About the Artist

History of the Tibetan Written Language

It was during the seventh century reign of Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, and under his direction, that the first iteration of what would become the modern day Tibetan written language came into existence. Prior to this Tibetans had used Mayig, a comparatively rudimentary writing system. But Gampo was faced with the task of translating the wealth of existing Buddhist Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, and needed a coherent writing system with sufficiently rich symbolism. He turned to minister and great scholar, Thönmi Sambhota, who along with six other wise ministers travelled to India to study Sanskrit. Only Sambhota would return. His journey had proved fruitful, however, and a new Tibetan writing system, based loosely on Indic Sanskrit was established. It is worth noting that the Tibetan spoken language remained the same; only written language was renovated. Sambhota had conceived an alphabet and standardised writing conventions, including grammar and punctuation, and would later also produce the first iteration of both the Uchen and Umed forms.

Different script styles developed over the next several hundred years. In the early ninth century the Tibetan script underwent another transformation and “Old Tibetan” was standardised into “Classical Tibetan.” One thousand years passed yet Tibetan calligraphy persevered, steadily evolving towards its contemporary form. By the nineteenth century the models of Uchen and Umed, the two main Tibetan script styles, had ossified and bore the exact proportions still in use today.

Tibetan Script Styles

The Tibetan written language falls into two main categories: Uchen and Umen. The former has a header line above each letter, as in the Sanskrit Devanagari script, and for this feature it is often mistaken for Sanskrit. Uchen is the most formal style, and its angular character to the letters suits well in carving wood blocks, the traditional method for printing the scriptures.
Umeh has no header - all the other styles are developments of Umeh. Of the other script styles, Tsugring or Druchen, or ‘long style’ is the first to be learned by students who perfect the steady hand of long strokes on wooden slates. Considered a true calligraphy style to be perfected, Tsugring is the foundation from which all the other Umeh styles are practiced.
Tsugtung, or ‘short style’ is practiced next. Only after thoroughly mastering the basic strokes and acquiring complete discipline over their style can a student write on paper, an expensive commodity in Tibet.
Commonly used for religious texts, Petsug is also seen in epics, stories and special ritual manuscripts. A form of Petsug can also be called Khamyig or Khamdri, which reflects the common use of this script style in the Eastern regions of Tibet: Amdo and Kham. This style is particular for its combination words, where two or three words or a common phrase are abbreviated into one short word.
Tsugmakhyug has the same shape as Tsugtung, but is smaller and more rounded stylistically, and considered to be between formal calligraphy and Khyug, used for ordinary free style handwriting.
Finally, there are the ornamental styles such as Dru-tsa, used often for non-spiritual book titles and important documents. The long graceful lines and flamboyant gestures of this style lends well to more artistic free style calligraphy.
Subdivisions of the various script styles also exist, high forms of Dru-tsa, for instance, or honorific forms of Uchen. And styles may also vary from region to region, with monasteries claiming their own particular style.

Script Conservation

Academics estimate that roughly half of all languages could be lost by the end of the century, with over three thousand considered endangered. Tibetan in particular unlocks a wealth of wisdom given the number of Buddhist texts in existence. For example, the complete 108 volumes of the Buddha’s teaching ‘Kangur’ and ‘Tengyur’ 224 volume commentaries to both the ‘Sutras’ and ‘Tantras’ are available in Tibetan, whereas much of the original Sanskrit volumes have been lost. The continued practice and conservation of the script styles is critical in order retaining this knowledge. The discipline of a trained hand is fundamental to both the issue of conservation and the proper diversification of calligraphy as an art form. It keeps the scriptural traditions alive, but provides a firm foundation and confidence to allow the creative freedom to emanate through the medium.


Top to Bottom: 1. Old Manuscript in the Petsug or Khamdri Style 2. The Writing of Lanza Sanskrit Using a Traditional Hand Cut Bamboo Pen 3. Honorific Uchen Script 4. Proportion Grid for High Dru-tsa and Tsugring Scripts