Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Breathing New Life into Old Information – Updating the IDP Stein Site Database

By Alexandra Sidebottom, UCL

The beautiful 1921 Clarendon Press edition of Serindia, by Aurel Stein
For the past six weeks, I have been undertaking a work placement at the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) as part of my Masters course. My main role has been updating and improving the existing Stein site database, and I am pleased to say this work is now complete. Sixty-seven detailed site entries have been included in the updated database. 

The Stein site database is an internal record of all of the sites Aurel Stein excavated during his three Central Asian expeditions. Prior to this project, it was a loosely-updated resource, lightly filled in over many years by different people. There was no standardised method to inputting data, and important information was often overlooked. Some minor sites had entries, whereas major sites such as the Mogao Caves, Ming-oi and Lou-lan had nothing. I believe this was because of several factors - a variety of researchers working infrequently on the database, the IDP’s understandable focus on more important and time-sensitive projects, and an assumption of knowledge within the IDP. 

Fundamentally, I wanted to make the Stein site database useful to IDP researchers. The data was due to be moved to a new database, so my goal was to make the information as high quality as possible. I organised and inputted the data in a standardised way – all the entries now have a site ID, their general location, a detailed site description, which expeditions they relate to, an excavation history, page numbers and a brief description. The detailed site descriptions can either replace Stein’s books or serve as a starting point for researchers depending on the level of detail required.

The IDP decided to use Aurel Stein’s three major works – Ancient Khotan, published in 1907, Serindia, published in 1921, and Innermost Asia, published in 1928 – as the primary source material for the updated database. For many of these sites, Stein’s work remains the major source. I therefore made sure to specify what was Stein’s opinion and what was objective fact; if Stein believed an artefact to be Han Chinese, or a language to be Kharosthi, or a fort abandoned during the 8th century, I tried to make it clear that it was his own interpretation of the evidence, coloured by the technology, scholarship and societal conditions of his era, and not necessarily the position of current academics or the IDP. Other material from previous IDP research was also incorporated; the sites of Astana, Endere, Miran and Niya have excellent profiles on the IDP site database website with collections history, detailed excavation history and maps, but this was not reflected on the internal site database prior to this project.

 I have found updating the database to be a deeply enjoyable process. Prior to this project, I had a working knowledge of Stein and his expeditions in Central Asia, but this gave me the opportunity to learn about the sites in detail, and to learn more about Stein himself through his books. Working with physical copies of Stein’s books has also been a highlight, despite the lack of an index. His three accounts of his expeditions are enormous, unwieldy things with multiple volumes, filled with beautiful colour plates of his finds, intriguing maps, and photos of eerie ruins in dusty deserts. In an era of increasingly digitised research, it has been refreshing to pore over dusty books.

 For the IDP online site database (incomplete), click here.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Introducing the Lotus Sutra Project - Conserving and digitising the Stein Collection's Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra at the British Library

The Lotus Sūtra, whose earliest known Sanskrit title is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. Through the medium of parables and short stories, it delivers the message that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. As such, it is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and it is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.

The most prevalent versions of this Sūtra in Chinese are the Zheng fahua jing (徵法華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Correct law”), translated by the monk Dharmarakṣa between 286 and 288, and the Miaofa lianhua jing, (妙法蓮華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”), translated by Kumarajiva over a century later, in 406. There is also an alternative version called the Tianpin Miaofa lianhua jing (添品妙法蓮華經 “Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law"), compiled in 601 by the masters Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta.

Images and scenes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra can be seen in the murals adorning the caves of the Mogao Buddhist complex, near the oasis-town of Dunhuang, Gansu. An estimated 4,000 copies of the Lotus Sūtra were also found in one of the caves, commonly called the Library Cave or Cave 17. They are now dispersed across various institutions in Beijing, Paris, St Petersburg and London. In the British Library's collection, the Lotus Sūtra outnumbers all the other Chinese Buddhist texts brought back by Sir Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia (1906-1908). There are over a thousand manuscripts, some of which are scrolls measuring up to 13 meters long.

