Tibetan Writing and Calligraphy

The Art of Calligraphy 

The art of calligraphy is a form of expression that gives the highest consideration to the aesthetic aspect of written words. Calligraphy is an excellent tool for training both the mind and the body. In fact, the creation of calligraphy, beyond the application of a physical technique, is also an expression of the mind. It is an artistic act perfected with constant and dedicated commitment.

The approach in which the artist understands calligraphy to be a meditative practice was defined by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as “Dharma art.”

Om Mani Padme Hum in two different Umed scripts (tsugring and drutsa) by Tashi Mannox.

History of Tibetan Writing and Calligraphy

Tibetan writing as we know it today had its origins in the seventh century, when Thönmi Sambhota formulated a new alphabet based on the one used at that time in India, the Gupta script (a derivative of the antique Indian script called Brahmi). He defined thirty letters and four vowel marks, largely reproducing the corresponding sounds in Sanskrit and in part newly created to represent sounds typical of the Tibetan language. 

Uchen script: stroke order and correct proportion of the letters KA and KHA from a traditional calligraphy workbook.

The script style called Uchen (dbu can: “with a head”) or Sabma (gzab ma: “block capitals”) is characterized by the presence of what is referred to as a “head” – a horizontal stroke of various lengths positioned on the upper part of the letter. The body of the letter hangs off this horizontal line. The earliest examples of the Uchen script, dating from the seventh century, are found as carvings on stone pillars (rdo ring) utilized in the imperial period and, about a century later, in the famous Dunhuang manuscripts. Starting around the twelfth century, Uchen was also used for xylographic prints, a technique for the reproduction of sacred scriptures in which the letters are carved into wooden blocks in reverse, then inked and transferred to paper by applying pressure with a roll. Today, Uchen is the most common Tibetan script, and the main one used for printing books and periodicals and for electronic media. 

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Xilographic print in uchen script.

According to some historic documents, Umed’s origins can be traced to an Indian script called Vartu or Vartula; some affirm that it was devised by none other than Thönmi Sambhota, and a handwritten fragment in this script has been attributed to him. Recent studies have identified its predecessors in some forms of writing that previously existed in the Kingdom of Shang Shung.

Various types of scripts are classified as Umed, literally “headless.” What they all have in common is the lack of the horizontal stroke on the upper part of the letter, the defining characteristic of Uchen. Umed scripts are mainly used in manuscripts, in particular a condensed, space-saving form called petsug (dpe tshugs), and in letters and official documents, where more ornate styles are favored, such as drutsa (bru tsa). Several cursive or “quick” (rgyug yig) styles are commonly used in daily life.

First letters of the tibetan alphabet in umed script

Tibetan Calligraphy

In the Tibetan tradition, the art of calligraphy was a highly respected discipline that formed an integral part of the scholastic curriculum from the very first years at school. To learn the strokes and their sequences, young students would start by using a bamboo pen without ink to trace letters written by the teacher. This was called “dry writing.” Then they graduated to “wet writing,” tracing the letters on a wooden tablet coated with soot or chalk. Traditionally, this phase, too, could last several months before they were permitted to write with ink on paper, once a cost- and labor-intensive commodity in Tibet. With the emergence of new technologies for the production of paper, this approach has today been largely replaced by new methods, and students can learn to write by copying examples printed in textbooks.

The first type of script taught in schools is Umed, in particular the tsugring (tshugs ring) style, literally the “long form,” with tall and slender letters reminiscent of our gothic script. This style permits a more efficient learning process since the strokes that the students have to trace are straight and firm, more readily producing aesthetically pleasing results. The Uchen script is learned alongside the Umed, but is used principally for reading.

Different tibetan scripts: uchen, umed drutsa, umed tsugring, cursive (rgyug yig).

Calligraphic Tools

Tibetan calligraphers used bamboo pens (rgya smyug) with points of various widths cut at various angles depending on the style of script they intended to write in. Usually these pens were kept in penholders of various sizes made of gilded iron or copper and attached to the artisan’s belt. The set was usually completed with an inkpot made of copper and decorated with silver.

Most of the inks were black (produced from soot) and red (generally vermillion, extracted from cinnabar). Some highly prized editions of handwritten scriptures also used gold and silver ink on paper with a black lacquered central section reserved for the lettering surrounded by a dark blue border embellished with ornaments.

The paper traditionally used was obtained in a laborious process from the fibers of plants such as Stellera chamaejasme and Daphne anrantica.

Calligraphers were often erudite and respected masters and as such had their own personal seals made of iron or brass that they used to sign correspondence and seal it with red wax.

The Foundation is committed to keeping this extraordinary art alive and regularly offers courses with experienced instructors.

Leaf from a "Prajnaparamita" (Perfection of Wisdom) manuscript (XIII cent.)