Tibetan Places: The ancient Tibetan printing press of Derge

Derge Parhang

Derge Parkhang the traditional Tibetan printing house

Quick Facts:

  • Location: Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, 1050 km west of the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu
  • Elevation: approx. 3300 m. above sea level
  • Population: approx. 70,000 90% Tibetans
  • Cultural Significance: Ancient printing house and trading center
  • Must See: Printing house, ancient monasteries

Tibet’s Printing Press

Derge printing press, or Derge Parkhang, is located at the site of one the 18 great Tibetan kingdoms of ancient times.  It is also one the three great traditional printing presses of Tibet. The other two are the Nedong Parkhang and the Joni Parkhang.  Since its founding in 1729, this ancient printing house has remained in its original location, on the outskirts of Derge county town.  It is a living institution, printing volumes of Buddhist texts, religious images, literature, medicine, history, and science to this day.

Tibetan printing plate

Printing plate used for traditional Tibetan printing

Ancient methods still used today 

The Derge printing press is a sight to behold.  Pairs of men work together without relying on modern machinery, using an ancient method of printing utilized for centuries.  Ink is applied to wooden blocks, each engraved with the words of a single page of text.  One man holds each block in place while his colleague rolls and presses a sheet of paper over the ink-covered block.  A page of text is created, and the pair of men then move on to the next wooden block.  Printers work efficiently, rolling text onto page after page in rapid successive motions, working with a focused and methodical speed to rival any modern printing house.

The Derge printing press is entirely self-sufficient, making its own paper and wooden blocks by hand.  The root of a white flower found on the grasslands of Tibet, known as the ‘rama richok’ flower, is crushed and formed into paper.  This root is poisonous.  Insects cannot eat into paper made with this root.  This ensures Tibetan texts can be preserved for centuries.

The cultural significance of Derge

Tibetans consider the Derge printing house to be a holy site, similar to a monastery or temple.  Visitors to the printing press will see local nomads prostrating and circumambulating the site while chanting mantras.

Traditional Tibetan doctors and medical students regularly come to Derge to collect herbs used in Tibetan medicine, as the plant life in this area is unlike that found in other parts of Tibet.