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The Quest for Perfect Form


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'Om Mani Padme Hum'

Tibetan Buddhist prayer

The universal chant of the mantra of liberation resonates through Tibetan mountain village and temple, while in the monasteries young monks and novices learn the alphabet as the litany of letters: visualising, reciting, memorising ... And writing them with care, for Calligraphy forms part of their curriculum. Both the original script and the religion -- Buddhism -- travelled from India and took root in Tibet, eventually to mutate and the expressed as mystic mantras and Tantric Buddhism.

From the Lentsa and the Wartu scripts that Thonmi Sambhota and his co-scholars brought to Tibet about the 7th century A.D., are descended the chief styles of Tibetan writing:

Uchen, book script for Buddhist texts, often carved in wood for printing, Essentially a formal hand, with a triangular 'accented' head, it can be beautifully incised.

Ume, cursive hand script;

Bamyik, (also called Tsuk-chen) a decorative script for official documents;

Drutsa, a decorative script for title pages of books and for documents;

lentsa, special type of script based on the ancient Gupta writing. Used for seed-syllables and mystic monograms, its powerful heavy horizontal lines and filled-in strong loops at the joining of the strokes gives the Lentsa script its unique forms. The Akara logo has been based on this style.

Chuyik, fast hand script for notes and letters.

Talented monks were assigned to copy the holy texts: fibrous paper or birchbark were the earliest writing surfaces, often primed with a dark colour; the calligraphy was usually in gold or silver ink, with red ink for display.

Tibetan Calligraphy, although used to its best advantage on wooden printing blocks has, it is claimed, helped to transform Tibetan culture, by promoting the translation of Buddhist texts and the creation of Buddhist literature. In the form of sacred inscriptions, it decorated the country.

'One look at the letter A

Destroys evil passions.'

Chant of meditation on Siddham

The first letter of Siddham characters was considered the supreme one, invested with holiness and power: the source of all vowels and consonants, and contained in all the sounds that human beings produce.

In a physical and spiritual sense, siddham has sustained its visual identity even if its sounds are no longer enunciated as in the country of its origin, India. Siddham, a post-Gupta script, travelled to China and Japan around the 7th century. It is said to have been taught by the Buddha to his disciple and kept secret until it was revealed to a famous Indian saint who passed it on to his disciples.

Calligraphically one of the most striking and powerful writings, Siddham was practised and worshipped in China and later in Japan, where the monks, Cho-zen and Yu-zan revitalised Siddham with their dedication and scholarship. Yu-zan, abbot of a temple north of Nagoya, japan, wrote the 'Bonshobokuhitsu-shukan' -- a manual for writing Siddham with the wooden brush (1709) -- analysing the structure of Siddham letters. He conceived each letter as a stupa using the seed-syllable 'vam' as an example. The explanations are, according to R.H. van Gulik, 'a curious mixture of esoteric theory and practical calligraphical hints'. As written by Cho-zen and Yu-zen, Siddham characters acquire such vibrancy that even today they exude an almost kinetic energy.

A ritual script of esoteric  Buddhism, Siddham is perhaps unique in that the letterforms themselves are defined and given attributes of Buddhist divinity.

The scripts of South-East Asia developed largely as a result of Indian systems of writing being introduced via the seaports of Indo China by Indian traders, statesmen and monks. With the spread of Buddhism, pali -- which had reached Ceylon about the 2nd century B.C. -- became the vehicle for the local scripts of Burma, Laos and Kampuchea. From a common origin, the scripts of the latter two countries and Thailand became clearly differentiated from one another, in the course of time.

Tibetan multisyllabic monogram

Stroke order of the Siddham 'Om'


The elegant scripts of old javanese such as the 'Shankha lipi' or conch script, also derive from Indian writing. In the central Sumatran Batak alphabet, some signs grew angular, possibly written on polished bark. Kampuchea's writing -- very similar to some of those of south Indian and the Deccan between the 8th and 10th centuries -- are also very beautiful in terms of their script shapes, one of them exceptionally distinctive, with an unusual conical top line to the letterforms.

The Siddham 'A'

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