Par-zo, The Art of Woodblock Carving

Safeguarding the Art of Woodblock Carving, one of the oldest arts and crafts in Bhutan


Yeshi Lhendup

Introduction (2017/2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP


 Bhutan is a small country that lies in the foothills of the great Himalayan. The mountainous settings pristine landscapes eventually helped to give birth to its distinctive cultural diversity.

Historical Background (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Historical Background

Par-zo is considered as one of the eighteen arts and crafts of Bhutan. The origin of this distinctive art can be can be traced far back to the 14th and 15th century.The primary objective of the art is to printing and publication of religious texts in mass volume.

Yig-par (script engraving) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

The name ‘Par-zo’ is a combination of two meaningful units. ‘Par’ refers to figure or an image and ‘zo’ denotes art. However, the engraved products are generally called Shing-par or can also be said in the reverse order as Par-shing which is literally engraved woodblock.

Par-ko (image engraving) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Par-zo can be divided into two sub-arts: mask and image or script engraving. The script engraving is further divided into 'Do-ko' stone engraving and 'Shing-par' woodblock engraving. However, the art of scriptural woodblock carving is now considered as an endangered intangible cultural element of Bhutan.

Par-zo history (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Even there are a few Buddhist masters who created art, none of them were as highly revered as Padma Lingpa (1450-1521), who was an eminent Buddhist master and also very well known for his sculptured figurines, wall paintings, masks, cloak of chain mails, swords, Vajra (thunderbolts), and numerous woodblock engravings treasured in monasteries. His achievements are certainly outstanding.

Kun-zang dra monastery (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

The art was transmitted to his disciples and his sons who gradually spread the art wide across the country. There are 624 woodblocks carving in the biography of Padma Lingpa which is revered as the oldest woodblock treasure in Bhutan. The colophon of the woodblock says, “Initiated by Thug-sey (heart-son) Dawa Gyaltshen (1499-1587) in the memory of his late father.”

Pe-ling biography woodblocks (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

These woodblocks still preserved at Kun-zang dra monastery, one of his temples founded in the 15th century in Bumthang district, central Bhutan.

Types of Engraving (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Types of Engraving

Dhar-par is considered as the biggest woodblock engraving. The biggest would have a meter in length, a foot in breadth and nearly two inches of width. These are mainly used for printing prayers flags, Thang-ka (tapestry) and Mandalas.

Dhar-par (Prayer flag woodblock with image) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Dhar-par is considered as the biggest woodblock engraving. The biggest would have a meter in length, a foot in breadth and nearly two inches of width. These are mainly used for printing prayers flags, Thang-ka (tapestry) and Mandalas.

Dhar-par (Prayer flag woodblock with script) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

These products are mostly used for the benefit of the deceased, to bring luck and fortunes for those living ones and while the Mandalas images are for rituals purpose.

Yig-par (engraved script) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Yig-par normally in rectangular shape and in various sizes such as Dha-tshe ma (arrow size), Ter-tshe ma (medium size or size of hidden treasure religious texts), Thru-tshe ma (a foot or a length of an ankle to stretched middle finger tip), and Pey-thung (small size).

Shing-par (woodblock) close-up (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Yig-par appears in smaller size compared to Dhar-par blocks. It entirely contains Buddhist scripts sometimes with few portraits of some enlightened beings. Scriptures like Buddhist cannons, commentaries, philosophies, instructions, meditations, etc. are often engraved on both the side. However, both the Dhar-par and Yig-par will have identical mirror-like scripts.

Purpose of Engraving (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Purpose of Engraving

The Monasteries, temples, and Dzongs (fortress) in Bhutan are considered as the treasure house of Buddhist scriptures as well as woodblocks. One can even find five or ten pieces of prayer flag or Mandala woodblocks in some private Bhutanese houses.

Printing purpose (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Either of these Sing-par are primarily used for mass printing and publication of sacred doctrine basically to impart the Buddhist values. Those Institutions having enormous collection of woodblocks serve as Par-khang (printing house) in olden days.

