Digital resources for the study of Buddhist Art in Central Asia: a general overview

When it comes to Buddhist studies, the number of online resources can feel very overwhelming – from the thousands of pages of the Chinese Buddhist canon, to the humongous digital archives of manuscripts and inscriptions from sites all across Asia. As for Buddhist art and architecture, the situation is virtually the same – archaeologists and art historians alike have to navigate a sea of photos, maps, and archives. When it comes to the material culture of Central Asia in particular, the resources are at times difficult to find, as they are not only spread across a number of sites, but they are also often indexed under different toponyms – South Asian art, East Asian art, Chinese Turkestan, Serindia, and so on. After years of struggling on my own, I share here are ten resources I keep returning to, in the hope that it can be of use both to the beginner and to the seasoned scholar alike. In forthcoming articles, I plan to go into more detail about some of these resources, their pros and cons, and the use of many of their very specialized tools.

The John C. and Susan L. Huntington Archive hardly needs introduction, and for obvious reasons: it is one of the greatest photographic archives of Buddhist art out there. It contains over 200,000 photographs taken by the Huntingtons during their numerous fieldwork trips throughout Asia. There are thousands of photographs of sites and objects from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Northern India. John Huntington sadly passed away last year but his work continues to live on in his books and his archive. Donations for the archive can be made at this link.

The Digital South Asian Library (DSAL) is a multi-institutional collaboration led by the University of Chicago whose purpose is to provide access to digital materials about South Asia. It collects several different archives, but the one I personally found most useful for the study of Central Asian Buddhist art is the AIIS (American Institute of Indian Studies) photographic archive. It is invaluable because it preserves through its photos a digital version of sites that have recently been looted or destroyed – for example, the 1970s photos of the Bamiyan colossal buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 – but it also collects photos of sculptures from several Indian institutions, many of which unfortunately have not published catalogs of their collections yet. The photographs appear low-res on the website, and hi-res versions are available through the AIIS Center for Art and Archaeology – just shoot them an email. Another important tool in the DSAL is Maps, where old maps from the Imperial Gazetteer of India up to 1908 can be found.

As for maps, another digital tool I have used in the past is Old Maps Online. The website indexes over 400,000 maps, from a variety of different sources, and it’s easy to navigate: just input the toponym of the place you are seeking in the search bar and voilà! The right hand bar will show you all the relevant maps. It works with larger areas and countries as well. Most maps are georeferenced, and through the Georeferencer tool, multiple historical maps can be overlayed and compared. I use this tool to quickly map the change of toponyms across the years – for sites in Central Asia that can be quite drastic – and to locate some historical sites that do not appear in modern maps, but were previously recorded. The project today is maintained by a group of volunteers from Klokan Technologies GmbH, and they collaborate with many institutions around the world.

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is another classic digital resource. The website is indispensable to all who study Buddhist art of Central Asia, especially that of the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang. The materials there include (but are not limited to) photographs and descriptions of archaeological sites, digitized manuscripts, the history of collections of Central Asian art around the world, digital resources for teaching and e-Learning, and it also archives all the IDP issues from 1993 to now. I have struggled at times with the search function, which is divided into ‘Advanced search,’ ‘Catalog search,’ ‘Bibliography search’ plus a more basic search bar where you can input any word you want and hope for the best – I find that these categories work best when I already have a semi-formed idea of the kind of content I want to access (a specific object or manuscript, or a specific archive), but sometimes I prefer to use the archive as a sounding board for my intuitions and browse loosely related materials to collect more information at the start of a project. Because of this, I highly recommend reading the Search Tips before embarking on the navigation. The partner institutions of IDP are many, among them the Victoria and Albert Museum, Ryukoku University, and The Institute for Oriental Manuscripts in St Petersburg. If you want to keep up with their activities, IDP has a blog which is updated regularly.

The Digital Silk Road is a repository for anything Silk Road related (so definitely take a look around) – but the gem of the site is the Toyo Bunko archive. The archive holds scans of old reports from the late 19th-early 20th century excavations in Central Asia, some of them almost impossible to find even in the best libraries. The interface of the archive is a bit dated and can be difficult to navigate, but the rarity of the books it contains makes up for it. The 245 scanned books are divided into five categories: Expedition Records, Academic Study, Historical Records, Photographs, and Maps, each indexed in turn according to the country where the item was published. For example, if you are looking for a report by Albert Grünwedel on the Buddhist art of the Tarim Basin, you will find it under Expedition Records > Germany.

The vast online collection of the British Library has historic photos of early archaeological excavations in Pakistan and Northern India. Particularly interesting is the Stein Archive collecting papers and photos of Marc Aurel Stein’s travels in Central Asia, and the Alexander Caddy Collection, with photographs of the Buddhist statuary from Peshawar and the Swat Valley. Several of these statues are now scattered around the world in many different museum institutions, so these photos of the sculptures together at the same site – even though most of the time not necessarily in situ – are quite helpful in establishing stylistic groups.

Another major repository website is The Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, which has compiled a list of digital resources for the study of Buddhism. Among them, the Directory for art and visual materials allows everybody to access photographs of artworks and archaeological sites in Central Asia and South Asia, but it is also a great place to find syllabi and bibliographical lists to support teaching.

I often consult Susan Whitfield’s blog, Silk Road Digressions, which is a wonderful collection of academic essays, exhibition reviews, together with a list of events relevant to the study of the art and archaeology of the Silk Road. I find myself reading the blog quite regularly, as it is a way to keep up “in real time” with the work of a very important scholar in the field.

The team of Gandhāra Connections, a project which recently ended its 5-year tenure, has collected a lot of digital resources specific to the Buddhist art of Gandhāra. There are bibliographic lists, useful links to museum collections and archives that have objects and documents related to Gandhāran art, and a collection of short essays introducing the main archaeological sites in Pakistan. The project aims to be widely accessible online and around the world, so all of their lectures and conferences are available online through this link and the proceedings of each conference are published as open access online. Despite the formal end of the 5-year activities of the project, the team wants to expand its focus to the relationship between India and the Classical World.

Finally, I always recommend Google Arts and Culture – if you are lucky enough to find the object you are seeking there, the hi-res photos allow you to see details you could never see from behind glass in a museum. There are also several well-curated online exhibits of Buddhist art, such as “The Gandhara gallery in the Lahore museum,” “From demoness to deity: Hariti in art and familial traditions,” and “Buddhism and its artistic expression.”

All of these digital resources are invaluable as digital repositories of materials that would otherwise be inaccessible – each one has its pros and cons, limitations, and potential. In forthcoming articles, I will review some of them in more detail to show how they can inform a research project and shape the trajectory of teaching in the digital age.

One thought on “Digital resources for the study of Buddhist Art in Central Asia: a general overview

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s