Sherpa: the writing systems of the Himalayas

Following his research trip to Bhutan in November and December 2014, Dr Jo De Baerdemaeker started the self-initiated project ‘Sherpa: the writing systems of the Himalayas’ in which he studies the different writing systems that are used in the region of the Himalayan mountain range in Asia. His research investigates the origin and development of these scripts in different paleographic and typographic styles, with the goal of designing Sherpa, a digital type family that caters for all these scripts. This paper introduces the Sherpa-project with a specific focus on one minority script in particular, namely the Lantsa (also referred to as Lantsha, Lentsa, Lanca, Lanydza, or Rañjanā) script, for which specific research was undertaken during De Baerdermaeker's stay in Bhutan. 

The decorative Lantsa script is an ancient writing system that originated in India and is derived from Guptan Brahmi. It developed during the eleventh century and has been in use for many generations in India, Nepal (by the 'Newar people'), Tibet, Bhutan, the Himalayan region, and Mongolia. Tibetans and Bhutanese use Lantsa specifically for writing book titles of religious and literary texts that have been translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan, and also for ornamental wood engravings, inscriptions and paintings of Buddhist seed syllables, mantra’s or mandala's in temples, monasteries, stupa’s, palaces and dzongs.

Given that Lantsa has never been represented as a (letterpress or hotmetal) printing fount –other than in writing, calligraphy, lettering and xylography– this first stage of the research project concentrates on finding cultural, stylistic and technological clues for designing and developing a contemporary digital font for the Lantsa writing system. De Baerdemaeker analyses and compares the different examples of Lantsa which he proofed in situ, in archives and library collections during his study visits in Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, India, and at various European institutes. The talk will be supported by original and rare material especially collected for the project’s research database.

More information on ‘Sherpa: the writing systems of the Himalayas’ can be requested via