Dergé: the jewel of traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture

- through Sophie Solere

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How to stay in Eastern Tibet without visiting Dergé which could be translated as "land of the virtuous" in the Tibetan language? Not far from the border with central Tibet, this small town located more than 3200 meters above sea level was for a time the most important kingdom in the entire Kham region, which today is part of the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and from Sichuan.

As is often the case, I find out before embarking on a trip and I learn a host of exciting things. First of all that the famous mythological king Gésar de Ling was born in Dergé around the XNUMXth century. Many bards and monastic frescoes tell of his fabulous epic throughout Tibet, as well as in all the Indian, Nepalese and Bhutanese provinces of Tibetan influence. No two storytellers agree on an identical version, but the stories of Gésar de Ling take up a number of shamanic, Buddhist and historical myths in a saga worthy of one of our greatest television series. Some storytellers go from village to village to praise their exploits. One night is not enough and, in general, they settle for a week in each village in order to tell the greatest and most formidable epic of the country.

Then, my research also made me discover another great character, a little less mythological and more historical, who lived in the region in the 1980th century: Thang Tong Gyalpo. This great yogi, doctor, metallurgist, architect, "terteun" (discoverer of treasure) and bridge builder, at the origin of the famous Tibetan opera Ache Lamo, was at that time invited to Dergé to build bridges in metal chains. , chortens and the monastery of Gonchen. The latter, after being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, was rebuilt identically in the XNUMXs.

The largest woodblock workshop in Tibet

But the ultimate jewel of this city is and remains its printing press: the famous Dergé Parkhang, built in 1729. It is the largest workshop in woodcut from Tibet. There are printed there every day, for hundreds of years, the 108 volumes of Kangyur (the Buddha's words) in red and the 225 of Tangyur (the commentaries on his words) in black, but also many other texts. There are more than 200 engraved plates, some of which date from the 000th century. This represents 70% of Tibetan literary heritage.

Before embarking on my trip, a friend had told me about a certain Yeshi, who works at the printing office, but she had left me no address or telephone. However, I had some indications: “He lived in a house in the heights of the city. To get there, I had to follow the small path that leads to the monastery of Dzongsar”. In Derge, my rudiments of Tibetan help me ask directions and find out if anyone knows a certain Yeshi. A good ten meetings and more than an hour of research later, I find myself in front of Yeshi's house. Having taken the time to share tea with his wife, we set off for the printing press. Arrival on site, before entering it, we go around it clockwise, “the khora”, because the place is sacred.

A smell of ink and old wood reigns there and if the route was not signposted, we could easily get lost in this vast maze of rooms. A dark atmosphere reigns there with sometimes strange rays of light reminiscent of certain scenes from the film. The name of the rose.

An emotional visit

But "let's start at the beginning," Yeshi told me, taking my hand. We leave the main building to go to a courtyard where Tibetan paper is made as before from the roots of a flower known to be toxic: the Stellera Chamaejasme. Would it be to prevent rats and mice from nibbling sometimes multicentenary texts? The boiled paste is spread on plates to dry it, then polished. The process is very complex and, of course, not all texts are printed on this traditional paper. Printing also requires ink. Red ink is made from a mineral called cinnabar, which is partly composed of mercury sulphide, which is also toxic. As for the black ink, it is extracted from the bark of rhododendrons.

We change location and head to the woodblock text engravers. Each page is engraved upside down. The xylographic tablets are made on yellow birch wood which has undergone six months of preparation in about ten stages before being engraved. Woodcutting is a delicate art, because you have to be skilful with cutting tools and not make mistakes when typing. In order to check each engraved page, a first “proof” passes through the hands of the proofreader. He corrects the printed page on paper, which then returns to the workshop of the engravers-correctors. They must use many stratagems so as not to despoil the hours of work already done by the previous teams.

While traveling in the province of Kham, I knew that I touched the heart of the Tibetan culture, but in Dergé, I believe to have reached the quintessence.

After seeing these primordial stages, we return to the medieval labyrinth. Yeshi gets to work with his buddy. One covers the xylographed wooden plate with ink, the other presses the paper to print it. Barely two seconds per page are needed as the dexterity and speed of the workers are so important. They go on in perfect synchronization at the frenetic pace of a machine or like robots. This scene fascinates me. Am I in front of the craft industry or the craft industry? 2500 pages are printed every day by a few hundred skilled Tibetan workers. The texts deal with religion, history, literature, art, medicine, astronomy and astrology. After the Chinese invasion, between 1958 and 1979, production was stopped and the printing house turned into a hospital. Stories say that some doctors were actually monks who came to protect the national treasure.

Dergé and its hidden treasures

During the few days I spent in Dergé, Yeshi never told me about the story. He always remained in his place as a worker, out of wisdom, humility or security. Yet it is one of the linchpins of this archaic Tibetan book industry. Yeshi has printed tens of thousands of Tibetan texts, perhaps even he cannot read, but he has contributed to the knowledge and continuity of knowledge and history of his country.

Today, the Chinese government oversees the making of the books and has listed the place as a regional and national cultural heritage. Extinguishers are numerous and it is forbidden to smoke as the fear of fire is present. Accompanied by Khampa pilgrims, I walk one last time through the rows of the library. The way the countless blocks are archived there is impressive. How do the people in charge manage to find the texts they are looking for? First the room, then the row and in each row thousands of books are collected.

While traveling in the province of Kham, I knew that I touched the heart of the Tibetan culture, but in Dergé, I believe to have reached the quintessence. However, for those who pass through this town without curiosity, nothing seems so exceptional. The treasures are often well hidden and only a guide can generally turn a simple visit into an exceptional, even timeless stay!

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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