A village renowned for its woodblock art
Nyemo county in the Tibet autonomous region is known as the hometown of Thonmi Sambhota, traditionally regarded as the inventor of Tibetan script. It is also famous for its paper, incense and woodblock art.
Chushar village in the county’s Phusum township only has a population of 632, yet it is home to more than 80 woodblock craftsmen — and three craftswomen — spread out across 89 households.
It takes around two hours by bus to travel the 150 kilometers from Lhasa, the region’s capital, to Chushar, which is known as the hometown of Tibetan engraved art.
The villagers mainly carve scriptures, images of the Buddha, and Tibetan tourism products on wood blocks.
Tenzin Namgyal is a fifth-generation craftsman in the village, whose sons are also engaged in the art.
“I heard from the village elders that the woodblock printing skill was introduced by Thonmi Sambhota himself,” Tenzin Namgyal said.
Thonmi Sambhota was one of the ministers of the Tibetan king Sontsan Gampo 1,400 years ago. In addition to being credited with the invention of Tibetan script, he was also an author in his own right.
Now age 32, Tenzin Namgyal said he began to learn woodblock art when he was just 11 years old.
His family has 16 members, and four of them are engaged in the craft. His brother Sicho has been recognized as a regionlevel intangible culture inheritor, while he himself is a county-level inheritor.
“This is our family tradition, I have the obligation of inheritance. It is not very profitable, nor is it easy work, but I want to continue,” Tenzin Namgyal said.
He said the craft takes a lifetime to master, and after spending several years in primary school, he began to learn it from his father and older brother.
It took him three years to learn how to carve scriptures onto wooden blocks, and almost six years to learn how to engrave images.
Tenzin Wangchuk, 30, said carving images with fierce facial impressions was one of the most difficult skills.
“It is crucial to highlight facial expressions in the engravings,” he said.
Often, Tibetan monasteries come to the village with orders for scripture wood blocks and engravings of images or prayer flags.
One scripture woodblock usually fetches between 280 yuan ($42) to 380 yuan, while an image costs between 150 yuan to 500 yuan, and the tourism products cost between 500 yuan to 3,000 yuan.
Customers provide the carvers with the wood, as well as a sample of the scripture or image they require.
Some Tibetans order an engraving of the Buddha with Tibetan script on it, as they believe reading scripture off the engraving while taking medicine will make the treatment more effective.
Together with the other craftsmen in his village, Tenzin Namgyal has carved the Tengyur scriptures into wood blocks for Tibet’s Meru Monastery for the past 24 years. The Tengyur texts come in 500 volumes, and each volume requires about 400 to 500 wood blocks. “We have completed a large part of the work, and the rest of the 2,000 wood blocks will take five years,” Tenzin Namgyal said. Every month he finishes three wood blocks, each earning him 380 yuan. His annual income is around 40,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan, he said. “It requires patience and hard work, and the carvers are not allowed to drink wine,” said Tenzin Namgyal, who works every day from dawn until dusk. Apart from carving for the monasteries, the villagers have also created different kinds of tourism products in recent years. Engraved products include yaks, horses and the wheel of the life. With the increase of tourists in his hometown, Tenzin Namgyal’s village is planning to open a shop selling tourism products soon. “Many tourists are interested in engravings enriched with Tibetan culture, and engravings such as the eight Tibetan auspicious symbols are always welcomed,” Tenzin Namgyal said. “Apart from making a profit, the tourists can learn more about Tibetan culture in this way.”
Tibetan woodblock carver Tenzin Namgyal works at home in Chushar village in Nyemo county, the Tibet autonomous region.
Above: A woodblock with the image of Buddha by Tenzin Namgyal. Top: Tenzin uses more than 20 kinds of knives for his woodblock carving craft.