Endangered Archives

EAP105: The digital documentation of manuscripts at Drametse and Ogyen Choling

Dr Karma Phuntsho, Aris Trust Centre, Oxford University
2006 award - Major project
£45,930 for 10 months

Archival partner: The National Library and Archives of Bhutan

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Project Overview

Drametse Monastery, founded in 1511 by Ani Choten Zangmo, the grand-daughter of the famous Bhutanese saint Padma Lingpa (1450-1521), is one of the major monasteries in eastern Bhutan. It is the home of Drametse Choje family which has produced many eminent religious personalities including three Shabdrung incarnations (Jigme Drakpa (1791-1830), Jigme Norbu (1831-1861) and Jigme Chogyal (1862-1904)) and the seventh Gangtey Tulku. The incumbent head of Drametse is Sungtrul Rinpoche, the eleventh Pema Lingpa incarnation, and the drum dance of Drametse has recently been classified by UNESCO as an intangible world cultural heritage.

Drametse's manuscript collection includes the 46-volume rNying ma rGyud 'bum, sixteen volumes of Prajnaparamitasutras and about a hundred and fifty volumes of miscellaneous titles including religious hagiographies, histories, liturgies, meditation manuals and philosophical treatises. Many of the books are written in dbu med script, indicating that the books were most likely brought from Tibet in the distant past.

Ogyen Choling, located in central Bhutan, is a seat of two famous Nyingmapa saints, Longchenpa (1308-1363) and Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405). Although historically a religious establishment, it is now a manor house of the family which claims direct descent from Dorje Lingpa. It is the home of many distinguished individuals in Bhutanese history including Tshokye Dorje, the mid-nineteenth century governor of Tongsa and the de facto leader of Bhutan, Lama Nuden Dorji (1930-85), the last monk scholar of the family and Ashe Kunzang Choden, the acclaimed woman writer.

Its library, housed in three of the five temple rooms in the manor complex, contains several hundred titles of manuscripts ranging from pilgrimage guides to philosophical treatises, including a beautifully executed 21-volume set of Dorje Lingpa's writings. Prof. Samten Karmay has recently catalogued the collection highlighting some of the rare works of Zhang Lama Drowai Gonpo (1123-93), Lhodrak Drubchen Namkha Gyaltshan (1326-1401), Wensa Lobzang Dondrub (1504-1566) and Jangchub Tsondru (1817-57). In addition to the manuscripts, Ogyen Choling also owns a large body of books printed from xylographic blocks.

As manuscripts, the books are all unique copies. They are mostly a few hundred years old and thus beginning to show signs of age and wear. The local community lacks archival skills or the means to acquire them, thus the manuscripts lie in precarious situations. An accidental fire from the habitual butter lamps could instantly reduce the entire library to ashes, as has been the case with many libraries through Bhutanese history. In addition, the market for religious artefacts in the West has led to commercialisation of these objects and consequently also to theft in remote places.

The collections at Drametse and Ogyen Choling hold immense literary and artistic value, and tremendous religious significance for the local community. They constitute the spiritual heart of the two establishments and thus cannot be relocated outside the temples - digital reproduction proves to be the most effective mode of preservation and dissemination. The project will be executed in close collaboration with the head and members of Drametse and Ogyen Choling.

The final outcome of this project will be the preservation and reproduction of the manuscript holdings of the two places in no fewer than 150,000 image files stored on hard drives.

Project Outcome

This project has successfully photographed the manuscript collections in both Drametse Monastery and Ogyen Choling. It has produced a total of 2,599 titles containing 144,728 images.

The Drametse collection comprises 891 titles and a total of 99,602 files. It includes a manuscript set of the 16 volume 'Bum, or Hundred Thousand Verses on the Perfection of Wisdom, a set of 46 volume rNying ma rGyud 'bum, or the Collection of the Ancient Tantras and the 702 miscellaneous titles listed under gSung thor bu. The digital documentation of the rNying ma rGyud 'bum and the subsequent access scholars will gain is an invaluable contribution which the project will make to Tibetan and Buddhist studies. This is the latest edition to come to light in addition to the two versions from Gangtey and five other versions which are already available in the West. Some two hundred versions were said to have existed in the Himalayan world before 1950 but only nine extant versions are known to survive. The last three versions have thus now been revealed and made accessible for the first time.

The Ogyen Choling collection includes 1,708 titles including 21 volumes of manuscripts of rDo rje Gling pa's teachings. The books are classified into the four main Tibetan Buddhist traditions of rNying ma, Sakya, bKa' brgyud and dGe lugs school although the major bulk of the collection belongs to the rNying ma tradition. There are also several volumes of works of secular and cultural content and a few volumes of incomplete manuscripts and folios. Among these has been discovered a great number of extremely interesting titles including biographies and ritual texts which were not known to exist.

A full set of digital copies of the manuscripts has been submitted to the British Library, Drametse Monastery and Ogyen Choling. The National Library and Archives of Bhutan is still in the process of building their new archival repository and copies will be deposited with them once this infrastructure is in place.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP105/1 Drametse Monastery Collection
  • EAP105/2 Ogyen Choling Collection

The catalogue is available here.