The challenge of studying visual art, literature, and their institutional contexts in a synthetic fashion is acute throughout the humanities today. The Life of the Buddha (LOTB) project addresses this challenge by presenting and analyzing for the first time monumental Tibetan murals depicting the Buddha’s life, their related literature, and their architectural and historical settings. LOTB will also offer scholarly and learning communities the first tool to research and engage image, text, architecture, and history as an integrated and meaning-rich whole. The project’s impact for the humanities and the study of Buddhism will thus be twofold: the largest study to date on visual and textual Buddha narratives in Tibet, and a new digital tool for synthetic teaching and research of Buddhist images and texts in context.
LOTB is based on a detailed series of murals produced at the famed Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Jonang, together with an extended literary narrative by the monastery’s founder Taranatha (1575-1634). These murals date from the first decades of the 17th century and are among only a handful of fully preserved narrative paintings in Central Tibet. They are also among the few murals in Tibet explicitly linked to an extant collection of narrative, poetic, ritual, and technical painting literature about the Buddha. Practically nothing has been written about the Jonang murals, and no complete visual documentation has ever been attempted.
Satellite imagery for the site of Jonang Monastery is crucial to this project. Our aim is to understand the production of Buddhist cultural heritage within its broader contexts, including the architecture of its encompassing monastic complex and the surrounding geography. The monastery itself was a vast complex, but it sustained extensive damage during the period of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and 70s. Our aim in requesting satellite imagery from the Digital Globe Foundation is to compare the most detailed contemporary imagery of the site with earlier documentary evidence from Corona imagery taken prior to its damage in the 1960s. This will allow us to perform several types of analysis that have heretofore been lacking in most studies of Tibetan religious culture: (1) an accurate mapping of monastic institution within its geographic setting; (2) a comparison of changes in the monastic institution’s physical setting (buildings, waterways, vegetation, etc.) over time; and (3) the influence of physical setting on the visual expression of religious culture.