If a few have already been digitised and are now accessible via the IDP website, a large proportion has remained practically untouched since their discovery in 1907 and is currently unavailable online. Thanks to a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, in Hong Kong, work is now underway to address this issue. The aim of this four-year project is to conserve and digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese, with a view to make images and information about them freely accessible on the Internet.

For the past six months, I have been busy checking the condition of all these manuscripts in order to plan both the conservation and digitisation workflows for the years to come. I have been extremely lucky to be joined in this task by three colleagues from the British Library Conservation department, who have volunteered some of their precious time to assess the collection with me. Together, we have been writing up detailed condition status reports to facilitate future conservation treatment and handling during photography. Another important part of my curatorial role has also been to enhance information on each of the corresponding catalogue records.

Meanwhile, Vania Assis, full-time conservator for the project, has started conserving the scrolls. Although an initial estimate based on a sample of manuscripts had established that between 200 and 300 items would need to be conserved, the ongoing assessment of the scrolls has so far revealed that most of them require some level of intervention. They are extremely fragile: they present tears, missing areas, creases and other damage that make photographing them in their current state inadvisable. Vania has already completed treatment of more than 50 items and will tell you about her amazing work in a separate post.

The project's team should soon include two senior imaging technicians, who will be ensuring the digitisation of the Lotus Sūtra copies. We will let you know how the project progresses and will post updates as regularly as possible, so watch this space!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

North American Silk Road Collections: the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The Asian Art Museum of San FranciscoーChong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture is the largest museum in the United States that is devoted exclusively to Asian art. The museum was originally established as a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in 1960s by the city of San Francisco to house the prestigious Asian art collection of Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage (1887-1975), who stated that “[the museum] will help San Francisco and the Bay Area become one of the world's greatest centers of Oriental culture.” In 1969, an autonomous institution was established to function as the foremost center for Asian art in the Western world which was renamed the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1973. The museum was renamed again in 1996 upon receiving a generous gift from Chong-Moon Lee, an Asian Art Commissioner and Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Today, the Asian Art Museum of San FranciscoーChong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture boasts more than 18,000 pieces of Asian art, serving local and global audiences and bridging the diverse cultures of Asia and the United States.

Briefly introduced here are pieces from the museum that will join the IDP database through the current project. Reflecting the goals of the museum, these works consist of various media and came from various sites.

Two pieces belong to the Avery Brundage Collection, which consists of over 7,700 pieces. The first piece is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara with Willow Sprig (B62D10) from Dunhuang, dated approximately to 800-900. Painted on ramie, this bodhisattva holding a willow sprig exhibits great similarity to a series of bodhisattva paintings housed now in the Musée Guimet and the British Museum (especially to MG.17783).

The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Chinese: Guanyin) with willow sprig © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The second piece from the Brundage Collection is the Bottle Vase (B60P506) from the Tangut (Xixia) Empire (1038-1227). A wide unglazed band around the shoulder has been identified as a feature of Tangut jars. Another Tangut piece is the Buddhist deity Green Tara (1992.59), who personifies compassion in action and is the female counterpart of Amoghasiddhi, one of the five important Buddhas of esoteric Buddhism. The IDP database has been incorporating collections of Tangut manuscripts from St. Petersburg and London, and this and other paintings and artefacts will enable the database’s users to access both the manuscripts and material culture of this prominent culture.

Bottle Vase © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Buddhist deity Green Tara © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The fourth and fifth pieces are both from the Kucha region. The Head of a Buddhist Deity (B79D2), painted with sensitive brush execution, is attributed to the Simsim Caves. According to its provenance record, this piece was originally found by Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) in 1913. Le Coq presented it to Lucien Scherman, father of the piece's donor Dr. Richard P. Scherman. While its original location in the Simsim Caves awaits further discussion, the details of the face and curly black hair resonate with those of the figures in Cave 48. Also attributed to the Kucha region is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (2004.23), a small wooden sculpture dated to 600 – 700.

