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The digital reconstruction of Kalmyk khuruls

Not only has the field of digital archaeology gifted heritage practitioners with new ways of preserving information regarding heritage listed buildings and monuments, but, through the use of three-dimensional laser scanners to create accurate representations, it has also allowed for these buildings and monuments to become accessible to a wider audience. But this use of three-dimensional laser scanners can only be applied to structures that have physical remains. How then, can we reconstruct buildings which are no longer extant, either through having been destroyed by natural disasters, the decay of time, or human intervention?

It was this question which led me to expand upon my career experience of producing reports on heritage listed buildings and structures for various organisations. Living in a city which lost much of its historic buildings to a series of devastating earthquakes, I became interested in how digital technology can be used to recreate and ultimately, explore, buildings which are no longer extant.

This interest naturally combined with my academic research into the khuruls (Buddhist monasteries) of the Kalmyk people of Russia which were destroyed during the Soviet period. In order to understand the religious significance of these khuruls and how the buildings were used in the day to day life of the monks who inhabit them, we are forced to rely on the surviving black and white photographs, accounts written by visitors and the oral histories of the Kalmyk people. Although new khuruls have been built following the post-Soviet revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia, it is still important to preserve the former architectural traditions of the Tsarist era khuruls which arose through a combination of political, religious and social factors.

                             Bagatugtun Syume. Courtesty of the Stavropol State Historical, Cultural and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve.

It was a wish to catalogue these lost khuruls, to preserve as much information about them as possible, which led me to investigate digital modelling as a feasible means of recapturing a Buddhist architectural tradition which was nearly rendered extinct.

The model

When researching the digital modelling of heritage buildings, the tool which seemed readily available was SketchUp. Given that this was a personal project and that I was working without institutional support, the free licence for individuals made this product the best option.

The first model I decided to build was the former khurul temple, Bagatugtun Syume, which was built in Bolshederbetovsky Ulus in 1912. Although working from the original photograph and building plans, I still had no accurate measurements to guide me. I had to make judgment calls on what I believed to be the closest measurements in order to ensure that the model appeared accurate in size and shape. Through much trial and error, the model started to take shape.

Since this was my first attempt at using SketchUp, I made many errors. To rectify this, I watched many tutorials, and taught myself the various techniques needed in order to solve some of the issues I encountered when confronted with the unique architectural patterns found on Bagatugtun Syume.

One difficulty I faced came from working with only a black and white photograph as my source material. Although some colours (such as the brickwork and the timber) can be assumed with a degree of accuracy, other elements proved problematic. What colour would the roof have been? What colour was the stained glass in the windows? I had to rely on what historical information I had regarding the colour scheme of khuruls (for example, green being the traditional colour of a khurul roof) and make some judgment calls.

                                 Bagatugtun Syume. Courtesty of the Stavropol State Historical, Cultural and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve.

Presenting the model

Initially I envisioned making the model accessible through a virtual reality (VR) headset. I experimented with some free AR programmes and a headset which allowed me to view the model through an Android phone. However, since I wanted the model to be accessible to a wider audience, I knew that the use of a headset would be limiting, in that it would only be accessible to an audience at a fixed location (such as a museum). Rather, I wanted the model to be able to be accessible to people worldwide.

To present the models with enhanced rendering, I settled upon using SketchFab, which can be used to embed SketchUp models on websites. In this way, the viewer can still explore the model, but at a comfortable level without the overwhelming sensation that can sometimes accompany the use of VR.

Future goals

At present, the study of Buddhism in Kalmykia is very limited in Western universities (often presented as a subfield of Mongolian Buddhist studies). Therefore, knowledge of Kalmyk Buddhism remains rare. Because of this, many people outside of the Kalmyk community are not aware of just how important these monasteries are for the study of the history of Kalmyk Buddhism and its role within the Russian Empire.

With the elder generation of Kalmyks passing away, there is a fear that much of this traditional knowledge may be lost. For the younger generation, growing up in secular societies, there is the challenge of finding means for them to re-engage with their Buddhist heritage. It is not possible to expect that every individual will be able to engage with their heritage in an academic manner. Therefore, digital technology can allow the heritage of the Kalmyk people to be made easily accessible. The temples of their ancestors, which were once confined to a few surviving black and white photographs, can now be brought to life again. Perhaps the sight of them may inspire a young Kalmyk child to pursue a path in the study of their Buddhist history or to even take the vows of a monk and dedicate their life to the Buddha’s teachings.

I am grateful to have received support and encouragement from both the elder and younger generation of Kalmyks living in both Russia and the United States.

With this support, and with what additional information is available, I aim to create further 3D digital models of the khuruls which once rose from the Kalmyk steppe of the Russian Empire.

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