Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Posts Tagged ‘tibetan books

Speedy woodblock printing

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Derge (Dege) has in the past 15 years turned into a largely modern town with a lot of concrete high-rise. Only up the hill a small traditional neighbourhood is left. And there is the Derge Parkhang. The building is the main center for Tibetan woodblock printing, it also has fancy names like the Derge Sutra Printing Temple. though it is not really a temple, people are circling the building in reverence to the woodblocks with the Buddhist scriptures held inside.

After the rather ugly city with the strange mix of modern concrete and Tibetan elements entering the Parkhang is like going centuries back in time. It is dark and cool and the only sound is of inking the woodblocks and some rustling of paper. That is until the first Chinese tour group comes in and the cameras start clicking. But tour groups are always in a hurry and I have time, so they come and go and the quietness returns.

I watch in amazement how quickly the men work, page after page after page by hand. The men work in couples sitting opposite each other; one will put the paper on the woodblock, the other applies the ink, the first one will remove the paper and put it on the pile where the ink can dry. They do this faster than the eyes can see, or my camera can capture in the low light. A modern printing press must be faster and more efficient but here they have centuries of experience and that shows.
Not only the printing but also putting the strips of paper into the right order, bundling the paper into books, they have the process down to a fine art. Even the (inevitable) continuous flow of tea for the workers is part of the smooth process. There is no bookbinding though, Tibetan books traditionally have loose pages between two wooden boards and wrapped in cloth.

Back outside I realise that the whole experience will hardly translate into photos, moving images and sound will be required to give a feeling of the speed at which the books are printed. So next week when I am at a (modern) printing press for my own book printing I might just try filming.

(all photos are taken in the Derge Parkhang)

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

May 3, 2013 at 22:18

Book editing Tibetan style

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My blog posts have been a bit intermittent in March because I was very busy with getting the book ‘Freeing the Fish’ ready for print. And that has proven a lot more work then I thought it would be. I used to think that the way Tibetan books were traditionally printed was a bit inefficient and time consuming, I am reconsidering my views on this now; I have not been doing much better.

But one thing is very similar to all book making, endlessly going through texts to edit, re-edit and after that still find another typo to correct. The traditional Tibetan woodblock printing requires careful checking of the woodblocks. Not just when the blocks are just carved, they also get damaged by being used, which might change the meaning of the words. So in the winter, when it is too cold to print as the ink will not dry, the wood blocks are checked. Each page printed, carefully read and mistakes marked in red and then the woodblocks can be corrected or repaired to be used again in the warmer season. Even printing used to have a seasonal aspect to it in the old days.


I went into this workshop on a freezing cold day in January, it was very quiet in the room with everybody reading. It was very nice, no-one really took much notice of me and I could work undisturbed and quietly on my pictures. The men were a bit surprised by my fumbling with cameras, film and tripod. The shutter release cord was handed down the room in amazement, but apart from that they were just concentrating on the text. The release cord always attracts a bit attention, I once visited a temple where some monks thought it was a device to clean the ears. I guess they had seen all the weird tools the Chinese use for cleaning ears, so I had to stop them when they started to try out my release cord.

In this room it was freezing cold, it would be warmer to sit outside in the sun. I guess drinking liters of hot tea helps a little, they all have multiple flasks, but I would not like to sit still on the cold damp floor hour after hour. Apart from that it seemed a nice enough job and at least they did not have to read the same self written text over and over again, like I did in the last few weeks



Tibet travel log 5, Respect the books

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Do not put books on the floor, do not sit on books, do not step over books, do not place anything on top of books, keep food and drinks away from books. Respect the books.

I once took my travel guide book from the dashboard in the car where it was cooking in the sun into the shade on the floor, actually to protect it. My driver was very upset: do not put books on the floor. ‘OK, but it is just a guide book and the sun …’, ‘do not put books on the floor’. Later that night, I realised my guide book even had a preface with drawing from the Dalai Lama, luckily my driver did not know. Otherwise, I fear, the book would not even have been allowed to be stuffed in my camera bag. I have no idea where I then should have kept it, in that hot and dusty car.

There are many reasons why I like Tibetans and their great respect for books is definitely one of them. Monks and nuns stuff their often tiny quarters with all sorts of books including Buddhist teachings, explanations and philosophy.
I found that also lay people often own and read books, even when they have their mobiles with the messaging systems, their TV’s and Internet. I have been in the winter homes of Tibetan nomads in Kham where a complete wall was covered with religious books.
The great complaint I always heard is that there are not enough books published in Tibetan, so they are precious possessions and are passed along and read over and over again.

Praying sitting under the book shelfs, making sure to always stay lower then the books.