Mystery of Ancient Buddhist Cave Temple Writing Solved
Researchers have successfully dated a set of mysterious phrases discovered on the ceiling of a Tibetan tantric Buddhist cave temple in China. The Mogao Caves are located on the ancient Silk Road in Dunhuang, northwest China, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. This designated UNESCO World Heritage Site features sacred meditational environments with high ceilings covered with paintings and inscriptions, some dated to over 1000 years ago. Now, a research team using 3D spectral imaging equipment have scanned one of these Buddhist cave temples, and their high-resolution imaging of these ancient paintings and writings has solved several historical mysteries.
How One Mogao Buddhist Cave Temple Was Dated
Researchers from Nottingham Trent University were assisted by scientists from the Dunhuang Research Academy in China and The British Library. Professor Haida Liang, head of the Imaging and Sensing for Archaeology, Art History & Conservation research group (ISAAC) at Nottingham Trent University, told the Nottingham Post that the 3D spectral imaging was able to identify colors that are not visible to the naked eye, and that a machine-learning application took care of crunching the vast amount of scanned data. She added that “our analysis has enabled us to date this cave with much more certainty than ever before.”
Nearly 500 painted Mogao Buddhist cave temples , dating from the 4th to the 14th century AD, have been found by archaeologists. However, this international research team made what they call the “unusual discovery of a mistake made by workers more than 700 years ago.”
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The ceiling of this particular Buddhist cave temple, “Cave 465,” is painted with images of the “Five Celestial Buddhas.” But the researchers were unable to read the faded red Sanskrit paper writing at the foot of each of the five Buddhas because the letters were “flipped.”
The faded Sanskrit paper writing at the foot of each of the five Buddhas, in Cave 465, that could not be read because the letters were “flipped.” ( Nottingham Trent University )
Did The Buddhist Cave Temple Workers Understand Sanskrit?
These small pieces of paper were painted, or printed, and then pasted on the ceiling “face down.” Dr Haida Liang said they were produced during the construction of the Buddhist cave temple as part of a consecration ritual and that their being reversed was “a fascinating discovery.” The researcher thinks this was a mistake and she suggests the workmen who attached the pieces of paper, “perhaps didn’t understand Sanskrit.”
The written text is a Buddhist Sanskrit phrase known as the “Summary of Dependent Origination.” In Peter Harvey’s book Buddhism we learn this phrase “highlights the Buddhist notion that all apparently substantial entities within the world are in fact wrongly perceived.” What Harvey means by this, is where we westerners use terms such as “I,” “self,” “river,” and “bird,” etc. to identify permanent and stable things, in the teachings of the Buddha “All things arise from causes.”
The natural minerals used to make the paint pigments used in the Buddhist cave temple paintings of Cave 465. (Hiroooooo / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Buddhist Cave Temple Colors And Letters Used For Dating
Analysis of the paint colors in this particular Buddhist cave temple revealed that the red pigment was created from cinnabar, and that gypsum and dolomite were used to make white, while the yellow color was made with orpiment.
According to the research team, in Tibetan period caves (7th to 9th century AD), gypsum was never used to make white and yellow was only ever made with ochre pigment, rather than orpiment. However, these specific color combinations were used together in the Mongol / Yuan period (early 13th century to 1368 AD).
With this data, the researchers applied the discipline of palaeography, the study of historic writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts. Certain letters were identified that were not written in the way depicted until after the late 12th century AD, thus, the team dated the paintings from late 12th to 13th century AD.
Returning to Professor Haida Liang’s suggestion that the workmen made “a mistake” by attaching the pieces of paper the wrong way round. Perhaps this was no mistake and only appears as such by today’s standards. While they appear to be flipped to us, what if the ancient messages were turned around so that they were conceptually readable for the five Buddhas, for whom they were written?
To assume that the Buddhists who made the sacred paper messages “accidentally” turned them around is akin to an archaeologist in the future excavating a modern ambulance and assuming that vehicle manufacturers were all stupid because they spelled the word “ECNALUBMA” on the bonnets.
Top image: The ancient wall paintings inside Buddhist cave temple “Cave 465,” located near Dunhuang about 932 miles (1500 km) west of present-day Beijing. Source: Nottingham Trent University
By Ashley Cowie