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Previous Lives 

Architect of the Tibetan Script

Thonmi Sambhota

While most of us cannot imagine a life without alphabets and language, there was a time in Tibet when nothing was written — until Thonmi Sambhota came along and invented the Tibetan script. For this reason, the corpus of knowledge held by every single monastic library throughout Tibet and India can be attributed to the work and deeds of this famed Tibetan scholar.

In 619 CE, Thonmi Sambhota was born to the Thonmi clan of Central Tibet. His father Thonmi Anu Ragata was a minister of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. A gifted student and scholar, Thonmi Sambhota was chosen by the king to travel to India along with seven other young and brilliant Tibetans. Their mission was to learn Sanskrit and devise a written script for the Tibetan language. The year was 633 and Thonmi Sambhota was just 14 years old when he set off for the subcontinent. The journey was so hazardous that Thonmi Sambhota was the only one to survive and return to Tibet.

King Songtsen Gampo had given the group enough gold dust to cover their expenses. In India, the companions travelled far and wide in search of good teachers, at last locating them in South India. These teachers were Brahman Lijinkara and Lha Rigpa Sengge. Under their tutelage, Thonmi Sambhota studied language, grammar, lexicography, poetry, literature and related topics, as well as philosophy for about seven years.

Upon his return to Tibet, Thonmi Sambhota commenced the great project of creating a Tibetan script in the Kukarmaru Palace in Lhasa. The script he invented was based on a combination of the Devanagari and Kashmiri scripts. He also composed six reference texts on the new written language. Today, only two of these texts survive and they remain compulsory study for those pursuing studies in Tibetan grammar.

Thonmi Sambhota had also brought with him from India every available text on Sanskrit grammar and many other subjects. These texts are believed to be the first Buddhist texts to enter Tibet from India.

After Thonmi Sambhota formally presented the new Tibetan script to the king and the royal court, King Songtsen Gampo entered a four-year retreat to master the new written language. In this way, Thonmi Sambhota’s invention entered the Tibetan courts, becoming the official language of documentation.

It is incredible to think that within the space of two decades, an entire alphabet and a complex grammatical system was created from scratch, to be taken up by a whole society of people to preserve their knowledge, traditions, customs and religion for time immemorial. Thanks to Thonmi Sambhota, we have today translations of many priceless Buddhist texts including The Sutra of Golden Light and the Twenty-One Sutras and Tantras of Avalokiteshvara. The invention of this brilliant scholar has pervaded every aspect of Tibetan life, creating a legacy that remains with us even today.

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