Digitising data on ‘stolen’ Buddhist relics

SILK ROAD TREASURE:A Bodhisattva identified as ‘Maitreya from Mogao cave 275’ at an exhibit at the Getty Center inLos Angeles earlier in the month. —PHOTO: AFP  

Chinese authorities are engaged in a major international effort to digitally accumulate information on the priceless cultural treasures of the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang — murals, statues and manuscripts — that were taken away by Western expeditions and ended up mostly in museums of Europe, Asia and the U.S.

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.

In different museums

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.

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 Chinese accuse five “treasure hunters” of Serindian art — the Hungarian born Aurel Stein who later took British nationality; Paul Pelliot of France; Otani Kozui of Japan; Russia’s Sergei Oldenburg and Langdon Warner from the United States — as mainly responsible for the “great steal” from the Dunhuang caves.

Three expeditions

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.

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 in Delhi.

More than a century after Stein’s arrival in Dunhuang in 1907, a major collaborative effort to ‘reunite’ information on the treasures of the Dunhuang caves has commenced. The Dunhuang Academy is a major fulcrum of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP).

This enterprise aims to unite information on “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.