China's ancient Buddhist frescoes fading into history

AFP, Nov 28, 2007

MOGAO CAVES, China -- In the cool gloom of an arching sandstone cavern in northwestern China, medics wielding syringes work to save a patient in critical condition.

<< Visitors walk outside the Mogao Grottoes Buddhist mural complex

Under the light of small lamps, technicians painstakingly apply a liquid bonding agent to stabilise a crumbling 1,000-year-old fresco, part of the striking Mogao Grottoes Buddhist mural complex in remote Gansu province.

Among the world's greatest collections of Buddhist art, the cave frescoes date back 1,650 years, created as eternal tributes to Buddha.

But today they fading away from age, tourist pressures and climate change.

"Look at this part. It's just crumbling, like bread," said Fan Zaixuan, who directs restoration work, his flashlight illuminating a scene from the Buddha's life.

"It's in serious trouble but we'll do what we can."

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.

From the fourth century AD, monks seeking ascetic retreats in the caves began turning them into places of worship.

Most centre on statues of the Buddha, with one towering 34 metres (111 feet) high.

Situated on the Silk Road, the ancient east-west conduit for trade, religion and culture, the monks also amassed hoards of precious Buddhist texts.

But the frescoes -- watercolours applied to a layer of wet plaster or clay -- are Mogao's highlight.

In turquoise greens and pastel oranges, they depict minutely detailed scenes from the Buddha's life, celebrate Buddhist kings of the past, and portray Buddhist deities, and were added to over a period of 1,000 years.

They cover a staggering 45,000 square metres (484,000 square feet) of wall space, where Indian and central Asian styles of clothing, dance and facial types mix with Chinese flavours, reflecting the Silk Road's cosmopolitanism.

"All Silk Road traffic passed through Dunhuang, so a rich cultural and artistic heritage coalesced here," Wang said.

Since their rediscovery about 100 years ago, the caves have suffered looting, vandalism and neglect.

But today they risk being loved to death.

Daily visitor numbers often spike to more than 7,000, as increasing numbers of Chinese can afford pleasure travel. A figure of about 2,000 visitors a day is considered ideal.

"With a lot of people in the caves, carbon dioxide levels go up, the temperature goes up, humidity goes up. It's terrible for the frescoes, and returning to normal takes a very long time," said Wang.

Closing the grottoes is not an option as local authorities chase tourism revenue, so protective measures are taken.

Visitors are broken into small groups and cameras are banned since flash exposures accelerate fading.

Actual preservation work is more delicate and less certain.

The composition of chemical agents used to shore up crumbling sections must be recalibrated for each cave's environment, and even adjusted for different sides of a cave.

Particularly at-risk sections undergo a painstaking process in which destabilising salt is chemically extracted from minerals in the walls.

"It's not high-tech work, but finding people with the right skills in China is hard," said Wang.

Fan sees his job as sustaining the frescoes while a parallel effort to digitally photograph them for posterity continues.

"There may be a day when they all disappear or crumble away," he said.

"But our mission is to extend their life as long as we can."

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: