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Scattered fragments of rare 12th-century illuminated Tibetan texts from Keu Lhakang Temple, Central Tibet, before being digitised, restored and re-ordered. (Photograph by Psang Wangdu, 2002, courtesy the University of Cambridge)

From the earthy mineral pigments ground from azurite to paint a sky, to paper given its luster from yak brains, the creation of Tibetan Buddhist texts is being examined down to its bare materials at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Buddha’s Word: The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond, opened in May, with some objects never before on public display joining 11th-century illuminated manuscripts, printing blocks, and other artifacts relating to the history of these texts.

Wood printing block for prayer flag (lunta, rlung rta), with an image of a wind horse surrounded by mantras (courtesy University of Cambridge)

As for those brains, they were just one of the many ways that the books didn’t just act as sacred objects, but were deeply linked to the places where they were treasured. Yaks were an essential source of food, fur, and transportation, and integral to book creation, particularly the mthing shog manuscripts. James Canary of Indiana University wrote in the Buddha’s Word catalogue on the production of blue-black mthing shog manuscripts:

To prepare the black mixture, the craftsman kneaded by hand the brains of a freshly slaughtered yak, sheep or goat combined with the very fine powdered soot and a small amount of cooked glue hide. […] If there is too much brain material in the mix the paper will have an oiliness that will resist later writing and can also develop saponification problems, resulting in a white soapy bloom. The paste is painted on the surface of the paper which is then burnished with a piece of conch shell or a bead to make a lustrous surface for the calligraphy.

“The practice of the Two Stages of the Guhyasamajatantra,” Illunminated manuscript, Gold and silver on black-indigo paper, Tibet (18th-19th centuries) (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Yak skin was also used in glue for binding, and some Eastern Tibetan artists used a white pigment from bone ash, although mostly it was from calcium materials. Beyond the dearly departed yaks, there is a resonant connection between the land and life of Tibet and the pigments and materials of its books. In David and Janice Jackson’s “A Survey of Tibetan Pigments,” part of Cambridge’s Digital Himalaya project, they note the red dye made from pummeled tiny lac insects, indigo flowers carried from Nepal, and the once abundant malachite mineral for green. In the extensive article in conjunction with the Cambridge exhibition — “Animal, vegetable, mineral: the making of Buddhist texts” — the cinnabar red pigment, bark book covers, and even a yellow arsenic are also noted (the poisonous pigment actually protected 16th century manuscripts from insect infestations).

These intensive, and sometimes gruesome, bookmaking techniques are fading like fugitive colors on an aged page, as commercial paints become readily available, artisans grow old, and the digital world edges in even on spiritual texts. This is true for traditional bookmaking all over the world, which after the examples are carefully conserved in libraries and museums often lose the immediacy they once had through their materials to the places where they were made. Exhibitions like Buddha’s Word can hopefully keep some of that original significance of their creation, showing the historic, sacred works as something more than just beautiful artifacts.

Portable shrine for holding paper mantras, which was strapped to the waist of a wearer or perhaps tied to a pack animal when travelling, Tibet or Nepal (courtesy University of Cambridge)

Buddha’s Word: The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond continues at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (Downing Street, Cambridge, UK) through January 17, 2015. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...