Monday, May 18, 2009

Pearl of the Snowlands: Buddhist Printing at the Derge Parkhang

Image: A woodblock cutter meticulously cuts a block for a new publication of the Parkhang. The Derge Parkhang has an excellent reputation for the accuracy of its books based on careful cutting and several stages of proofreading and correction. P. Dowdey © 2009
In an age where the transfer of information is fast becoming digital and paperless, old printing techniques acquire new meaning. The Derge Parkhang is a repository for over 300,000 woodblocks and an active center for publication of sutras, commentaries and histories of Tibetan Traditional Buddhism. It is also home to a significant collection of woodblocks for printing thangka, prayer flags, mandala and other spiritual images. Founded in 1729, this printing temple is the only survivor of the three historic Tibetan printing temples and today produces sets of sutras for believers in Tibet and inner China as well as for international believers and institutions. Experts say that 70 percent of the Tibetan literary heritage is collected in woodblocks at Derge.

Image: The town of Derge with the Derge Parkhang in the center, downtown Derge on the left and the old Tibetan town on the hillsides to the right. Goenchen Temple lies to the far right. Derge town was the administrative seat of the Kings of Derge, independent Tibetan monarchs who traced their line back more than a millennium. P. Dowdey © 2009

The Derge Parkhang is one of the foremost cultural, social, religious, and historical institutions in Tibet. Derge-published sutras are valued for their accuracy, clarity, and for the tradition that they represent. As a Tibetan monk said, “Books from Derge are simply flawless; they represent unquestionable accuracy.”

Derge Parkhang books and prints represent the summit of the Tibetan woodcut tradition. Picture prints are based on the designs of well-known artists and are cut masterfully Monks, lay pilgrims and now tourists all buy prints. They are inexpensive. . Printing at Derge is someplace between the hand work of craft printing and the mass production of commercial printing. The large prints represent an artistic and technical accomplishment rooted in the Buddhist sense of compassion. I asked one of the managers of the Parkhang how he felt when he saw someone leaving with books or a print and he told me, “I feel we have provided a service.”

Image: A woodblock carved with Tibetan text. This block has already been proofed and treated with butter for long wear. It is now ready for regular printing. P. Dowdey © 2009

This exhibition and catalog are part of an innovative project to document the social context for production of Tibetan art, to bring together different perspectives on the Derge Parkhang and its position as a living institution of Tibetan culture. What came out strongly was the local people’s rich sense of participation in the Parkhang. These were Derge people and Derge people had built and equally importantly, had preserved the Parkhang.

Image: A closeup of one of the over 500 picture blocks at the Derge Parkhang which shows the detail and depth of the carving. P. Dowdey © 2009

WHEN: opens September 11, 2009 with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m.

WHERE: Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book and Paper Arts
1104 S. Wabash, second floor
10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday

MORE INFORMATION: Steve Woodall at (312) 369-6636 or

RELATED PROGRAM: Derge Parkhang is one of the many programs in conjunction with Focus: China

Check for updated information closer to September!

Image: The upstairs main printing room at the Derge Parkhang during the lunch break. Ten teams of workers print the Derge edition of the Buddhist sutra here from woodblocks in almost the same way they did in the eighteenth century. P. Dowdey © 2009


inkessential said...

Please get in touch with me, i would like to ask your permission to used a couple of your photographs concerning the woodblock of Dege Printing house,

I am currently writing a piece for my blog and these images illustrate perfectly my intentions.

of course i will credit you where due.

with thanks and best wishes


Radha Pandey said...


I hope you are well.
I wanted to ask what the procedures would be for using an image from the printing house to illustrate an essay I am writing for a publication by Legacy Press. The article is about the history of papermaking in India. I have also emailed Clifton Meador regarding this. I believe this was a collaboration between the two of you?

If this is a possibility, please let me know how you would like to proceed and what the cost per image might be.

The Legacy Press is for-profit but publishes only scholarly works for educational purposes. The hardcover edition run is between 200–500 copies; rarely more. If more information about The Legacy Press is required, please email Cathy Baker (

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Radha Pandey