Xylographed religious text (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

History records that Bhutan has some the popular printing house between 17th to 19th century. These were Pung-thang (Punakha Dzong) and their publications were called Pung-thang parma, Choe-tse (Trong sa Dzong), Choe-tse par-ma and Tra-shi gang (Trashigang Dzong), Tra-shi gang parma with unique mark of identity.

Printed prayer flags (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Normally for Dhar-par printing five different fabric colors; white, yellow, red, green and blue are used. These colors represent five elements while cloth is purposefully used for the durability. The prayer flags are either attached to a pole and hoisted on the hills or stitched on a rope and hung on the tree branches, across the cliffs, bridges' railing, and in the sacred places.

Hoisted prayer flags (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

The wind helps to flutter the prayer flags and it is believed that fluttering of flag is similar to reading and recitation of prayers. It not only helps to liberate the deceased souls, magnetizing one's fortunes but also the wind touching the prayer flags turns to holy air, purifying the rest of the place benefiting sentient beings in realizing the Buddhahood nature by mere feeling of the air.

Wood Selection (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Wood Selection

According to the climatic conditions and the vegetation, different woods are preferred for engraving in the central Asia region.

Woodblock engraving (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Normally, hardwood such as la-tag (birch; betule utilis), lung-tag (birch; betula alnoides), Tsen-den (cypress; cupressus corneyana), Ta-go (walnut; Juglans regia), etc. are often used for engraving.

Birch tree for woodblock carving (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

In Bhutan, artists normally prefer la-tag or tag-pa shing, betule utilis due to mass availability of the resources and considering the quality of engraving compared to other woods.

Birch tree close-up (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Betule utilis tree is grown abundantly at elevations of 4,800 to 3,000 meters above sea-level along with Junipers, conifers, and rhododendrons. It grows as high as 15 to 25 meters approximately. The leaf measures 3 to 10 centimeters long with paper-like maroon bark.

Sek-chung (engraving tool) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Engraving Tools

Every country who have the woodblock engraving art has distinctive engraving tools with different shapes and even size which are solely depended on the respective scripts they use.

Engraving Tools 2 (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Sek-chung is the main engraving tool made of a good quality metal, handle of soft wood and with a metal ring to prevent the handle from cracking the handle. It is similar to the skew chisel with pointy slanted tip. These appears in various sizes depending on the size of scripts.

Min-dru (engraving tool) (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Min-dru is another important engraving tool mainly used for making a hole and carving curve shaped syllebles such as; O-shaped or half-circular-shaped scripts. Min-dru is like a fluted chisel and it has similar length and decorations like Sek-chung.

Prerequisites (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Besides Sek-chung and Min-dru, there are also other tools crucially necessary for the art. To mention these; Tag-pai Shing, jeli (plane) and Sok-som (sandpaper) to smoothen the plank, Par-yig (script sheet), Pyin (glue) to paste the script, Sek-chung, Min-dru, Dar-do (whetstone) to sharpen the tools, Pe-kar mar-khu (mustard oil) to soften the wood, phag-ze (brush) to clean he surface, and Chu-rey (damp cloth) to cover the woodblock.

Handling par-shing (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Tools Holding Techniques

Traditionally in Bhutan, the woodblock is kept rested horizontally on the left hand arm and holds firmly by its three middle fingers from the bellow end. While the thumb and little finger supports from the either sides.

Tools Holding Techniques 2 (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

However sometimes, woodblocks can also be seem placed on the desk with the left fingers supporting firmly from the left end that aids to produce qualitative woodblock.

Holding Sek-chung (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Sek-chung is normally held by the right hand: the middle finger and the thumb help to it hold firmly; the pointer finger is used to press and the ring finger function as the supporter to the Sek-chung tip. The carving is usually started from the right to the left direction.

Production Process (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Production Process

There are series of techniques of traditional production process. occasionally, these are procedures are highly recommended to be followed in order to produce qualitative scripts, beauty and the life durability of the woodblocks. 

Procedure 1, 2, 3, Yeshi Lhendup, 2017, From the collection of: ICHCAP
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1. Selection of good quality plank.

2. Preparation of preferred size, smoothen the surface of both the sides and make marginal demarcation to paste the script sheet.

