When a strong earthquake ripped through this ancient Burmese capital in July 1975, it created a wide crack up the middle of the 12th-century Gawdawpalin Temple and toppled the bell-shaped shrine called a Stupa that crowns it.

Situated at the earthquake's epicenter, the sacred Buddhist structure suffered the worst damage of the nearly 2,000 temples, pagodas, monasteries and other religious buildings that were ravaged by the quake.

Today it is the last still closed for repairs among 40 major monuments selected for restoration in an extraordinary program financed largely by donations from the Buddhist faithful.

According to U Bo Kay, the head of Pagan's archeological department and the man in charge of the restoration program, the work on the Gawdawpalin Temple should be finished this year. Then, he said, a government committee will choose about 50 other important monuments to be repaired, this time with some additional help from abroad.

Not only are the temples of Pagan still an important part of Buddhist life in Burma, they also are a focal point for the country's slowly developing but still-fledgling tourist industry.

Last year about 20,000 foreigners visited Burma on one-week tourist visas--the maximum stay permitted by a government that scarcely encourages tourism. Of the 20,000 visitors, the biggest single national group, about 5,000, came from France, where exotic vacations are considered something of a status symbol.

For many of Burma's visitors, the main attraction is this 16-square-mile tract about 300 miles north of Rangoon along the east bank of the Irrawaddy River.

Touring Pagan can be rigorous--the usual way is by jeep or horse-drawn carriage over miles of bumpy, dust-choked roads, and visitors must go barefoot when entering any sacred site. But most seem to come away enthralled by what British writer Sir James Scott described in 1882 as "in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world."

Often compared with the Cambodian ruins at Angkor Wat, Pagan now looks like the more durable of the two. Years of warfare, looting and neglect are reported to have taken a heavy toll on the Cambodian archeological treasures, and the encroaching jungle now is said to be steadily reducing those monuments to rubble.

Built mostly between the 11th and 13th centuries, Pagan came to symbolize a glorious era of Burmese Buddhism beginning with the reign of King Anawrahta. Over the next two centuries, until the Mongol forces of Kublai Khan overran Pagan in 1287, about 13,000 Buddhist structures were built on the site. The elements and the ravages of time claimed all but 2,217 of the original buildings, and the 1975 earthquake is estimated to have damaged 90 percent of those remaining.

According to Bo Kay, however, the damage was "much exaggerated" by some foreign newspapers immediately after the quake.

"They said Pagan was destroyed by the earthquake," the archeologist complained. "The earthquake damaged a lot of big temples, but it didn't destroy them," he added. "Pagan cannot be destroyed by a single earthquake."

Today much of the damage is scarcely noticeable. Bo Kay's workers have used cement to replace or restore quake-damaged stupas and masonry, making the new work blend in fairly well with the original. However, large parts of the frescoes that decorated the interior walls and ceilings of some temples have been irretrievably lost.

Bo Kay said about 4 million kyats ($558,000) has been donated by Burmese citizens "as a religious deed" to restore the monuments. He said the government has budgeted $140,000 for the work.

"We have not received very much help from abroad," Bo Kay said, largely because the socialist government declined most aid offers in accordance with its self-reliant policies. Nevertheless, some assistance was accepted from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizatinon (UNESCO) and this year more is expected.

Bo Kay said that after the Gawdawpalin Temple is finished, experts will select about 10 or 20 monuments a year for restoration until the next group of 50 is completed.

It is a task that Bo Kay finds personally difficult. If it were up to him, he said, he would have preferred to leave the monuments as they were after the earthquake.

"As an archeologist, I don't like to reconstruct," he said. "But the local people demanded it." He noted that many of the temples were still used for religious ceremonies.

And as a result of the work, visitors can still climb to the upper terraces of buildings such as the 12th-century Thatbyinnyu Temple and the 11th-century Shwesandaw Pagoda and survey one of the world's great archeological wonders.

From such vantage points, the dun-colored spires of brick temples seem to protrude everywhere from the vast green plain, a vista set off by the brilliant whites of the more elaborate structures such as the majestic Ananda Temple built in 1091.

It is a view that recalls Sir James Scott's words, that in Pagan "you cannot move foot or hand without touching a sacred thing."