Tibetan script originated in the 7th Century during the reign of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, when the King sent his Minister, Thunmi Sambotha to India. There, inspired from a Devanagari script of the time, the Gupta Period, he created the Tibetan script, which became the base of the vast treasury of literature that exists today, and which spread far beyond Tibet’s borders. This script is the base for the most widely known script used today, or Uchen, meaning ‘with head’.
Many variants were derived from this script, though Uchen is the one widely used for printing. Until sixty years ago, this was done from carved woodblocks, one block per page, printing books made from elongated, loose folios, wrapped in cloth covers. There are many variants of Uchen, reflected in the rich font libraries available today.
Calligraphy was an important art, and until the mid 20th century, central to learning in lay schools. While in monasteries, philosophical studies were the area of focus, for anyone with clerical aspirations, a beautiful handwriting was considered paramount. Children were taught to write in a variety of styles of Ume, or ‘headless scripts’. The following is a quote by Kalsang Yeshi, where he recounts learning to write, around 1950.
“In Chamdo I began to learn to read and write. The Dapon had two daughters and hired a tutor to teach the three of us on the veranda of his house. I must have been about six. We were not given paper, but a wooden board which we daubed with chalk. We then traced two lines with a string dipped in chalk that was held down with a weight at one end, between which we were meant to write the letters. The dark brown ink was made from burnt peas crushed into a paste. We would apply it with our bamboo pens and it made nice, smooth letters. When we were done, we had to wash the board clean and start all over again.”
Children practiced several formal scripts of Ume, and when they had mastered all the variations, they would move onto the more fluid ‘kyu’ or freestyle cursive, which was used for personal letter writing and reflected the creativity and personality of the writer. Gaining the recognition for a beautiful cursive requires a seasoned maturity in the art to Tibetan calligraphy, as well as artistic talent.