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Indian and Tibetan books are constructed in essentially the same manner. Leaves are stacked on top of one another and protected by wooden covers placed above and below. The Indian book is bound by one or two strings which pass through each page and the wooden covers and, when not in use, are wrapped several times around the covers to secure the pages safely within. Most eastern Indian mediaeval manuscripts are written on palm leaves cut from the palm plant, and the size of the pages reflected limitations in the size of the palm leaf itself. Moreover, palm leaves become brittle with age, and were probably perceived to have an optimal size of no longer than about 50 cm. No such practical considerations governed the size of Tibetan books, which were written on paper imported from China. As the pages grew, so did the size and weight of their covers. Only a strap was needed to secure the covers when they enclosed the manuscript, although a cloth was also sometimes used to further wrap the manuscript and thus keep it free of dust and smoke when not in use. Text is written on both sides of the pages of Tibetan books. When the upper cover is removed and inverted, the title is read on the first page. It is then turned over to read its verso and when finished, placed on top of the already inverted cover and so on, to the end of the volume.

Though plentiful in portions of eastern Tibet, hardwood is relatively rare in central Tibet. Thus, little expense was spared in producing these large wooden covers, reflecting the importance of the texts which they bound and protected, Magnificently carved, gilded and painted, these works were once highly treasured by Tibetan monasteries, where they were stacked by the hundreds in an orderly display.

After the fifteenth century, apart from the countless extra-canonical texts used by monks and scholars, every monastery aspired to have the complete Buddhist canon - 100 or 108 volumes of the Kanjur and 225 volumes of the Tanjur; in all, these two canons contain 4,569 texts. Before the Chinese invasion, there were said to be between 3000 and 5000 monasteries in Tibet, of which probably more than 90% were partially or entirely destroyed. The sacred content of their libraries met a similar fate.
Those which survive reveal some of the splendour that once existed in this little known genre of Tibetan art. Even the simplest of covers were carved and painted with consummate skill. Combining the abilities of sculptor and painter, those who produced these works are deserving of admiration in equal measure to that afforded their colleagues who produced the murals, the paintings (thangkas), and the wood, clay, and metal sculptures with which we are familiar.

It is clear that some of the early manuscripts and covers from India and Nepal are gloriously decorated, but there appears to have been no precedent for the extraordinary range of design in so many Tibetan book covers.

The majority of Tibetan book covers are made of wood with some notable exceptions. Ivory carving and moulded clay images are inset into niches in already carved wooden covers. Repoussé gilt metal adornments can also be found, probably observing a tradition which flourished in the Kathmandu Valley. Book covers in the library of Drepung have been observed to be edged in carved ivory. More than any other Buddhist culture, Tibet lavished extraordinary care on the wooden covers which protected their sacred texts. Although we do not know their artists' names, and only occasionally the names of their benefactors, the passion and exuberance of those who made these covers are evident in these splendid works.

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