Art is an essential part of daily life in Bhutan, representing internal and external spirituality. It is home to a unique tradition of art and craftsmanship, known as the 13 Arts and Crafts of Bhutan, or Zorig Chusum. It is regarded as the pinnacle of Bhutanese creative achievement and was first created in the 15th century by the revered saint and artist Pema Lingpa. All the arts contain the same principles, symbolisms, and ideologies that make this practice so ancestral. However, artists invariably imprint their style, adding to the piece’s individuality. Among the 13 crafts, one of the most captivating and celebrated art forms is Lhazo, the art of painting in Bhutan. The paintings are the portrayal of human beings and their interaction with nature and their beliefs. Lhazo is a distinctive kind of art that blends intricate designs, vibrant colors, and spiritual symbolism. The craft is deeply ingrained in Bhutanese culture and religion. The magnificent artworks depict myths and legends from Bhutan. It is a complex art that calls for perseverance, talent, and attention to detail.
What is Lhazo?
Lha-zo, also known as the art of painting in Bhutan, is an ancient art form that has been practiced for many generations. These traditional paintings are commonly found on walls, flags, canvas, wood, fabric, and other objects. Bhutanese paintings are typically associated with Buddhist mythology and spiritual teachings, depicting deities, sacred animals, temples, and other relevant imagery. Nearly every house and building is colorfully painted with symbols such as a lotus, a dragon, or lucky signs, as are furniture, tables, and many other daily objects. The art is considered sacred, and old paintings are preserved for their cultural value. They reflect the artist’s inner self and depict spirituality, happiness, and all things that are sacred to Bhutanese people.
Lharip- the Master Painter
The master painters of Lha-zo, known as Lha Rips, create art pieces that transcend the self and connect them to a religious experience. One of the striking features of Bhutanese paintings is the anonymity of the artists, who never sign their works. It is believed that creating a religious painting should be done with a pure mind to earn great merit. When painting, the artists adhere to precise, symbolic, and iconographic rules codified in ancient treaties. The paintings are almost always religion-centric, and every artist’s portrayal of symbolism and ideologies makes the art unique. Traditional Bhutanese artists work meticulously to create a work of faith, bound by strict iconographic conventions.
History and Evolution of the art of Painting in Bhutan
Lhazo, the art of painting in Bhutan, has a rich history and has evolved. In the past, making sacred sculptures or paintings required meditation, as well as bodily and spiritual purification. But this process has changed, and the responsibility of creating sacred scrolls of deities has been passed on to professional male artists. Paintings and stupas are created by groups of artists working in workshops, under the direction of a master. The apprentices do the essential work, while the master executes the detailed and fine work. Through this process, master painters pass on their special techniques to their apprentices or disciples.
Religious painting, such as thangka (painting on fabric), was previously almost exclusively practiced by Buddhist monks. However, between approximately 1960 and 1980, a transition occurred in Bhutan where monks no longer painted solely for meditation. Monks or the general layman hired pious adherents and citizens to cultivate painting skills and create paintings for the karmic rewards prescribed in Buddhist teaching. This transition in Lhazo practice from monk to citizen has provided a means of earning an income for families. Many Lharips now sell artifacts or decorate architectural exteriors or interiors. The passing down of traditional knowledge and the integration of traditional arts into everyday life have kept these traditions alive and relevant in today’s rapidly changing world.
Significance of Lhazo in Bhutanese Art and Culture
Traditional Bhutanese artwork has a deep connection to Buddhism and holds immense significance for the people. It serves as a medium to convey spiritual meaning and guide the viewer’s thoughts along the mystic path. Although the aesthetic beauty of the art is appreciated, its primary purpose is to express Buddhism and convey genuine life experiences. The painters viewed their creations as a means of demonstrating their faith and relationship with the divine. The art’s anonymity highlights the belief that it speaks for itself and embodies the community’s values. As a result, it is used as a spiritual tool to decorate every home, temple, and street in Bhutan. These paintings are not just mere decorations but have a profound religious and cultural significance. Lhazo, the art of painting in Bhutan serve as a testament to the Bhutanese people’s devotion and their commitment to preserving their rich cultural heritage.
