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Tibetan History

The historical background of practice of printing within Tibetan community is closely related with the invention of woodblock printing in china and its expansion to Asian countries. Paper, also like printing, had its origin in China. And these two things are closely connected. Tibetan culture adopted the technique from their neighbors along with many other disciplines. So for reaching the historical back ground of the practice we have to look back at the beginning and development of wood block printing in China.

The earliest printed book ‘Diamond Sutra’ was found in china. It was printed in 868 AD., by wood block printing method. But the degree of perfection in printing we see in ‘Diamond Sutra’ manuscript reveals a long way of effort and experimentation necessary for reaching that stage.

In China the confusion scholars started to inscribe texts in stone since in 206-220 AD. In Han dynasty. The use of seal was common before that time. The Chinese word ‘Yin’ stands for seal means for clay to paper. The use of it was mentioned in 255 BC. These were made of many kind of material and the impressions were perfect, but the impressions were often inkless, generally taken on clay. Before 55 AD. Seals were often in white on red creating the illusion of an intaglio impression or vice versa - the relief manner. Around 175-83 BC., Confucian and Taoist classics began to cut in the stone and prints from those were taken by ink rubbing.

The process of taking print was to put a sheet of thin, strong moistened paper on the stone, and applying pressure by a stiff brush so that the paper touch the lower surface (inscribed area) of the stone. After the paper became dried a pad of cloth, usually silk or cotton soaked well in sized ink was passed over it. The ink was absorbed in non-engraved areas of the stone. When the paper was taken away from the stone, it showed the text in white on the black back ground.

The annals of the late Han dynasty (206 BC-2211 AD.) record the fact that the engraved stone tablets of the six classics, was kept at the entrance of the Imperial academy. People came there for copy it by the process of rubbing.

First cutting of images and character into woodblocks happened in Tang dynasty (618AD.-966AD.). Mainly these were religious doctrines -Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Christian. In 7th century AD. experimentation in Buddhist monasteries took place. This included various types of Buddha stamps, textile prints, stencils etc. These printing were performed for devotional purpose. Mahayana Buddhist made their theology with thousand Buddhas. Beside the human Buddha Sakyamuni Gautama, son of Suddhodhana, the chief of Sakya tribe, who was born 2500 years ago, who was a historical character - these thousand Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas are images of enlightened beings, the saviour of mankind. For visualizing the innumerable Buddha images, the monk-artists took the chance of printmaking. Countless images of Buddha were found printed on paper on scrolls. One such scroll is kept in British museum display 480 impressions of the same image in 17 ft. long scroll.

In the Book by T.F. Center named ‘Invention of printing in China and its spread west ward,’ we found the earliest known authentic block print dates from 770 AD. came from Japan. These were one million charms in Sanskrit and Chinese characters.

 At last 868 AD. Buddhist monastery in tun Huang cave in Chinese Turkistan ‘Diamond Sutra’ earliest known dated block book printed. It was dedicated "for universal free distribution by Wang Chieh to perpetuate the memory of his parents. In 1907 Sir Aurelstein discovered Tun Huang cave which was founded in 366 AD. He found 1500 scrolls, texts and books among with Diamond sutra in a manuscript chamber sealed during the 10th century.

  Tun huang scrolls especially the diamond sutra is an example of transformation of a scroll to book. A little sutra of 8 pages printed on one side and folded like a modern day folder. Some western scholars who have put much emphasis on John Guttenberg as pioneer of printing do not consider Eastern civilization as cradle of printing According to their viewpoint the invention of movable type is the beginning of printing, But one thing we must keep in mind that in East Asia specially china using movable type was not very economical because the Chinese had 40,000 characters in their writing where the Europeans had merely a few alphabets. However the Chinese also invented movable type before European at 1041 AD. Bi Sheng invented this. Around 1200 AD. moveable type was widely used in Korea.

American Scholar T.F. Carter wrote in his book ‘The invention of printing and its spread westward’-For printing and the invention of printing is the invention of that form of printing which transform the education and culture of nation". This was the beginning, of printing manuscript and it continued. So as the result of this continuities Tibetan community also inherited this process for duplicating their sacred texts.

The another important factor in printing books or scrolls is the surface for printing : The paper. Paper also was first made in China. Before inventing the paper various materials were used for writing propose. In India Birch bark was used for manuscripts. But in China birch bark never had been used for writing purpose. Other materials such as animal bones, tortoise shells, stone, clay, wood, bamboo, metal, silk had been widely used. At 105 AD Tsai Lun invented the manufacture of paper. It was Han dynasty (200BC.-200AD.), when the rise of burocracy demanded the need of writing materials. Tsai Lun made paper from rags and raw fibers. After invention of paper gradually it became a very popular writing material and by end of 5th century all Central Asia started to use paper. This way from China the knowledge of paper making introduced to Tibet. But after 1200 AD. , technically we see no sign of development. Still now Tibetan papermakers follow the same process from the beginning time. The craft of paper making introduced to Tibet influenced areas like Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh at 1000 AD.Tamang horse riders who had been spread over these Himalayan countries, since 700 AD.- were possibly bearer of this technology.

The next important thing is the printing ink. This was earlier used at 100 BC (Shung period). The Chinese made black ink of burnt wood on lacquer mixed with glue and formed into a paste or brick, which is soluble in water. Cinnabar red was also used and it was widely used besides black.
The wood for making the block was usually pear or jujbe. The wooden plank was clear cut, the surface of the plank very careful flattened and sized with rice flour paste. Though the use of paper was introduced to Tibet earlier, manuscript from that time we found is hand written.

In 1334 the compilation of ‘KANJUR’ (Translation of the words of Buddha) and TENJUR (Translation of treatise) ended. Kanjur contains 4500 works. This huge task was performed by great Tibetan scholar Bu-Ston (1290Ad.-1364AD.). A master copy of Tenjur was deposited at Zhalu monastery between Shigatse and Syantse.

In 1410 one edition of Kanjur was printed in Peking. It was the first printed Tibetan manuscript So we may assume from that time practice of printing introduced to Tibetan community. Later we see printing presses in all large monasteries of Tibet and Himalayan countries. But it is very difficult to find any distinct historical record of these presses and its activities throughout the centuries.

One reason behind it may be that the total emphasis of the printing process was on making sacred texts and ritual oriented objects (such as banner, images, diagram etc). And it had so strong ritualistic purpose in its formation, that it was never considered as a separate discipline to study. So the user of it remained more or less unaware of its historical importance from technical or artistic view point.

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