Digitising data on ‘stolen’ Buddhist relics

The treasures were taken away en masse by western expeditions and ended up mostly in museums of Europe, Asia and the U.S.

May 23, 2016 03:56 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 04:56 am IST - DUNHUANG (NORTHWESTERN CHINA):

Chinese authorities are engaged in a major international effort to digitally accumulate the priceless cultural treasures of the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang — murals, statues and manuscripts — that were taken away en masse by western expeditions and ended up mostly in museums of Europe, Asia and the United States.

Most of the artworks, controversially removed from the iconic Mogao caves -- hewn out of the imposing sandstone cliffs -- found their way in the British Museum in London, the National Museum in New Delhi and The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Part of the collection, sometimes after a change of hands, also found its way to The Tokyo National Museum and The National Museum of Korea.

Right in the Gobi desert

Dunhuang Buddhist caves, housing 2,000 painted sculptures and half-a-million square feet of wall paintings are in the Gobi desert, at a major junction of the ancient Silk Road. The Silk Road snaked between Xian in China, and Rome, passing through treacherous terrain of deserts and mountains.

Lured by the promise of large commercial fortunes, or spiritual solace, countless perished on this route as victims either to the calamities of nature or attacks by armed brigands.

“The 5 great stealers,” according to China

The Chinese accuse five “despicable treasure hunters” of Serindian art -- the Hungarian born Aurel Stein who adopted British nationality, Paul Pelliot of France, Otani Kozui of Japan, Russia’s Sergei

Oldenburg and Landon Warner from the United States --- as mainly responsible for the “great steal” from the Dunhuang caves.

Stein’s role was pivotal in this controversial chapter, which soon acquired a sharp emotive edge in the backdrop of nationalistic stirrings in China against imperial powers. In three expeditions, mounted between 1900 and 1916, the former principal of Oriental College Lahore, whose prime interest was in exploration of Central Asia, China, India and West Asia, removed 24 trunks of ancient Buddhist scriptures and five boxes of paintings, embroideries, and other artworks from the Mogao caves, all for a princely sum of 130 British


Taken away from the ‘Library Cave’

Most of the artistic treasures, including rolls of Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, Khotanese and Uighur languages, were taken from the famous “Library Cave,” discovered accidently in 1900 by a Taoist monk,

Wang Yuanlu, who was then the guardian of the Mogao caves.

The artworks brought by Stein have been deposited in the British Museum, but an impressive collection has also been exhibited at the National Museum at New Delhi. In fact, Stein’s 1913-16 expedition was funded by the government of India, with the understanding that majority of the finds of this excursion would lay the foundation of a new museum that was coming up in Delhi.

Igniting a similar interest in Europe

Stein’s audacious mission, ignited a similar interest in Europe, including France, and very soon, Pelliot, the Frenchman, was at Dunhuang, carrying away with him 6000 high value rolls from the Library Cave, after paying an equivalent of 750 pounds to Wang, the caretaker.

The artefacts from Dunhuang can now also be found in the Tokyo National Museum, largely the result of an expedition marshaled by Otani Kozui.

In his book, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road , Peter Hopkirk points out that around one third of Otani’s “collection” ended up in South Korea, and another third at Port Arthur in Manchuria. The marvels of the Mogao caves also found their way to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, as well as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Now comes the reuniting effort

Nearly a century after Stein’s arrival in Dunhuang in 1907, a major collaborative effort to reunite the treasures of the Dunhuang caves in the virtual world has commenced. The Dunhuang Academy, which is currently taking care of the Mogao grottoes, is a major fulcrum of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). This ambitious multi-national enterprise aims to reunite “all these artefacts through the highest quality digital photography by coordinating international teams of conservators, cataloguers and researchers”. The National Museum in New Delhi is a founding member of the IDP.

Asked by a group of visiting journalists about the prospects of bringing the priceless relics back to their home, Xudong Wang, the Director of Dunhuang academy pragmatically observed: “If we can get them back to the Internet family through digitisation, that is a target we can achieve for now.”

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