Different Forms of Lhazo
Lhazo always has religious themes as its primary focus. The artworks often depict deities, legends, religious tales, meditation objects, or symbols of good fortune. Lhazo is classified into three forms:
1. Murals in Dzongs, Monasteries, and Houses
Bhutan is a country that boasts a rich cultural heritage, evident in the stunning murals found in its dzongs, monasteries, and houses. These extremely symbolic works of art span from simple good luck symbols on home facades to intricate narrative wall paintings in monasteries. The murals are focused on specific locations, and provide visitors with a glimpse of the cultural landscape. Within the dzongs and monasteries, visitors can marvel at the incredible artistry on display. Their massive stone walls and measured wooden beams are decorated with religious figures, mandalas, phalluses, and narrative paintings depicting events in the lives of saints. The vibrant illustrations serve as allegories, captivatingly bringing to life the ageless themes of human existence.
Thangkas are traditional Bhutanese paintings on cloth that portray Buddhist philosophy and are displayed during important ceremonies. They also hold honorable places in homes, temples, monasteries, and even modern workplaces. Moreover, enormous thangkas, also known as thongdrols, or scrolls representing holy figures, are shown at yearly religious festivals. These scrolls are believed to cleanse the viewer of their sins and bring them closer to attaining nirvana. Both the artists of these magnificent thangkas and believers receive merits from this belief. Thangkas have important cultural and artistic value in addition to serving religious and philosophical purposes.
3. Manuscripts - Calligraphy
Bhutan has a rich history of calligraphy as a fine art, with exquisitely crafted manuscripts that have survived for centuries on handmade paper. These manuscripts often feature intricate miniature paintings that complement the text. Some texts are rendered in calligraphy with ink made from gold dust and adorned with illuminations. Once a text is finished, it is bound between two wooden boards, which are often decorative and feature religious paintings.
Materials and Techniques used in Lhazo
Proficiency in Lhazo, the art of painting in Bhutan, is regarded as a highly accurate and meaningful legacy. The school of painting includes crucial elements that adhere to Buddhist iconographic guidelines. The artist has very little composition freedom and must use specific units of measure for different parts of the bodies of deities. They have assigned colors and attributes that cannot be changed.
The materials used
Bhutanese paintings utilize the naturally pigmented soils found in most places in the country. These pigments, called Sa-Tshoen, come in different colors, such as black, red, and yellow. However, modern acrylic paints in various shades are also commonly used nowadays. The colors used in Bhutanese paintings play a significant role in representing the country’s art. Divine images’ colors are chosen according to tradition and rules. Both organic and inorganic colors are used, such as cochineal for red, lapis lazuli for blue, and arsenic for yellow. A combination of arsenic and lapis lazuli is used to produce different shades of green. In older paintings, soft shades of colors like red, blue, and green were commonly used.
The technique utilized for wall painting in the Himalayas is comparable to the painting style employed in Lhazo. It entails painting several coats of lime and gum emulsion on a damp wall before polishing it with anything smooth, such as a conch shell. After that, the subject is sketched in Indian ink or charcoal, starting with the main character and moving on to supporting characters. The colors are painted on with a brush in diluted form over numerous coats, and then a varnish made of glue lime and the right color is applied to reinforce it. Gods are frequently depicted either in a meditative position with their hands in their laps or in the adamantine position, wielding the thunderbolt that represents adamantine truth.
Preservation of Lhazo Painting in Modern Times
Arts and crafts are becoming a more and more important part of social, political, and economic life in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The National Institute for Zorig Chusum was established in Thimphu by the Royal Government of Bhutan in 1971. The institute’s primary objective is to preserve and promote traditional arts and crafts while creating employment opportunities for young people. The art of Lhazo became popular among Bhutanese youth after the establishment of the institute. Similarly, the Institute of Zorig Chusum in Trashi Yangtse offers Lhazo courses as well. The master painters from the institutes play a critical role in preserving and promoting the art of painting, which is visible in temples, houses, and handicraft shops throughout Bhutan.