3. Apply glue on the plank surf

Procedure 4, 5, Yeshi Lhendup, 2017, From the collection of: ICHCAP
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4. After drying, sprinkle water on the back of the script sheet and rub gently by fingers until the trace of the script is visible in the wood which in result appear like A mirror-image script.

5. Using the tip of chisel, prick deep at all the empty spaces and pour mustard oil over it. It helps to appear clear visibility of the script in addition to softening the wood Keep. The oil should be absorbed totally by the wood.

Procedure 6, 7, 8, Yeshi Lhendup, 2017, From the collection of: ICHCAP
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6. 1st step: Using Min-dru, scripts with a circular shape are pierced and made hollow. The skew chisel is used next to pierce upwards along the border of headlines and vowels. This stage is called go-key or making cracks on the side.

7. Reversing the woodblock yig-drui go-key, the shape of headline and vowels is made vivid.

8. Keeping the woodblock in the right position, using the chisel consonants, strokes, and even the dots have to be carved from the left hand side line. This step is called Tsug-ju or piercing.

Procedure 9, 10, 11, Yeshi Lhendup, 2017, From the collection of: ICHCAP
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9. Reversing the block again, the lines, strokes, and spaces between the scripts have to be made clear and visible and the step is called teg-ju. Normally after teg-ju, the visibility of the scripts appears quite clear; it is called Ched-jey or half-way accomplishment.

10. & 11. Tsug-ju and teg-ju are done repeatedly till the woodblock script appears satisfactorily for printing.

Examination printing (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Completing the engraving, a draft printing is made to examine the quality of scripts and for proofreading before into a proper woodblock shape. If there are broken scripts, missing words, a mark is put for location. The final step of the engraving is called zug-jab or making a replacement. Again a final editing is done for the authenticity.

Woodblock Labeling (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

If the woodblock appears to be fine, a label is carved on the side-face of the left hand-side of the block; it includes the abridged title, volume, and page number of identification. It is then turned into traditional shape for final printing.

Traditional treating (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Traditional Treating and Staking Methods

Soaking the carved woodblocks in very hot mustard oil is a traditional way of treating and refining woodblocks for durability.

Traditional Treating and Staking Methods 2 (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Depending on the thickness of the woodblock, two to three hours are needed for the wood to fully absorb the oil.

Oil drying (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Soaking the wood in oil is the traditional way of fumigating it. The process also hardens the wood and saves it from pesticides, rotting and also makes water resistant.

Woodblock stacking (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Proper stacking and care should be maintained to locaet the woodblocks. It is recommended not to stack one another on the top since there is high risk of breaking the scripts when it is being used. Therefore, woodblocks should always be stacked in a horizontal standing position with a foam sheet cut in its size and insert between the woodblocks to protect the engraved scripts.

Usage of Woodblocks (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Usage of Woodblocks

The engraved woodblocks are used mainly for printing religious texts and other religious purposes for mass publication and to flourish the sacred teaching.

Final printing usage (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Large volumes of texts are printed from printing houses and distributed to needy institutions, and also sold for the institution development purpose.

Printing of religious texts (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

In Buddhist context, engraved woodblocks are highly revered as they commemorate Buddha and other enlightened beings. The holy textual scriptures as well as woodblocks represents their speech.

Respect texts as the speech of Lord Bddha (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Thus, in fortresses, monasteries, temples, and even in some private houses in Bhutan, huge collections of ancient scriptures are found.

Used for knowledge and wellbeing (2017) by Yeshi LhendupICHCAP

Valuable by the quality of the paper used, the texts printed from woodblocks are considered blessed and sacred. Their contents are authentic. These texts are read, recited, and even paraded around the village to wharf off evil spirits and bless the land with timely rain, bountiful harvest, peace, and tranquility. Both the engraving process and products are integral to Bhutan's Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Credits: Story

Par-zo, the Art of Woodblock Carving in Bhutan was contributed by Yeshi Lhendup from the National Library & Archives of Bhutan.

Special Thanks to Mr. Yeshey Namgyal, professional Woodblock Carver of National Library & Archives of Bhutan for sharing his knowledge and also Dechen Phodrang Monastic School for allowing me to take beautiful pictures.

Financial support: International Information & Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific under the auspices of UNESCO (ICHCAP)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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