Head of a Buddhist Deity © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The next piece is the Fragments of calligraphy (2014.47), an album that contains six fragments of Chinese calligraphy allegedly discovered in the Turfan region. Three of them contain dates in era names, indicating 733, 791 and 729, respectively. This piece will be featured in the future blog post on North American collections.

Fragments of Calligraphy © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The final piece is the Standing Buddha (B87B3). This rectangular plaque (28.2 x 17.1 cm), made of iron with gold and silver inlay, is a very intriguing piece. Sold in an auction in 1985 and then purchased from an art dealer, this piece’s previous owners and original provenance are unknown. However, many aspects of this figure closely resonate with buddha figures of the praṇidhi murals in the Bezeklik Caves: the standing posture with a three-quarter view of the face, drapes of the robe, and personal adornments which are not usually worn by buddha figures. One of them from Cave 20 especially shares similarities to the Buddha on this iron plaque. Based on this stylistic similarity, the piece has been dated to the tenth to eleventh centuries. While metal votive plaques or mirrors with Buddhist images existed in other parts of Asia around that time, there have not been any comparative pieces with the images of the praṇidhi buddhas. What do IDP blog readers think about the original function of this piece?

Standing Buddha © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Dr. Li He, Ms. Jamie Chu, and Mr. Jonathan Bloom for their help and support for the Georgetown-IDP Project.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A mysterious miniature implement

Shortly after I joined the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) team, almost a year and a half ago now, an item from the Stein collection caught my eye. Roughly dated from the 9th to 10th centuries, the artefact is catalogued as a ritual implement and comes from the ‘Library Cave’ (Mogao Cave 17), near Dunhuang. It was acquired by Sir Aurel Stein, along with many other manuscripts and objects, during his second Silk Road expedition in 1906-08.

Front of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

I showed it to a small group of post-graduate students from the Courtauld Institute just before Christmas in the context of their course on Buddhism, and when I saw that they were as fascinated as I was, I decided that it was high time to write a blog post about it!

The small octagonal object measures 18.2cm by 11cm, and is made of several layers of paper, glued together and mounted onto a pointed wooden stick. Its reinforced structure and size indicate that it could be held upright and could be carried. Although it bears no writing, it is decorated on both sides. At first I thought that it may be a fan, but a closer look revealed I had jumped to this conclusion a little too quickly...

The back is illustrated with some fairly intriguing geometric patterns. Have you ever come across similar designs before? Do you know what they represent? They remind me of a stylised cross-section of a vajra, a ritual object otherwise known as the 'thunderbolt' or 'diamond sceptre'. Quintessential in Tibetan Buddhism, it represents the fundamental nature of the enlightened state as unbreakable and indivisible.

Back of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

The association to the vajra makes more sense if we consider the iconography on the other side of the implement. The front depicts a cross-legged figure drawn in black and painted in blue and green. The swirling blue scarves, various princely ornaments and oval halo behind his head indicate that he is a bodhisattva (being on the path of becoming a Buddha). Sitting on a lotus flower, he is holding a vajra in the right hand, close to his heart, and a ritual bell called ghanta in the left hand, against his hip. He is also wearing a tall two-tiered crown displaying five Buddhas. These attributes allow us to identify him as Vajrasattva, the ultimate Buddha.

Detail of the front of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

Although it is not square, this object is actually similar to tsakalis or tsaglis, miniature painted cards used in modern Tibetan rites. Normally produced as thematic sets, such as the one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see here), they can be laid together to form a mandala, or function individually to evoke a specific deity. Some tsakalis have been known to possess a stick so as to be placed on a shrine or held up during the ritual.

The precise function of this implement remains unknown, but it must also have played a role during religious ceremonies. In the Vajrayana, 'vehicle of the vajra', followers must receive an appropriate initiation or 'empowerment' before they are able to engage in the meditation practices derived from the tantras. One way to do this is to venerate Vajrasattva in order to purify the mind, so it is quite possible that the object presented here served such a purpose.

