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The race to save the Mogao frescoes

4 December, 2007 (05:00) | china, classical, himalayas, medieval, paintings, sculpture | By: xensen

bodhisattva image from mogao grottoes at dunhuang, china

The Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang in China are one of the world’s richest art treasures. Dunhuang, though far from the center of Chinese civilization, was a key stop on the Silk Road. The Silk Road was not only a trade route for merchandise, it was also the route by which Buddhism was introduced to China, and Dunhuang is home to nearly 500 caves that served as Buddhist temples. The cave-temples are full of thousands of murals and sculptures, created between the fourth and fourteenth centuries.

For centuries the region’s remoteness and arid climate preserved that artworks is good condition. But today, according to this report, the murals are “fading away from age, tourist pressures and climate change.” The report goes on to describe efforts to photograph and preserve the art works.

restroing the mogao grotto frescos at dunhuang

A race is on to arrest the deterioration of the UN World Heritage site, which occupies 492 different cave temples along a 1.6-kilometre (one-mile) long cliff face near the ancient Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang.

That decline has accelerated in recent years due in large part to desertification caused by climate change, said Wang Xudong, head of the Dunhuang Academy, the state-run institution that studies and maintains the grottoes.

More-frequent sandstorms from the nearby Kumtag desert are upsetting the fragile environmental balance inside the caves.

“Our biggest challenge is protecting the interior environment of the caves, especially from sandstorms, which are the biggest risk here,” he said.

But it’s a complex and painstaking task.

“Each cave has its own unique mineral, temperature, and moisture situation. We have to treat each one differently. We are learning every day,” Wang said.

The top image of a bodhisattva appears in a Tantric Buddhist painting in Cave 14. Dating from the Tang dynasty (618–906), it probably reflects a Tibetan influence; Dunhuang was under Tibetan rule during a some of the Tang. The second image accompanied the news article; I have done a little restoration work of my own on it.

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Comments

Comment from Ramana Rajgopaul
Time: December 4, 2007, 7:09 am

That the Chinese are doing something at all is good news. I was under the impression that because of their differences with the Tibetans, anything to do with Buddhism is kind of shoved under the carpet.

Comment from Ramana Rajgopaul
Time: December 4, 2007, 7:21 am

I am returning to this post after reading your response to my comment. Anything to do with Buddhism and Hinduism appeals to me. I am a practicing Vipassana meditator and a well on the way Advaitin. The former has a rich pictorial tradition and the latter a written one. My wife, when she was active, was a professional painter and has done a lot of copies of Ajanta works on egg-tempra. Sadly, we do not have any left with us now. A few are in some collections in India and the UK.

Comment from Nancy
Time: December 4, 2007, 6:25 pm

I hate to say it but there’s a very good case for closing off these treasures from the casual tourist to protect them from further harm. They had to do it to save the Lascaux Caves and I believe that the Egyptians are thinking about doing that for their tombs as well. For most people, looking at a good reproduction is just as good as looking at the original. If you are a specialist, then there’s a difference but I don’t think that most people can tell the difference; I certainly couldn’t at Lascaux. I was able – when a teenager — to visit the original caves. Later, as an adult, I visited the museum site with the recreations and I felt that the experience was just as valid. I have a very good visual memory as well as being a painter so it there had been a significantly inferior experience, I would have known it. We are doing enough to destroy our past; let’s try and save whatever parts of it we can.

Comment from xensen
Time: December 4, 2007, 9:17 pm

When I was at Chichen Itza in February they had stopped allowing visitors to climb most of the pyramids — some were leaving graffiti.

The Mogao caves are kind of a dual bind. The number of visitors has apparently accelerated their degradation. On the other hand, if they weren’t a tourist attraction I’m not sure how much China would be doing to preserve them

Comment from Nancy
Time: December 6, 2007, 5:20 pm

People leaving graffiti at Chichen Itza – truly, it’s said that “fool’s names and fool’s faces appear in public places.” But holy hell! That’s obscene. I “hear” you on the Mogao Caves; China is about where the west was in around 1800 – facing a rapid rise into the industrial age (in their case industrial and post-modern combined in one). We destroyed a lot of our history in the process so it’s very sad to see them doing the same.