Blessed with an untouched and pristine natural environment, nowhere in the Himalayas is the natural environment as rich and diversified as it is in Bhutan. Bhutan’s high, rugged mountains and deep valleys are home to spectacular natural biodiversity. An essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage, the thirteen traditional arts and crafts are closely associated with the natural heritage of the country. The pure and simple raw materials found in abundance across the country are used intensively in producing the finest arts and crafts.
The Bhutanese take great pride in woodworks such as carpentry, woodturning and carving. Among the wood products, the most precious and cherished items are the utensils made from special burls called zachye, considered as the gem of wood. The art of woodturning in Bhutan is known as shagzo and the master craftsmen who practice this vibrant art are known as Shagzopa. It is an ancient art that has been passed down from generation to generation in Bhutan and is a part of the country’s material culture.
Unlike other arts and crafts available in the kingdom of Bhutan, Shagzo is predominantly done by the people of Tashi Yangtse in Eastern Bhutan. Although some type of woodturning is claimed to have existed before the seventeenth century, the woodturning craft of creating wooden objects originated from Tibet during the seventeenth century. The patriarchal family lineage of Khampa Lobzang, who was originally from Tibet, helped it gain prominence in Tashi Yangtse.
The significance of woodturning for Bhutan
When you think of woodturning, you might think of decorative items. But woodturning products in Bhutan are much more than that. The shagzopa produce a wide range of practical items, including hardwood bowls (dhapa), cups (phob), containers, and plates. These are made from diverse woods, such as Walnut, English Yew, Pine, maple, and Rhododendron.
The Shagzopa uses its expertise to create highly valued practical wooden items made from rare wood burls and tree roots. Under his skilled hands, these wooden products come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colours. In Bhutan, wooden objects are part of our culture as they are widely used in daily life. Dza is the Bhutanese name for abnormal growths or special wooden knots used by woodturners. The best and most valuable type of wood burl is called “dza ling choem” in Bhutanese. It’s thought to emit light rays at night and specific light rays (tak tshen gi yoed) during the day. Dza bowls and plates are made in all sizes, depending on the quality of the dza’s stripes. Bhutanese believe that items made of “dza ling choem” have the ability to purify poison from curry and drinks.
Dhapas and Phobs are used to serve food. The two halves fit tightly together and can be used as cookie or salad bowls. Bou dapa, is one of the most popular forms of dhapa. Rice is traditionally served in this bowl to monastic groups and dignitaries. Tsam deg is a serving bowl with a lid that was initially used to hold roasted wheat and barley flour in Bhutan’s northeastern region. They can now be used to serve meals or to beautify a space.
Tourists show great interest in the beautiful wooden serve ware used on their tables. It did not take long before it become a popular souvenir. The sale of wooden goods has significantly improved the living standard of the wood artisans and their families.
The Woodturning process
The process of manufacturing Dapa begins with the felling of trees in remote highly forested areas where the needed raw ingredients are. Forests are plentiful in Bhutan and there is no shortage of wood. But wood burls are special, it is said to be difficult to find although there are many people who professionally hunt for burls. It is generally thought that people mostly chance upon special burls when they have good luck. Stories are also told about how a special burl would disappear or become invisible if one does not collect it immediately.
Once collected, the chopped woods are coarsely moulded and carved from the interior. It is then transported to the homes of wood craftsmen, where it is roughly shaped. These irregularly shaped timber pieces are then immersed in cold water for two or three months to prevent the fundamental patterns from cracking and to remove their odour. The wood is then cured over the fire and left in the sun for a month before being boiled in water to straighten it. The softened wood pieces are left to dry again in the shade. The hardwood pieces are then crafted using an electrically operated motor lathe or manual pedal lathe.
Instead of sandpaper, the leaves of the sogsogm (Tsuga dumosa) shrub are used to smooth cups. An indigenous substance known as ‘sey’ is used to lacquer black or red as the finishing touch. Sey, extracted from the se-shing (Rhus succedanea) is the soul of turned wood articles. Due to its tendency to dry out in the wind, it is only used in the sun and shielded from the wind. Lacquer is applied with the thumb. The shagzopa applies at least seven layers of lacquer to produce high-quality, long-lasting products.
The long, intricate method of creating these wood-turned traditional products has largely escaped the threat of global westernisation and modernisation, and in every way reflects Bhutanese unique spirit and identity.
Benefits of using wooden articles
Eco-friendly: The wood comes from nature, it doesn’t contain any toxic substances. Even when the wood is chiselled into items, no chemical treatment is used in Bhutan. Moreover, the production and processing of wood consume substantially less energy giving wooden products a significantly lower carbon footprint.
Naturally anti-bacterial: Wood has a natural ability to kill germs and bacteria. This will also prevent the utensils from becoming a breeding ground for bacteria. According to studies, wood maintains fewer bacteria than plastic and has been proven to be naturally antibacterial.
Social benefit: Most wooden articles are produced in the countryside, their sale contributes to the well being of the rural communities. By being a source of income, it also inspires the younger generation to learn the skills, helping in preserving the arts and crafts of Bhutan and the Culture of the country.
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