The Tantric deity, however Chinese in terms of its style, certainly suggests the presence of Vajrayana elements in Dunhuang, despite its distance from Central Tibet. As Stein remarked: 'Considering Tun-huang had been for fully a century under Tibetan domination and that the vicinity of Tibetan tribes made itself felt also later the presence of a certain number of pictures either showing the influence of Tibetan style or bearing Tibetan legends is no cause for surprise' (Serindia).

In conclusion, like some of the manuscripts found in the Mogao Caves, it is quite possible that our ritual implement originated from a community of tantric practitioners active in the region. Its exact function and iconography are still something of a mystery and I would be delighted to hear from anyone with any theories they would like to discuss.

Further reading:

Jacob Dalton and Sam van Schaik. 2006. Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang, Leiden: Brill.

Sam van Schaik, Agnieszka Helman-Wazny and Renate Nöller. 2015. "Writing, painting and sketching at Dunhuang: assessing the materiality and function of early Tibetan manuscripts and ritual items", Journal of Archaeological Science 53: 110-132.

Aurel Stein. 1921. Serindia. Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. London & Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol 2: 839.

Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams. 2004. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, London: The British Library: 210-211.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

North American Silk Road Collections: the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University

Since the beginning of the Georgetown-IDP Project on North American Silk Road Collections last fall, IDP has worked with more than thirty institutions to include their pieces on the IDP database. However, there are also a few North American institutions who joined IDP before the current project. One such institution, the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University, has been an IDP partner since 2007. The East Asian Library and the Gest Collection boasts rare manuscripts from Dunhuang and Turfan, collectively known as the 'Princeton University East Asian Library Collection of Dunhuang and Turfan Materials.' Prior to being housed in Princeton University, these materials were collected by James C. M. Lo 羅寄梅 (1902-1987) and his wife Lucy Lo 羅先 (née 劉), Zhang Daqian 張大千, from whom the Los obtained some manuscripts, and Guion M. Gest (1864-1948).

In total 158 manuscripts in the Dunhuang and Turfan collections consist of those in classical Chinese, Tangut, and Old Turkic, and also contain fragmentary paintings and drawings. The manuscripts in Chinese have been catalogued (Chen and Tomasko 2010 a, b), and as a part of the current Georgetown-IDP Project, IDP will update information about those written in non-Chinese languages for the new IDP database. One such non-Chinese manuscript is PEALD_6r, a Buddhist manuscript illuminated with intriguing images such as huge snakes and a man burning in a blazing flame.

PEALD_6r (Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā)
© The East Asian Library and the Gest Collection, Princeton University

PEALD_6r, mounted on a light tan paper, consists of text written in Old Turkic in Uyghur script, an illustration, and seals. There are two seals on the manuscript, 'Zhang Yuan 張爰' and 'Daqian jushi 大千居士' both of which indicate that this manuscript was originally in the collection of Zhang Daqian. Two additional seals on the mounting respectively read '不負古人告後人' (Respectful of the ancients while informing posterity) and '雷音寺供養' (From the Collection of Leiyinsi). The former was also used by Zhang Daqian, while the latter is one of the personal seals of James and Lucy Lo, indicating that the manuscript was also once in the possession of James and Lucy Lo (Chen and Tomasko 2010a, 9-12; Chen 2010b, 186-8).

This beautifully illustrated manuscript is a crystallization of the rich cultural interactions along the Silk Road. This and other pages were possibly bound together by a string through a hole pierced at the center of the circle on the left-hand side, such as the pustaka (palm-leaf book) format widely used in South and Southeast Asia (for a Manichaean example of an illustrated pustaka folio from Murtuk, see Gulacsi 2005, 188-191). The text is in Old Turkic vertically written in Uyghur script. This was developed from the Sogdian script, itself developed from Aramaic. The text has been identified as a part of Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā (Garland of legends pertaining to the ten courses of action), in which a teacher explains the ten modes of misdeeds to a disciple by retelling commonly known Buddhist narratives. The textual part contained in PEALD_6r is a dialogue on the effect of anger between the teacher and his disciple (Wilkens 2016b, 738-9). The colophons of this work inform that the Old Turkic version was translated from a version in Tocharian A, which was based on the same text in Tocharian B. This suggests that the text was translated into Old Turkic in the early phase of the Buddhist literature of the West Uyghur Kingdom (mid 9th - early 13th c.) (Wilkens 2016b, 9-10).

