Who or what is an e pa? My initial interests in the term e pa was roused by dGe-’dun-chos-’phel, who states that the e pas in dBus and gTsang still write ’a with a tsa lag/rtags (dGe-chos-1: 268). And of course a number of scholars (both Tibetan and non-Tibetan) have already clarified the term. But what difference would the existence of facts make to us unless we start getting interested in it? In my case, had I not started getting interested in the Tibetan textual/manuscript/xylograph/print/book cultures, I might have died without really knowing the term e pa.
One could have simply picked up Goldstein 2001 (s.v. e pa), where the meaning is given as “a person trained for copying government document who works in the e khang.” What is an e khang? Again the same work states explains “an office in the traditional Tibetan society where letters and documents were copied.” Dan Martin also points out to Goldstein 1989 (i.e. History of Modern Tibet): 151, according to which “it is supposed to be the name of the secretarial position of the calligraphers who inscribed serial numbers on Tibetan currency notes.” Dan Martin has already pointed this out in his Tibetan Vocabulary (begun in Bloomington, Indiana, on April 10, 1987; the version I have is from September 7, 2009). There e pa and e phrug pa are said to be synonymous. Martin there writes: “An e pa had the task of inscribing the serial nos. by hand on each Tibetan banknote.” Although there is not an independent entry devoted to e pa in the Tshig mdzod chen mo, it can be found under e pa yon bdag and e drung, both of which even provides an etymology of e pa. So an e drung or e pa drung yig is a clerk or a secretary in the Tibetan civil administrative system in the past, whose job was to write documents and letters in a special style of writing called ’Bru-tsha (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v. e drung & e pa yon bdag). See also Goldstein 2001 (s.v. e drung), which states “a clerk in e khang.” The chief among such clerks were called e pa yon bdag (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v. & Goldstein 2001: s.v.), and e phrug must have been young clerks with lower ranks. According to Dan’s Tibetan Vocabulary (s.v.), an e drung was a “government messenger,” which is evidently synonymous of a drung (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v.). Now returning to the etymology of e pa. There is a place called E in lHo-kha area (Chu-gsum-rdzong), and the place is said to be named as such because its shape resembled that of the letter e. I suspect, however, that it could not have been meant, if at all, like a Tibetan e but rather triangular e (e gru gsum, i.e. something like ∆). Obviously people from this region were known for their calligraphic skills and particularly for writing in ’Bru-tsha style of Tibetan script. So it seems that the term e pa came to be used to designate a professional calligrapher who specialised in the ’Bru-tsha style of writing associated with E region in lHo-kha. According to Gu-ge Tshe-ring-rgyal-po (Zhol shul, p. 377) those calligraphists stemmed from E-lha-rgya-ri in lHo-kha and hence were called e pas. They lived in house or complex in Zhol in lHa-sa called rTsis-khra-khang. The existence of a welfare society in Lhasa called “E-pa-skyid-sdug”* (Tibetan Vocabulary, s.v.) suggests that they were socially quite organised. Their office or institution was called e khang (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v.). Cf. also Goldstein 2001: s.vv. e phrug, e pi gsar spel las khang, e bris/ris. See also Zhwa-sgab-pa, Srid don rgyal rabs (vol. 1, p. 33): de bzhin bka’ shog dang | she bam | bca’ yig rtsa tshig sogs kyi ’bru tsha bris mi e pa dang |. A much better definition of e pa but what is she bam? A she bam (also called she tham) according to Dung-dkar (s.v.) is a letter of authority issued by the Dalai Lama, Paṇ-chen Bla-ma, or government bestowing a rank or property to a person.
Some more discussions on e pa can be found in the Ri mo’i rnam gzhag (p. 115.6–12).
* Cf. For spar pa’i skyid sdug, see Robin 2010 (in French).