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Phase I : Pilot project in Luang Prabang

Background

The construction of the Ho Phabang started decades ago but was interrupted during the political turmoil. The current drive to complete the project illustrates the renewed interest in Buddhism, and resulting temple construction and renovation boom.

Luang Prabang features a rich local heritage which combines traditional architecture and urbanism with French colonial influences.  The city is famous for its scores of Buddhist temple complexes, some dating from as early as the 15th century, which display the highest refinements in decorative arts and building crafts.  The traditional system of crafts training and consequently temple maintenance and building was traditionally located within the monkhood.

However, with sweeping political changes in the last half-century, this system has been transformed greatly, with dire consequences for the authenticity of Luang Prabang’s heritage. Disruptions and political changes of the 1970s caused a decline in traditional Buddhist practice, and after 1975 fewer young boys entered the monasteries for education and religious training. As older monks left the vat many skills were lost as well. Two vat dedicated to artistic training, Vat Mai and Vat Siphouttabat, were closed, resulting in the loss of the last vehicles for training younger monks older skills.   

In recent years there has been a revival of traditional religious-based education and an increase in the number of young monks residing in Luang Prabang. This tradition also provides a way for poorer, rural boys to get an education.

At the same time, there has also been more money for repairs of existing vat and for rebuilding abandoned temples. Some of this work is being carried on by novices and monks; but more often private companies have been engaged to carry out the work, sometimes with undesired results. There are few actual craftsmen trained in traditional arts, and there is a fear that those skills may be lost as older craftsmen with these skills are no longer able to practice or pass their skills on to the younger generation. During the course of project design and initial implementation at least four traditional masters have died.

The large numbers of temples in Luang Prabang constitute a unique component of the cultural heritage in need of special attention, and the communities of monks who inhabit them form a unique population who care for them traditionally. The task of safeguarding Luang Prabang’s architectural heritage and traditional culture can, thus, be facilitated by assisting the monks in their conventional management and caretaking role.

In recognition of its outstanding cultural and historical importance and uniqueness, Luang Prabang was nominated by the government of Lao PDR and subsequently inscribed on the World Heritage List in December 1995.  Following inscription UNESCO conducted a stakeholders’ evaluation in Luang Prabang where it emerged that the highest priority identified by the community was the revival of the tradition whereby the monks themselves assumed primary responsibility for the custodianship of the temples.  For this reason, and because its heritage was in danger unless work began to revive the traditional skills needed to repair and renovate these important sites, Luang Prabang was chosen as the pilot site for Phase I of the project.

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