Chhimi Dema

The tradition of woodblock engraving for duplicating scriptures in Bhutan dates back to the time of the fifteenth century parton saint Terton Pema Lingpa. Its popularity grew significantly in the seventeenth century. Today, though, with the emergence of modern printing technologies, the traditional printing culture has arrived on the brink of disappearing altogether. Many argue it has already.

To preserve the traditional printing culture that includes the art of papermaking, calligraphy, woodblock engraving, and the printing techniques, the National Library and Archives of Bhutan under the home ministry opened on Tuesday a traditional print heritage museum in Thimphu. 

The museum is expected to also show and educate the younger generations about the country’s rich cultural heritage. 

The museum has for display raw materials and equipment for traditional papermaking, materials and engraving tools for xylographic woodblocks, materials and tools for printing, inks and ink-making ingredients, ink pots, materials to make traditional pens and containers. 

Calligraphic texts and documents written in lantsa (languages of gods), wartu (language of the nagas), and uchen (Brahmic/mundane scripts, now less used in Tibet and Bhutan), writings by historical figures and writing samples from contemporary calligraphers are on display as well. 

Yonten Dargye, director of the National Library and Archives, said that the three-year project was started with the hope to promote and preserve the print heritage for posterity. 

“With the emergence of new printing and computing technologies, traditional print heritage is increasingly under threat,” he said.

Calligraphy and printing in Bhutan, Yonten Dargye said, served as a primary medium for recording information, be it religious teachings, instructions, events, transactions, or communication across the country and beyond. 

He said that meeting the required modern technologies for preservation, human resources with relevant academic backgrounds, interested individuals to learn and teach others these art forms were a challenge while working to safeguard traditions. 

According to the antiques division under the home ministry, there are 19,458 woodblocks in temples, monastic institutions and dzongs across the country.

The ancient woodblocks for printing are not cared for in many parts of the country. 

Yonten Dragye said that the national library was working to collect woodblocks to add to the museum’s collection and keep them on display. 

The museum will be open for all during office hours. 

Three books were also launched during the opening of the museum. 

The book, Festivals of Bumthang Dzongkhag, focuses on 24 religious and folk festivals constituting tshechu, chodpa, kuchod, rabney, yakchod, yaklhai, kangsol, mani, and mewang that are practised in the Choekhor, Tang, Chumey, and Ura in central Bhutan. 

Yonten Dragye said: “The communities fear that they might have to leave their traditions behind because there was no one to perform or learn the traditions.” 

Written Scripts and Calligraphies of Bhutan present the evolution of Buddhist scripts and handwriting styles. 

Writing and Print Culture in Bhutan discusses the origins and significance of letters, art of traditional writing and papermaking, pen and ink making, woodblock engraving and printing, and significance of lekbam (bound volume) and reading scriptures. 

The three-year project was supported by the Foreign Ministry of the Federal Republic of Germany through the German Bhutan Himalayan Society. It was started in 2018. 

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk