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Buddhistdoor View: The International Dunhuang Programme and Digital Tech as the Guardian of Ancient Heritage

Toward the end of 2023, several new words were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, including popular internet terms such as “grammable,” “finsta,” and “girlboss.” In the last few years, a great portion of these new words have made it because of advances in digital and online technology. “Grammable” and “finsta” do not make sense without a pre-knowledge of Instagram and therefore social media. In this spirit, perhaps one worth considering for 2024 could be “Dunhuangology,” which has been a distinct discipline ever since the first Western and Japanese explorers arrived in China and began plundering manuscripts from the heritage area’s Cave 17, the Library Cave. A need to study the manuscripts of Cave 17 and all of Dunhuang in an innovative way arose because of the unique nature and history of the discipline: manuscripts have been scattered around the world, meaning that there is no one country that can serve as the “home base” for Dunhuang studies.

Furthermore, much like Baghdad, Alexandria, or other pre-modern hubs of multicultural interaction, Dunhuang was a repository of a vastly diverse array of texts in terms of language (Sogdian, Sanskrit, Chinese, Khotanese, Tibetan, Tangut, Old Uyghur, and more), genre (literature, scripture, philosophy, history, medicine, astronomy, music), and religious affiliation (Buddhist, Daoist, Nestorian Christian, Manichaean, and folkloric). A need arose for databases powered by pioneering digital archives that can be accessed by researchers speaking different languages and living in different countries. Dunhuangology is therefore unique because of its prominence in driving the development of online technology.


Enter the International Dunhuang Programme (IDP), one of the most prestigious, well-known, and active programs in regard to Silk Road heritage preservation. Established by the British Library and other institutions as the International Dunhuang Project in 1994 (read more about its history here), the IDP is an international collaboration linking the collections of over 35 partner institutions worldwide. On 21 February, the IDP launched the English version of its new website, coinciding with the organization’s 30th anniversary. In a post on X (formerly Twitter) the IDP team wrote about this new milestone:

We are delighted to announce the launch of our redeveloped International Dunhuang Programme (IDP) website! It is now live with a refreshed visual identity, improved search capability, IIIF image viewer and new contextual resources.


Finally, in its most recent newsletter on 1 March, the IDP announced its subtle but important name change. As the IDP noted in a newsletter, the feature upgrades are significant, including but not limited to:

– A refreshed visual identity and more user-friendly navigation,

– Enhanced search functions like an Elasticsearch engine to guarantee better accuracy and relevance of results when using the traditional keyword search,

– Customised search relationships that capture the variety of diacritical marks in the metadata and relates search terms in different languages, and:

– Two image viewers of Mirador and Universal Viewer, with both being compliant with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), a leading standard adopted by libraries and museums to deliver high-quality digital assets across a broad variety of technical environments (Mirador viewer is specifically adapted to view items from the Eastern Silk Roads, displaying scrolls and non-standard book items in a more intuitive fashion).


As observed by the Digital Orientalist, the “IDP can be considered the most important digital archive in Dunhuangology, where researchers can search and read documents housed at different institutions in different countries on a single platform. . . . Digital technology has revolutionised Silk Road archaeology.” (Digital Orientalist)


It also goes beyond Dunhuangology. For example, Pakistan’s Digital Heritage Center (formerly under the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), and the Bochum-based Digitalisation of Gandharan Artefacts (DiGA) project, have proved that the technology of the future is accelerating progress in a range of Buddhist studies-related interdisciplinary fields. This includes drones, three-dimensional terrestrial laser scanning, and collaborative technologies such as Linked Open Data (LOD), a way for projects to share data and build on each other’s work.

This includes Gandharan studies for the team at DiGA, or digitally preserving sites across Pakistan generally—many, but not all, of which are Gandharan. Furthermore, digital reconstruction, GIS mapping, as well as AR and VR tools are making invaluable contributions to Dunhuangology and Silk Road studies. It is almost beyond doubt that AI is becoming the forefront of technological innovations that serve the preservation of Dharmic heritage.

However, with new power and potential come new vulnerabilities. For example, on 28 October 2023, the British Library suffered a cyber-attack by hacker group Rhysida. As The Guardian reported, the 170 million items of the British Library were rendered inaccessible and as of today, the library is still recovering, with services and systems still crippled: “Rhysida’s attack, according to Ciaran Martin, the previous CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, is ‘one of the worst cyber incidents in British history.’” (The Guardian)

Aerial view of Takht-i-Bahi, the Indo-Parthian archaeological site of an ancient Buddhist monastery in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, and focus of the Digital Heritage Project and DiGA. Image courtesy of the Digital Heritage Project

Access to the Library’s Asian and African collections was also impacted. The blog of the Asian and African Studies dated 26 February gives guidance on access to the British Library’s Asian and African collections and their availability. It notes that since the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, readers will need to go the Library’s Reading Rooms in St Pancras, London, where Reading Room staff will be able to assist and advise on availability of materials. Readers can also speak or contact the Reference Services team who can assist for queries about these collections by checking paper catalogues and other sources. The blog provides lists of printed catalogues that have been digitised and are now available on-line and links to external platforms where digitised manuscripts in the British Library collection are available.

This devastating attack highlights how a sober and comprehensive strategy needs to be crafted to protect the vast investments—from decades of scholarly research and academic knowledge to the millions of dollars poured into the development of digital resources—put into these repositories of high-tech preservation.

Dr. Song Chong Lee, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Seoul National University, is preparing a paper that argues for a pro-social approach to cyberspace, and by extension the new technologies that are rapidly dominating our world. It is a full-throated—if mindful—embrace of an epoch that promises to be as influential as the Industrial Revolution. As digital, cyberspace, and future technology accelerates, Buddhist leaders are, on the whole, moving on from technology as a distraction or necessary evil. Many now see its potential to not only give a bodhisattva a new kind of “training ground,” not only to utilize a new and free range of identities and connect with countless people, but also to steward Buddhism’s archaeological and artistic heritage.

See more

International Dunhuang Project
History of the IDP
Knowledge Matters (British Library)
The age of digital technology: Silk Road archaeological sites and artefacts (Part 1) (The Digital Orientalist)
Restoring access to the British Library’s Asian and African Collections (Asian and African studies blog)
Thanks to a shadowy hacker group, the British Library is still on its knees. Is there any way to stop them? (The Guardian)

Related features from BDG

Buddhica Antiqua: Preserving Ancient Buddhist Heritage with the Digitalisation of Gandharan Artefacts Team
The Heart of Gold in Buddhism and Christianity: Splendor and Sacrality at the British Library

Related blog posts from BDG Tea House

Dr. Song Chong Lee’s Brave New World: The Mahayana Ethics of Cyberspace
Technology of the Three Treasures: Laser Scanning Pakistan’s Buddhist Heritage

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