Bagan and the Lost Murals of Gubyaukgyi Temple
Visitors to Bagan will most likely be taken to visit the Gubyaukgyi temple in the small village of Wetkyi-in. There’s an interesting story here that will surprise the sightseers.
Inside the temple, visitors can see murals and a plaque mentioning the name of “Dr. Thomann”. To most people this will escape their attention. Dr. Thomann however, played a remarkable part in the area’s history. He is a self-styled archeologist from Germany who arrived in Bagan in 1899. Myanmar at that time was under British rule. Despite that, Dr. Thomann saw his chance to become rich.
The murals in the Gubyaukgyi temple were much sought after in Europe, and so Dr. Thomann started working. He applied wet newspapers on these murals and then used a saw to remove them from the wall. When the British finally realized what was going on, Thomann already had a number of them sent to Germany. They have never been found since.
This story of 1899 has some consequences. The book on Bagan that was published by Dr. Thomann 25 years later (in 1924) was much adored by indigenous Myanmar archeologists. They claimed the book to be a very precise account of Bagan’s archeological history. Successive governments of Myanmar were keen to retrieve the murals that are still believed to be in Germany in a museum or a private collector’s house. When reading the embassy files in the German foreign office, one can see that the German embassy in Yangon in 2000 closed a file entitled: “Art theft Bagan — Dr. Thomann affair.” Corresponding files in the archive prove that both governments were occupied with this thorny issue for many years.
Hopefully, one day, the sculptures will be found, in good condition, and returned to Myanmar.
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