The illumination, placed in the middle of the page, is thought to be for a narrative in the tenth chapter (Wilkens 2016b, 738). The influence of Uyghur Manichaean art, whose tradition traces back further to West Asia, and of Sogdian art has been noted in the illustrated manuscripts of Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā in Old Turkic, including PEALD_6r, because of the use of gold and similarity to a wall painting from Shorchuk near Karashahr (British Museum, 1919,0101,0.279.d) (Wilkens 2016a, 209-213). A large snake is coiling itself around two male figures in Turkic attire. On the other hand, there is also an element unmistakably inspired by Chinese culture. The building in which a monk and a few other figures are residing has red-painted wooden elements and a partially green-tiled roof. Along with the 'post-and-lintel system seen here, such elements are essentialized and simplified elements of Chinese architecture seen in murals widely across the Hexi Corridor and the Tarim Basin (present-day Gansu Province and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) since the late fourth – early fifth century (Steinhardt 2005, 175). Turfan was formerly a part of the Tang dynasty, and the post-and-lintel system was practically used in actual buildings in the Turfan region. There, it was also mixed with other architectural techniques and styles. Examples of such include wooden corbel brackets as well as beams being structurally anchored into earth walls, and wooden parts painted in the typical Uyghur style of the 10th and 11th centuries (Ruitenbeek 2016).

One of praṇidhi paintings from Bezeklik Cave 20 (MIK IB 6887_2; lost during the Second World War)(Click here for colour image)
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst

Painted during the West Uyghur Kingdom, some of the praṇidhi murals in the Bezeklik Caves in Turfan also depict Chinese architecture. The genre of praṇidhi paintings is considered to have developed in Kucha where Tocharian Buddhism was practiced, and the genre later reached Turfan (Konczak 2012; Mori 2015). Similar to the case of PEALD_6r, what we see here are Chinese architectural elements used as a background detail of Uyghur Buddhist art originally based on Tocharian Buddhism. The painters used a mixed Central-Asian and strongly Chinese architectural style for the praṇidhi paintings, although architectural elements inspired by the architecture of further western areas, such as later and transformed versions of Corinthian marble capitals, were co-existing with the Uyghur-Chinese style in Kocho (Gaochang; one of the capitals of the West Uyghur Kingdom) (Ruitenbeek 2016,109-112, 122). Also without major interrelations between the paintings’ inscriptions and painted architecture, one possible interpretation for the inclusion of Chinese architecture in these praṇidhi paintings is to exhibit the incorporation of China into the multi-cultural, Uyghur-centric sphere (Steinhardt 2004, 188).

Whether Chinese architecture was consciously selected for PEALD_6r or was simply copied from an architectural template of Buddhist art as a background detail cannot be easily answered. Yet PEALD_6r allows us to catch a glimpse of the complex spiritual sphere of the West Uyghur Kingdom and the formation of its Buddhist art in which various cultural elements along the Silk Road interacted with each other.


Chen, Huaiyu and Nancy Norton Tomasko, eds. 2010a. “Chinese-Language Texts from Dunhuang and Turfan in the Princeton University East Asian Library.” The East Asian Library Journal 14 (2): 1-13.

Chen, Huaiyu and Nancy Norton Tomasko, eds. 2010b. “A Descriptive Catalogue of the Dunhuang and Turfan Materials.” The East Asian Library Journal 14 (2): 13-208.

Gulácsi, Zsuzsanna. 2005. Mediaeval Manichaean book art: a codicological study of Iranian and Turkic illuminated book fragments from 8th-11th century East Central Asia. Leiden : Brill.

