Paper plants in the Himalayas: historical transformations of book making

  • Many of Buddha’s teachings travelled from India to Tibet written on palm leaf manuscripts. Here paper turned into the main, albeit not the exclusive, support for Tibetan Buddhist texts. A wide range of plants growing in different ecological niches in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau became key raw-materials embedded in wide-ranging networks that connected different people in the production, circulation and use of literary artefacts.  These plants belong to a large extent to the Thymelaeaceae family. Some of these plants, like the bushes of different species of Daphne and Edgeworthia that grow in the lush hill areas, tell stories of transhimalayan trade managed by different ethnic groups; other plants, like Stellera chamaejasme that grows at high altitude on the Tibetan plateau, tell a story of local production and reflect a more recent debate on whether the craft of making paper originally came to Tibet from China or had an independent local origin. Referring to the materials presented in the exhibition “Buddha’s word: the life of books in Tibet and beyond” at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and extensive fieldwork in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan this presentation shows that paper and paper plants through their features, trajectories and stories can cast new light not only on technological transformations in book production but also on wider social, economic and cultural dynamics in the region.