are told includes a charge for the soldiers who maintain security around Angkor Wat.