Konczak, Ines. 2012. “Origin, Development and Meaning of the Praṇidhi Paintings on the Northern Silk Road.” In Buddhism and Art in Turfan: From the Perspective of Uyghur Buddhism [Buddhist Culture along the Silk Road: Gandhāra, Kucha, and Turfan – Section II], 43-75. Kyoto : Ryukoku University.

Mori Michiyo 森美智代. 2015. “Kiji sekkutsu no ‘ritsubutsu no retsuzō’ to seiganzu ni tsuite” 亀茲石窟の「立仏の列像」と誓願図について [On Depictions of “Row of Standing Buddha” and Praṇidhi]. Bukkyō Geijutsu 仏教芸術 [Ars Buddhica] 340: 9-36.

Ruitenbeek, Klaas with contributions from Ines Koncak-Nagel and an Appendix by Gudrun Melzer. 2016. "Ruin Q in Kochoand its Wooden Architectural Elements." In The Ruins of Kocho: Traces of Wooden Architecture on the Ancient Silk Road, 103-126. Berlin : Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Russell-Smith, Lilla and Ines Konzak-Nagel, eds. 2016. The Ruins of Kocho: Traces of Wooden Architecture on the Ancient Silk Road. Berlin : Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 2004. “Red Lintels, Green Rooftops: The Role of Architecture in Eight Paintings from Temple 9 at Bezeklik.” In Cultural interaction and conflict in Central and Inner Asia : papers presented at the Central and Inner Asian Seminar, University of Toronto, 3-4 May 2002 and 23-24 May 2003 , edited by Michael Gervers, Uradyn Erden Bulag, and Gillian Long. Vol 6 of Toronto studies in Central and Inner Asia, 175-188. Toronto : Asian Institute, University of Toronto.

Wilkens, Jens. 2016a. “Buddhism in the West Uyghur Kingdom and Beyond.” In Transfer of Buddhism across Central Asian networks (7th to 13th centuries), edited by Carmen Meinert, 191-249. Leiden ; Boston : Brill.

Wilkens, Jens. 2016b. Buddhistische Erzählungen aus dem alten Zentralasien: Edition der altuigurischen Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā. Turnhout : Brepols.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Martin Haijdra of the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University, Dr. Zsuzsanna Gulácsi of Northern Arizona University, and Dr. Lilla Russell-Smith of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst for their help in writing this blog entry.

Friday, January 27, 2017

North American Silk Road Collections: A Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet from Dunhuang in the Cincinnati Art Museum

In this blog post, I would like to introduce the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Prayer Sheet (1992.139) from Dunhuang, which is an important comparative piece to similar prayer sheets in other collections. The Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), one of the oldest arts institutions in the United States, was founded with the goal to bring a public art museum to the area for the benefit of all citizens during the years following the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia. The CAM’s diverse, encyclopaedic art collection spanning 6,000 years, includes a prayer sheet from Dunhuang that documents an aspect of rich religious culture of the region around the tenth century.

This print was purchased by the CAM, yet was reportedly collected by Paul Pelliot. The rectangular sheet consists of two parts: an image of a Buddhist deity and text. The upper portion mainly contains figures of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva of wisdom, seated on a lion, a man who is holding reins of the lion, and a boy who is revering the bodhisattva with his hands joined in prayer. A similar painting of Mañjuśrī in Mogao Cave 220, facing front on the lion mount and with these two attendants, is dated to 925 and called the 'new-style' Mañjuśrī (xinyang Wenshu) based on its inscription. The boy is Sudhana, whose spiritual journey begins from his encounter with Mañjuśrī in the final chapter of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. The man’s heavily bearded face and clothes suggest his non-Han ethnic origin, and indeed, this figure is usually identified as the king of Khotan, a Central Asian kingdom.

Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet, 1992.139 © Cincinnati Art Museum (click to zoom in)

The text in the lower portion advocates devotion to Mañjuśrī, describing the efficacy of the bodhisattva and providing the verbal incantations of Mañjuśrī. The cult of Mañjuśrī as a resident bodhisattva of Mt. Wutai in Shanxi Province flourished in the Tang dynasty and persisted throughout history. The bodhisattva’s great popularity reached remote Dunhuang. Extant Dunhuang paintings and prints reflect a rich variety of Mañjuśrī’s cult. In Dunhuang Buddhist art, Mañjuśrī was frequently paired with Vimalakīrti and Samantabhadra, and Mañjuśrī in the thousand-armed form was depicted with the Thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin). (Wang 2016)

Different variations of Mañjuśrī's prayer sheets survived among the Dunhuang Buddhist art. For example, a group of Mañjuśrī prayer sheets can be distinguished by the complete halo of the bodhisattva and a missing stroke in the character xiang 相 in the third line of the text (added by hand in many cases). In another group of sheets, to which the CAM print belongs, the halo is truncated at the top and the character xiang is complete. Other overall differences between these two groups include the extant number of prints, the quality of printing, and the size and types of paper. (Kikutake 1975, 12-13)

Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet with a complete halo, Pelliot chinois 4514 (2)21 © Bibliothèque nationale de France (click to zoom in)

A number of extant pieces inform us of the variety in the usage of Mañjuśrī prayer sheets in worship. Some sheets have holes in the four corners, most likely for mounting on a wall, and another example has a silk loop at the top for hanging. One intriguing example is a large sheet with four prayer sheets pasted on its surface. The sheet was completed with a painting of a seated Buddha and an invocation to the “Buddha of Heavenly Radiance” (南无天光明佛) at the centre.

Woodblock print with four impressions of Mañjuśrī, 1919,0101,0.239 (Ch.00204) © The British Museum (click to zoom in)

The Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet was also combined with those of other Buddhist deities, including Amitābha Buddha and Avalokiteśvara. Such variations in the arrangement of Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheets also reflect the rich variety in the cult of this bodhisattva in Dunhuang.


Avril, Ellen B., and Nora Ling-yün Shih, eds. 1997. Chinese art in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum.

Kikutake Jun’ichi 菊竹淳一. 1975. “Tonkō no bukkyō hanga – Daiei hakubutsukan to Pari kokuritsu toshokan shūzōhin o chūshin ni” 敦煌の仏教版画 ―大英博物館とパリ国立図書館収蔵品を中心に [Buddhist Prints from Dunhuang: Pieces in The Collections of The British Library and The Biliothèque Nationale de France]. Bukkyō Geijutsu 仏教芸術 [Ars Buddhica] 101: 3-35.

Nakata Mie 中田美繪. 2009. “Godaisan Monju shinkō to ōken – Tōdai Daisō ki ni okeru Kinkakuji shūchiku no bunseki o tsūjite - .” 五臺山文殊信仰と王權―唐代代宗期における金閣寺修築の分析を通じて― [The Mañjuśrī cult on Wu-t'ai-shan and kingship: through an analysis of the reconstruction of Chin-ko-ssu during the reign of Tai-tsung in the T'ang]. Tōhōgaku [Eastern Studies] 117: 40-58.

Sha Wutian 沙武田. 2005. “Dunhuang P.4049 ‘xinyang Wenshu’huagao ji xiangguan wenti yanjiu” 敦煌P.4049“新样文殊”画稿及相关问题研究 [A Study of P.4049: A Draft of Drawing Demonstration for a New Styled Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva and Other Relative Questions]. Dunhuang Yanjiu 敦煌研究 [Dunhuang Research] 2005(3): 26-32.

Sun Xiaogang 孙晓岗. 2007. Wenshu pusa tuxiang xue yanjiu 文殊菩萨图像学研究 [A Bodhisattva of Wisdom: Iconography Study]. Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe.

Tsiang, Katherine R. 2010. “Buddhist Printed Images and Texts of the Eighth-tenth centuries: Typologies of Replication and Representation.” In Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang, edited by Matthew Kapstein and Sam Van Schaik, 201-252. Leiden: Brill.

