Mogao Caves, China

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The Sanskrit connection

Chandrima Banerjee, November 13, 2020: The Times of India

A wall painting at a Buddhist cave temple at the Mogao site along the Silk Road in China
From: Chandrima Banerjee, November 13, 2020: The Times of India

Hidden Sanskrit text decodes origins of a Silk Route cave

The name of the cell, a prosaic Cave 465, does not quite convey the cornucopia of imagery it contains — angry Tantric deities in frenzied sexual union with their consorts. For decades, researchers have tried figuring out how old the Buddhist cave temple at the Mogao site along the ancient Silk Road in China is. Estimates range from the 9th century to the 14th. But now, the discovery of “hidden” Sanskrit inscriptions on pieces of paper stuck to its ceiling have helped narrow down its origins.

On the edge of the Gobi desert, by the Dachuan river, the Mogao Caves have baffled researchers, who have settled on a thousand-year window for when all the 492 caves were carved out of cliffs, one at a long time, starting in the 4th century CE. But Cave 465, to the north of the site, is unique.

“It is a very special cave temple. You do not see such pure Indo-Tibetan style wall painting anywhere at the Mogao site or in the surrounding regions. All the other ones have some Chinese influence,” professor Haida Liang from the Nottingham Trent University, corresponding author of the study published by ‘Nature’, told TOI.

So, finding Sanskrit text in it was not that surprising. “But it is rather unusual to find them on pieces of paper stuck to the ceiling,” said Liang. To unlock the secrets of the centuries-old cave, the researchers turned to spectral imaging and machine learning. The imaging technique breaks down infrared light to a point where a spectrum per pixel of an image can be generated, making near-invisible elements appear.

Which comes back to the pieces of paper. “Once we realised that they were for consecration, it meant that if we could date the writing then we could date the paintings,” said Liang. “But in this case, none of the bands (of light) showed anything.” So they developed an algorithm.

What finally helped narrow down the age of the cave temple paintings were the shape of the letters and, interestingly, the use of vowels. Because the papers were pasted as part of a consecration ritual, they are thought to coincide with the construction of the cave temple itself. They finally had a date — late 12th to 13th century.

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