Chinas equivalent of Sistine Chapel in peril

November 24th, 2007 - 4:04 pm ICT by admin  

New Delhi, Nov.24 (ANI): The Mogao Caves, on the route of the old Silk Road, have been called the Chinese equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.
Now conservationists are racing to save them from oblivion.
It is cold and dim in the cave at the edge of the Gobi desert, but the grotto glows bright when a torch picks out the serene face of a Buddha once pink, now black on a fresco painted 1,000 years ago to offer comfort to travellers on the Silk Road.
Nearby in this astonishing network of hundreds of vividly illustrated grottoes is the Library Cave, which was filled from floor to ceiling with ancient manuscripts and paintings until, 100 years ago.
British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein persuaded the monks guarding the artifacts to sell them and took them back to the British Museum.
There are more than 800 caves in the network, of which about 500 have painted frescoes.
For 1,600 years, these caves at Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province survived political upheaval, religious fundamentalism, clumsy Western adventurers, corrupt Qing dynasty officials, harsh treatment by White Russian soldiers and the unwanted attentions of Mao’s Red Guards.
Now, however, there are fears that the breath of millions of tourists, combined with the encroaching Gobi desert, may be more than these paintings can bear.
Wide-scale plundering of the manuscripts has already meant these invaluable documents are dispersed throughout many countries.
Scientists from all over the world, including specialists from the British Library, are working on a project to digitally record the murals and the manuscripts of Dunhuang and to bring them all together online, so everyone can see the treasures.
The Dunhuang digital archive will include images from the caves as well as frescoes and scriptures residing in the world’s museums, including the British Library.
The project involves scanning 45,000 square metres of frescoes and recording 3,390 Buddhist statues. The frescoes are spread among 812 caves hewn out of a mile-long sandstone cliff.
Behind the caves, the desert looms ominously in the shape of Rattling Sand Mountain.
Last year, there were 550,000 visitors to Dunhuang, and that number is expected to rise this year.
The earliest of Dunhuang’s grottoes date to the Northern Liang period (AD 366-AD 439), when a wandering monk called Yuezun began the work, and continued until the 14th century.
Dunhuang was a busy stopping point on the Silk Road. Caravans laden with Chinese silk and tea would stop here en route to the courts of Persia and Europe during the Sui (AD581-AD618) and Tang (AD618-AD907) dynasties.
As well as being a centre of religious art, the grottoes were a focal point for the study of Chinese and Tibetan texts, written in ancient languages such as Sogdian and Tangut.
“We have done 30 caves so far. We can do three to five a year. About 500 caves need to be digitised. When we started, the work was very slow and this kind of technology didn’t exist. Digital cameras have improved a lot. In the past few years, we have gone from six megapixels to 24. In future, we’ll have better cameras,” Xinhua quoted officials involved with the project, as saying.
The International Dunhuang Project is also working to digitise the cave manuscripts, another crucial part of the programme.
There are 38,274 pieces in the British Library, of which 20,201 have been digitised.
Alastair Morrison, a researcher who studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said: “There are so many influences at work and it is always nice to make people aware of the diverse history of the region. The mission is to unite the Dunhuang project on the Internet and to document everything so it’s there for everyone. We have been working for four years. (ANI)

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