Wang, Michelle C. 2016. “The Thousand-armed Mañjuśrī at Dunhuang and Paired Images in Buddhist Visual Culture.” Archives of Asian Art 66(1): 81-105.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, and Mr. Robert Deslongchamps for their support for the Georgetown-IDP project.

Friday, December 2, 2016

North American Silk Road Collections: A Kizil fragment in the Detroit Institute of Arts

It is with great pleasure that I announce that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the IDP have finalized an agreement to include a Buddhist mural painting fragment from the DIA in the IDP database. This will go onto the new IDP website when it becomes lives in 2017. Before this, I would like to introduce this beautiful piece which happens to be one of the Le Coq pieces from the Kizil caves featured in my previous blog post.

The Detroit Institute of Arts was founded in 1885 in Detroit, Michigan, the city known for its auto industry. Since then, the DIA served for the cultural development of this industrial city, boasting one of the top collections in the United States. Its multicultural and multinational collection contains a diverse range of Asian art, including a mural fragment from the Kizil Caves.

Four Heads of Buddhist Divinities, 28.67 © Detroit Institute of Arts

This mural fragment consists of four heads of Buddhist deities, three facing to their right in a three-quarter view and one similarly to the left. It is clear that the fragment was once a part of a larger composition covering the wall of a Kizil cave. Based on its back inscription and stylistic similarity with other fragments and murals in situ, this piece is considered to originate from Cave 224 (Mâyâhöhle, 3. Anlage).

Cave 224 is a type of central pillar cave in the Kizil Caves, in which a circumambulatory corridor excavated in the rear part of the main room creates a square, pillar-like structure which also doubled as an altar for the Buddha’s statue. The DIA’s fragment is considered to belong to one of the side walls of the space in front of this pillar (Ueno 1980, 56). In this type of caves, the preaching scenes of the Buddha were often depicted on these side walls of the front space, and so were those in Cave 224. While the exact location of the DIA piece on the walls await further investigation, the four figures on the mural fragment are most likely attendants of more major figures, most likely the Buddha on the side walls.

Interior of a central pillar cave with wall paintings of preaching scenes and A. Grünwedel at work, B 1739
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst

These and other attending figures appearing on many mural fragments preserved in North American collections are rather anonymous in many cases, yet they are indispensable and invaluable as cultural remains. This is not only because of the overall low number of remaining murals from cave shrines, but also because of visual narratives according to which the space for prayer was constructed inside caves. In the case of Kizil Cave 224, scenes based on the Buddha’s past and present life events and preachings adorned most part of the interior walls including the ceiling, and also Maitreya, the future Buddha, was depicted in the guise of Bodhisattva in the Tuṣita Heaven on a lunette above the main room’s exit. After moving from the antechamber to the main room of the cave, visitors were first greeted by a now-lost statue of the Buddha in the niche of the column, then went through the corridor where they saw the scenes of the Buddha’s Great Extinction (parinirvāṇa) on the rear wall of the cave. Following the scenes of events after the Buddha’s departure, such as cremation and division of his relics, the visitors encounter Maitreya in the Tuṣita Heaven above the exit.

As Buddhists revered the statue of the Buddha and circumambulated the pillar, they traveled through the space in devotion to the Buddha and Buddhist teachings, where axes of past, present and future time cross. Attendant figures on mural fragments of the DIA certainly contributed to the orchestration of this devotional space.


Digital Silk Road Project, National Institute of Informatics. 2016. "Database for Buddhist Cave Temples in China."Accessed November 28.

Miyaji Akira. 1992. Nehan to Miroku no zuzōgaku: Indo kara Chūō Ajia e 涅槃と弥勒の図像学: インドから中央アジアへ [Iconography of parinirvānạ and Maitreya : from India to Central Asia]. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan.

Ueno Aki 上野アキ. 1980. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu - jō: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 312 (February):48–61.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Dr. Birgitta Augustine (former curator of the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World of the DIA), and Ms. Susan Higman Larsen for their support for the Georgetown-IDP project.