On a mission to visit a remote Bolivian temple

Email|Print| Text size + By Harold Olmos
Associated Press / June 29, 2005

SAN JOSÉ DE CHIQUITOS, Bolivia -- In this remote town in eastern Bolivia, an unlikely monument sits majestically above the simple red-tile-roofed houses, the lonely survivor of a glorious past.

Little has changed here since the San José de Chiquitos temple was built 250 years ago. Hot, quiet, and devoid of most modern conveniences, the village looks lost in time, at the end of the world.

But a glimmer of hope is making a difference: Colonial art specialists and architects are working to bring back some of the temple's ancient glory, although at an exasperatingly slow pace.

The name of the town doesn't do the temple justice. ''Chiquitos" means small in Spanish, and the structure is magnificent -- the first built by the Jesuits as part of a massive evangelization campaign that ensured the freedom of tens of thousands of Native Americans who otherwise would have become slaves of the Spanish conquistadores.

But its glory remains almost hidden by its relatively remote location -- although the town of San José de Chiquitos is accessible by train from the city of Santa Cruz, which has an airport with connections from the capital, La Paz.

And it's a pleasure to see the temple after spending hours in a candlelighted room with no air conditioning at the local inn -- Chiquitos has no electricity between 2 and 7 a.m.

Its brown stone-covered facade and three-story tower rising from the flat horizon, the monument stands on a neat green plaza like an undiscovered gem.

But time, neglect, and vandalism have taken a heavy toll. Doors, walls, arches, paintings, statues, altars all cry for care.

The restoration team, financed by the federal and local governments, expects to complete its job in a couple of years.

''The main altar should be ready in a few more months. The rest, perhaps by 2007," said Marcelo Vargas, the chief architect.

That would be a record pace for the restoration, which has dragged on for 20 years.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared Chiquitos and six other temples as world cultural heritage sites. That should have entitled the temple to aid from the government and financial institutions, but the restoration team this year has only $15,000, left over from a contribution by a state environmental agency.

The temple is one of 33 ''missions" the Jesuits built to protect the Indians. The missions were autonomous, self-sufficient towns in the jungle and prairies over a vast area that today is part of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia.

Specialists say the missions were the first ''industrial" settlements in the New World. The Jesuits taught the Guarani tribe handicrafts, sculpture, woodcarving, and how to make and play musical instruments. The villages flourished as centers of culture and arts.

''They led an anthropological revolution. The natives leapfrogged from the Stone Age to the zenith of human knowledge of that time," said Elio Montenegro Banegas, a professor at the local Geography and History Center. ''Chiquitos was the only mission with outside walls built in stone. In 75 years, by 1767, the Jesuits built what Chiquitos is still today."

And it is one of the last remaining missions. Many simply disappeared, along with the Guarani who succumbed to the invasion of settlers after the Jesuits left.

The Chiquitos temple survived thanks to the people of the town. The Chiquitanos did not allow big changes to the temple because, even now, they consider it the symbol of their past.

''Generation after generation, they were alert to prevent changes in the look of the church. Priests wanted to change the temple, and even reconstruct it. But the population was always against it. Chiquitanos maintained it the best they could. If a beam was rotting or breaking, they removed it and put in a new one, all from a single tree," said Vargas.

Slowly, patiently, the restoration team labors to undo the damage of nature. Dozens of pieces of carved wood and painting frames lie strewn in the workshops.

''Humidity always played havoc with the temple," says Lizbeth Cordova, as she patiently plasters mica layers on the carved wooden slab of one of the side altars. ''Mica gives the appearance of silver. It was what the metal workers used most to build some of the temple's ornaments."

Other parts of the altar will be covered with layers of 22-karat gold imported from Germany and Spain, she said.

Thanks to the solid construction and maintenance provided by the town, wooden pillars supporting the lofty structure and the roof beams look virtually as solid as when the temple was built from 1745-54.

The Jesuits said the temple ''ought to reflect the best of human imagination because it was the place where God dwelled," said Banegas.

When the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish king, they submitted a list of 120 paintings of the life and passion of Jesus and silver ornaments weighing some 3,700 pounds, Montenegro said. Most of those riches have disappeared.

But there have been unexpected windfalls. Restoration specialists discovered original paintings concealed under a layer of plain wall paint, and the original art eventually will be uncovered and restored.

''Those are well-preserved paintings that can be recovered, and then we will admire their splendor," Vargas said. ''The fact that somebody recklessly painted the walls was a blessing in disguise."

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