Sailing the Seas: CityU’s Gallery paints rare story of Maritime Silk Road

The Land Silk Route is a popular topic in museum and gallery exhibitions. We often see depiction of Dunhuang Cave Paintings, one of the pinnacles of cross-culture artistic interactions and spread of Buddhism across the Land Silk Route. 

But the Maritime Silk Route is under-documented. Indra and Harry Banga Gallery at Hong Kong’s City University wants to change this trend and highlight the Maritime Silk Route with their current exhibition, Atlas of Maritime Buddhism.

So, what is the Maritime Silk Route?

Within Asia, the Great Circle area was divided into two key regions. The top half of the Great Circle was also where the Land Silk Route was mainly spread into western and central areas of Eurasia, whereas the bottom half was the Maritime Silk Route was disseminated through the eastern and south-eastern parts of Asia. There were many different types of trade commodities, where spices were shipped from West to East Eurasia, whilst pottery, porcelain and jewellery were traded in the opposite direction. Another key trade commodity was Buddhism, where Buddhist practices, philosophy, art and architecture spread across in the eastern, central and south-eastern parts of Eurasia.

Importance of technology

The Value talked to the exhibition's co-curator, Jeffrey Shaw, further about the exhibition. The other co-curator is Sarah Kenderdine, a specialist in digital museology. 

According to Shaw, the exhibition wants to tell many interactive stories through new media techniques. During the digital recording, 70 locations were photographed – 10 locations in 7 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia. Two key photographic techniques – photogrammetry and spherical gigapixel – were used. Photogrammetry is when 100 to 200 photos of an object are taken, and then combined into a rotational 3D model using a visual software. Spherical gigapixel is when a camera takes pictures in 360 degrees, and viewing can be done by rotating the point of view (POV). These technologies are exemplified through the exhibition’s 10 3D models, as well as the depictions of 20 Indian caves in total, together with other depictions of Indian, Chinese and Thai Buddhist ceremonies.

iDome Hemispherical Projection. Viewers can experience an immersive experience during the exhibition, and can navigate within 20 Indian caves. 

One key media is the panoramic 360-degree navigator. Shaw mentioned the exhibition did not want to limit visitors with 1 person wearing VR goggles, especially during the pandemic. In the Atlas Panorama, five 360-degree panoramic movies take viewers on an immersive journey across the oceans to visit these sites. The projection is done via the Panoramic Navigator, inside a 5 metre diametre circular screen, where viewers can steer the projection to focus on their areas of interest. A large number of panoramic images are also interactively provided to the visitor in the Linear Navigator. 

Panoramic navigator. Visitors can select between 7 countries, and discover each territories' unique Buddhist art and architecture. 

Linear navigation technology is another key new media used in the exhibition. Viewers can drag the television screen leftwards or rightwards to journey through 7 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia. The images move very quickly, so visitors are advised to take the time when viewing. 

Vaishali, in India's Bihar region, is one of the key locations shown in the linear navigation technology feature at the exhibition. 

This site was used for the second Buddhist Council in circa 383 BCE. 

The harmonious marriage between real-life and mediatised versions of Buddhist sculptures is evident throughout the exhibition. 

Project Initiation

The foundations of the project started when American and Buddhist scholar, Lewis Lancaster, felt that the Maritime Silk Route story was unfamiliar to audiences and wanted to make an exhibition about the topic. Lancaster first discussed the project with this exhibition’s other co-curator, Sarah Kenderdine in 2015.

After successful application, the curatorial team went around Asia for field work. It was an arduous process to start photography in each country, as approval sometimes needing up to 6 months from local authorities. The exhibition's photography team would then send 3 members, including 2 photographers and 1 co-curator - either Shaw or Kenderdine. Capturing these key religious locations not only help visitors travel virtually to the outside world, but also help alleviate the stress on the Buddhist relics which are overvisited and damaged. 

Shaw said that the identical project first appeared in Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Museum in Taiwan, but its permanent exhibition opening on their premises was delayed from March 2021 due to the pandemic to only recently. CityU’s exhibition had a different exhibition strategy to Fo Guang Shan, as it wanted to exhibit a marriage of real-life sculptures assembled from Hong Kong’s local museums and collectors, as well as mediated elements. 

The Museum exhibition's introductory section showing detailed information about different types of Buddhist pilgrims and art. 

One of the key Buddhist images was Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (commonly known as Guanyin). He represents infinite wisdom and mercy, delaying his own path to Buddhahood to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment.  

Other key Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva images. Visitors can see a melange of the Great Being in seated and standing postures. 

Key sections

The exhibition is divided into three key sections – maritime trade, Buddhist art and architecture and new media. Monks, such as Faxian (337-422 CE), Yijing (635-713 CE) and Atisa (982-1054 CE), went on pilgrimage voyages with merchants’ ships across the Maritime Silk Road, so that they could study Buddhism and disseminate its teachings. They also gave a sense of protection to the merchants and seamen, during dangerous situations such as storms, pirates and bad weather. The monks founded key monasteries upon arrival at different port bases.

Merchant ships were key in delivering key commodities. Buddhist pilgrims normally joined their voyages, and gave the merchants and seamen an added sense of security. 

Representations of Sakyamuni Buddha were initially aniconic, as ancient artists were reluctant to portray the Buddha in human form. Symbols such as the Buddha’s footprints or Buddhapada, Dharma Wheel and Bodhi Tree were used. Following the passing of the Buddha, iconic and unique representations of Sakyamuni Buddha started to develop across Asian Buddhist countries. Stupas were also built in commemoration of the Wise One’s remains. These sacred architectures spread from India across Asia, with each country again having their own distinctive stupa or pagoda style.

Lu She Na Buddha, Longmen Grottoes, Henan Province, China. 

Bodhi Tree, 2nd century, Sunga period, Bharhut, Indian Museum, Kolkata, India.

Buddhapada or footprints, 2nd century, Kushan Empire, Gandhara, Yale University Art Gallery Collection. 

Dharma Wheel. A key symbol representing the dissemination of the Buddha's teachings. 

Upcoming Projects

Creating a world touring exhibition using this version as a transferrable modular is the Museum's immediate ambition. Shaw also said that different medias, especially the 360 degrees interactive visualisation environment, can be adapted to smaller and larger spaces. For example, the exhibition in Taiwan was 600 square metres, whereas the current one in Hong Kong is 50 per cent larger at 900 square metres. 

When the pandemic has stabilised, Shaw also stated that the Museum curatorial and photography team hopes to finish digitally recording 4 remaining countries in the Great Circle - Japan, Korea, Laos and Vietnam. 

Exhibition Details:

"Atlas of Maritime Buddhism" 

Venue: Indra and Harry Banga Gallery. 18/F, Lau Ming Wai Academic Building, City University of Hong Kong.

Dates: Now until 3 October 2021

Time: Daily 10am - 7pm (Except Mondays) 

Exhibition Website: 

Pre-registration is required.