Yikzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་) or calligraphy is an important art in Bhutan and the Himalayas and first of the thirteen arts and crafts, which were promoted by the Bhutanese state since the 17th century. The thirteen arts include (1) calligraphy or yigzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་), (2) painting or lhazo (ལྷ་བཟོ་), (3) carving or parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་), (4) clay sculpture or jinzo (འཇིམ་བཟོ་), (5) metal casting or lugzo (བླུག་བཟོ་), (6) silver and gold smithery or troezo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་), (7) needle work or tshemzo (ཚེམ་བཟོ་), (8) carpentry or shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་), (9) textile production or thagzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་), (10) paper making or delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་), (11) bamboo craft or tsharzo (ཚར་བཟོ་), (12) black smithery or garzo (མགར་བཟོ་), and (13) masonry or dozo (རྡོ་བཟོ་). Calligraphy is widely practised in the country for various purposes. From alphabetical charts for learning how to write, letters, basic books, illuminated manuscripts to mantra carvings and paintings on wood, metal and stone, one finds widespread use of calligraphy in Bhutan.
The traditional Bhutanese literati talk about the 360 different kinds of scripts based on the lists of scripts mentioned in Buddhist texts received from India. However, only a few scripts are used in Bhutanese calligraphical tradition. The most common script used in Bhutan for religious scriptures and major writings is the Uchen (དབུ་ཅན་) script. This Tibetan script is also known as tsukyik (ཚུགས་ཡིག་) in Bhutan and is the main script used for writing books, prayers and letters in Bhutan. The Joyik (མགྱོགས་ཡིག་) script, which is considered to be the national script and claimed by some traditional scholars to have existed in Bhutan since the 8th century is used for correspondences and informal writing. Although both these scripts are widely used in Bhutan, they are not commonly used for artistic calligraphical designs. Both scripts are written with relatively stiff mensuration. Young people learn to write the script by following the exact proportions of the strokes using an exemplar. The exemplar is often a writing by someone who has good handwriting and knows the dimensions and proportions of the strokes.
Bhutan today does not use the Ume Drutsha (འབྲུ་ཚ་) or the Ume Kyukyik (ཁྱུག་ཡིག་) scripts, which are widely used in Tibet for calligraphical designs. While Ume Kyukyik may not have gained currency in Bhutan, Ume Drutsha script was commonly used by some Bhutanese scribes around the middle of the second millenium. However, today Bhutanese cannot even read the Drutsha script and consider it a Tibetan script. The most ornate scripts used in Bhutan showing elaborate calligraphical styles is Lantsha or Ranjana script. This script is found written, carved or painted in gold or other colours on temple walls, stupas and prayer wheels. It is used to write or carve mantras on religious monuments. Mantras in this script produced with much style and aesthetics are seen across Bhutan on prayer wheels, stone slabs, and temple walls.
Although only a very small minority of the people knew how to read and write in the past, those who knew how to write produced a great mass of written heritage. The scribes in the past took great pains to create thousands of manuscripts and calligraphical pieces, most of which are still extant. Scribes were also highly valued when only a small portion of the society knew how to write and they served as the main custodians to preserve and promote the calligraphical traditions. Today, there are many scribes who have the calligraphical skills to create beautiful texts using Uchen, Joyik or Lantsha scripts.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.