A vil­lage renowned for its wood­block art

China Daily (Canada) - - TIBET - By PALDEN NYIMA in Nyemo, Ti­bet palden_ny­ima@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

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