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Fight to save world’s biggest book

In the Kuthodaw Pagoda complex at the foot of Mandalay Hill stands the world’s largest book – no less than 729 giant marble slabs, inscribed on both sides with Theravada Buddhism’s holy text.

This is King Mindon’s 150-year old library and the first written example of the Pali Cannon, which had hitherto been passed down orally.

Kuthodaw Pagoda was recognised publicly in 2013 with acceptance of the site on UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register.

But despite being one of Mandalay’s best visited sites, one of Burma’s most significant chapters in the world’s historical memory has fallen into a state of partial ruin.

Cue archeologists from the University of Sydney, who began a three-year project in June 2014 to undertake the cleaning, conservation, photographing, and study of the Kuthodaw Pagoda marble-stelae recension of the Pali Buddhist canon in Mandalay.

“The Buddhist scholars from the University of Sydney and the Nan Tien Institute in New South Wales, Australia, want to record [the stelae] photographically and then make it into a digital archive which is available to scholars,” said Dr Wendy Reade of the University of Sydney’s Eastern Art and Archaeology department.

But first, her team must painstakingly remove the tests of time – delicately removing graffiti, specks of whitewash, dirt and bat urine from the marble.

DVB meets Dr Reade as she works alongside a colleague from the University of Plymouth in Britain. The pair are using toothbrushes, water and tiny wooden sticks to clean years of grime from the cracks, the text and the crevasses, so that the script can be photographed.

“When they whitewashed the pagodas they did not cover the stones. So we’ve got spatters. That’s all been cleaned off now but there are still remnants in the text. That’s why we are just working with a bit of water and these wooden picks, to carefully remove it without removing the ink or damaging the stone.

“The pagodas were unlocked, so that’s how people could get in and they’d have picnics and leave their rubbish; they’d write on the stones so there was a lot of damage from people. Now we’ve provided locks for each single pagoda.”

“Some of the pagodas near the custodians are unlocked so that if people want to get in and have a close look at the stones they can, but hopefully without damaging them.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to lock people out but they have caused most of the damage,” Dr Reade added.

The Australian archaeologists spent roughly two weeks in Mandalay, patiently removing the tests of time. The work by the University of Sydney has been undertaken alongside Burma’s Ministry of Culture, with the help of a 1.7 million yen (US$13,700) grant from Chuo Academic Research Institute of Rissho Kosei-kai, Japan.

Local conservationists will now take over the restoration project before standing as the site’s protective custodians, ensuring one of Burma’s most significant contributions to the world’s memory will be a lasting one.