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The (r)evolution of Tibetan printing

Not all books are made to be read.

Hildegard Diemberger 1Some are made to look beautiful. Some are made to be touched. Some are made to be carried into the fields to ensure a plentiful harvest. These books are sacred objects and they are the focus of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s current exhibition, Buddha’s Words: The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond.

For the first time, the museum’s incredible collection of Buddhist artefacts are on display alongside treasures from a range of other University departments. The exhibition, which runs until January 2015, is co-curated by Pembroke Fellow Dr Hildegard Diemberger. We meet at the front of the exhibition directly underneath the first of the lavishly wrapped books, which dangles down from the ceiling. Hildegard explains: ‘When you go into Buddhist monasteries you often pass under the books to get their blessing on your head, so we wanted to do that here.’

It also makes sense to have a hovering book at the opening of the exhibition because Tibetan religious history claims that Buddhist civilisation began when a text fell from the sky and onto the royal palace. The illiterate king began to worship it and in doing so he became strong and attractive. Ever since, books have been seen as powerful religious objects and texts have been used to bring protection and good fortune. Today they are still worn inside amulets, hidden inside statues and spun inside prayer wheels.

Colourful compilations

The books themselves, as Hildegard puts it, are ‘a bit different from the ones you see in Heffers’. For one thing, they are much larger. They’re comprised of a loose stack of elongated leaves, which are sometimes threaded together with string. In some cases the pages are a deep indigo black, with the lettering in gold, and the text is often accompanied by colourful illuminations. The sheets are sandwiched between two heavy wooden covers, themselves covered with ornate carvings. If you want to transport the books to another location you do not take them: you ‘invite’ them to come with you. In order for them to venture outside they must be dressed, first in a fabric robe and then in two belts.


Examples of all of these objects are on display at the museum. However, the most impressive exhibit is the ‘Cambridge altar’. It is a bricolage of objects found in the University’s collections and gathered together by curators. Hildegard explains that although it was a bit of a case of ‘cobbling things together’, this was somehow in keeping with the way Buddhist altars are usually complied. Colourful images of deities sit alongside sculptures and scriptures from around the world. One of the items, a decorated incense burner, was a personal gift from the thirteenth Dali Lama to the well-known collectors Frederick and Margaret Williamson.

To the right of the altar, the exhibition offers a view through a ‘wide-angle lens’, following Buddha’s words as they travel across the mountains and spread through Sri Lanka, Mongolia and the rest of Asia. Amongst the treasures in this ‘Library’ are some of the oldest illuminated Buddhist manuscripts in existence.

To the left, there is a ‘close-up’ exploration of the art and science of print making. Curating this ‘Laboratory’ involved finding objects from all manner of places. Hildegard herself scaled the Himalayas to collect examples of the sturdy plant roots that are used to make paper pulp. A friend in Nepal gave a historic paper mould and crafted a shopshing (mixer) especially for the exhibition. The Department of Geology have lent mineral specimens to show how coloured pigments are found. A Tibetan hermit ventured out of his cave to donate his pen along with a plastic bag containing the soot that he mixes with yak brains in order to make the unique looking blue-black paper. And the list goes on.

Work in progress


Hildegard hopes that, soon, more people may contribute to the exhibition in the form of expertise. ‘A lot of this is very much a work in progress,’ she says. ‘Even as we were putting together this exhibition we were making new discoveries. We hope that people won’t only come to see the results of our work, but that the exhibition will be a platform for finding people with the relevant expertise to help us further our research.’

Hildegard herself came to the project by an unusual route. She had established herself as an anthropologist studying the culture and people of Tibet and the Himalayan regions. However, she was no expert on the processes of printmaking. On a visit to New York she went for coffee with the late Gene Smith. He discovered that she had moved to Cambridge, where there was a significant but ill-organised collection of Buddhist manuscripts. She says: ‘He told me, “I think there is a collection at the Cambridge University Library and someone needs to do something about it.” Within Tibet, books have a kind of moral power – so once he had said that I knew I had no option. The moral pressure of the Tibetan book was unavoidable!’

She was a little nervous as she embarked on the Tibetan-Mongolian Rare Books and Manuscripts project. However, she was successful in attracting funding and connecting with interested parties. She was also spurred on by her interest in the princess Chokyi Dronma (1422–55), who was a great patron of the arts and supported the production of printed books when the technology was still in its infancy. A whole host of collaborative projects were launched and by 2008 the Tibetan-Mongolian Rare Books and Manuscripts project had successfully archived thousands of rare Tibetan manuscripts in order to make them available online.

The Tibetans have enthusiastically embraced these kinds of digital technologies. Photographs in the exhibition show them excitedly participating in ‘digital repatriation’ ceremonies, in which foreign institutions such as the British Library present them with scanned reproductions of ancient manuscripts.

Hildegard Diemberger 2-002

New technologies, new possibilities

Computers offer other benefits. At the heart of Buddhism is the idea that repeating certain actions hundreds or thousands of times builds up spiritual ‘merit points’ for the individual. Technologies like prayer wheels are designed to help people accrue merits efficiently: if you store 1000 written mantras in a prayer wheel then with every turn you receive the same merit as if you had recited the mantra 1000 times. The same idea was applied to the reproduction of important texts, meaning that printing technologies were hurriedly adopted as a means of printing more mantras and thereby accruing more merits. Indeed, caves still exist in Tibet containing thousands of copies of the same mantra.

Now digital technologies are opening up new possibilities. Why not download a digital prayer wheel and let your computer rack up merits for you throughout the day? Or you can record incantations onto CD and play it on a constant loop; as the disc turns it has the same effect as spinning a prayer wheel. It is no wonder that, as Hildegard put it, the monks are becoming ‘very techy’. To prove her point she leads me to the final object in the exhibition. Smiling, she points to a photograph of a Buddhist monk. He’s admiring a beautiful ancient manuscript – and taking a photo of it on his mobile phone.


Dr Hildegard Diemberger is Director of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge. She wrote about her fascination with the princess Chokyi Dronma and Tibetan printing in the spring 2014 issue of the Martlet.

She also works on Tibetan concepts of climate change and this research was recently featured in the University’s magazine Research Horizons.

She will be offering a tour of the Buddha’s Words exhibition as part of the UK launch of the Pembroke College Circle in late September.

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