Bhutanese arts and crafts are known for their bold use of colours, exquisite attention to detail and symmetry. Portraying deities, plants and animals and more, art is used to decorate the homes, temples and everyday objects of the Bhutanese people. From the Buddhists monks making intricate sand mandalas to the woodworker carving a garish mask, art is seen as a religious experience, leading to enlightenment. There is said to be 13 arts and crafts of Bhutan, collectively known as Zorig Chusum.
Bhutan, known as the land of the thunder dragon, is deeply rooted in its Buddhist culture. Influenced early on by the Tibetan civilisation, it has overtime developed its own identity. An identity that can be seen and felt as soon as you stepped in this Himalayan Country. In our mystic and mysterious land, where Kings, Queens and Dragons evolve; history, legends and spirituality are indissolubly linked. They not only influence the arts and crafts, but they are also the main reason for it.
Bhutanese handicrafts possess three main characteristics: it is religious, it is anonymous, and it corresponds to a certain uniformity of style. As such, items possess no intrinsic aesthetic function, and are instead interpreted as outward expressions of the holistic Buddhist religion. As mentioned, one important aspect of Bhutanese art is that it is always anonymous. If a work of art bears a name, it is usually the name of the person who commissioned it, not the artist’s, because the importance of the craft lies in the craft itself, not in those who produce it.
While the making practices have evolved and adapt through the new generations, the final intent remains the same. For the Bhutanese people, each piece they create represents a religious experience, a connection with something that goes beyond them and enlightens them creatively.
Bhutanese tradition distinguishes thirteen artistic categories, including woodcarving and weaving, thangka painting, sculpting in stone or clay, metal casting, gold smithing, masonry, leather work and embroidery.
The 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan
The art of Weaving, Thagzo
The art of weaving is one of the oldest crafts and is an integral part of Bhutanese life and culture. It is exclusively practiced by women, but men can help in spinning yak hair and sheep wool into yarn thread. The craft is widely practised throughout the country though eastern Bhutan is especially renowned for the quality and complexity of their silks and cottons. Jambay Kelzang for instance has gained popularity in the western world for her beautiful and intricate designs.
Bhutanese textiles are admired for its rich vibrant colours, variations of patterns, intricate dyeing and manual weaving techniques. The textiles are woven from cotton, silk, wool, nettle or yak hair in striped patterns – vertical for men and horizontal for women. However, each region has a speciality in terms of designs and types.
There are three types of looms that are used by Bhutanese weavers – blackstrap, horizontal-framed and card loom. The primary type is the back-strap loom which is mostly used by weavers from eastern Bhutan. The horizontal-framed loom and the card loom were introduced into Bhutan from Tibet and are still used today.
Textiles play an important social role in Bhutan: they are an element of a strict social code and until the late 1950’s served as a form of currency.
The art of Painting, Lhazo
Bhutanese painting is an ancient art that has been practiced for many generations. It is quintessential to the art scene of Bhutan.
Master painters are called Lharips in Bhutanese and their work can be seen in the murals and frescoes inside the massive dzongs, temples and monasteries. The materials used in Bhutanese paint are mostly the natural pigmented soils that are found throughout the country. A lharip can also paints houses, altar and thangka with traditional symbols. Most painting are religious and depict the images of Buddha and other deities. These religious paintings are following precise, symbolic econometric and iconographic rules codified in ancient Buddhist texts. It is believed that the act of creating a religious painting earns great merit and should be done with a pure mind.
The most sacred scrolls are displayed only during annual religious festivals known as tshechu. The mere sight of these thangkas is believed to cleanse the viewer of his sins and bring him closer to attaining nirvana. Thus, it brings merit not only to the believers but for the painters as well.
Bamboo and Cane Weaving, Tshazo
Most of the forests in Bhutan are richly stocked with bamboos and canes of various species. Taking advantage of these abundant natural resources, Bhutanese people have mastered the skill of weaving cane and bamboo products known as Tshazo.
Villagers living near bamboo groves usually cut, split, dry the inner and outer layers of the bamboo before weaving to make fencing for the fields or domestic items such as baskets called bangshungs, plate, quivers, sieves and alcohol containers were woven in semi-tropical regions and villagers used both the outer and inner layers of the bamboo.
The art of clay work, Jimzo
Jimzo, the crafting of pottery is one of the oldest forms of craft, dating back to the 17th century, preceding other sculpture works such as bronze. Jimzo includes the making of religious statues and ritual objects as well as clay masks, pottery and construction of buildings using mortar, plaster and rammed earth.
These artisans are famous for the intricacy of their clay sculpture, representing deities and religious figures. The most renowned craftsmen come from Heyphu monastery in Paro valley and have worked all over the world. The quality of their work comes from the mixture of clay and other materials such as desho paper have been used.
Every monastery, temple and Dzong in the country has intricately moulded clay statues from where pilgrims and devout Buddhists draw their inspiration. Master sculptors are known as Jimzo lopens impart their skills to young novices over several years of rigorous training.
While the art of modelling statues is confined to men, the art of pottery is normally reserved for women. There are three distinctive types of clay ware: earthenware, stoneware and the china-clay ware, but in Bhutan, we find only earthenware. While this tradition is nearly dying out in some areas, the women of Lhuentse and Paro actively practice it and are still keeping the venerable art form alive.
The art of Carving, Parzo
All the Bhutanese crafts are quite intricate and awe-inspiring, and the same goes for the traditional art of carving, called Parzo. Carving is extensively practiced in the country to produce items such as printing blocks for religious texts, furniture, altars, slate images embellished on the many shrines and wooden masks featured during the annual religious festivals.
Surprisingly, this art is also used to carve phalluses of various sizes and shapes that are hung on the four corners of Bhutanese houses and placed over the main entrance door. The phalluses are an homage to the Divine Madman, who used the phallus to subdue evil spirits and transform them into protective deities.
The art of slate carving is also practiced by master craftsmen known as Do Nag Lopens. Slate is found in both Western and Eastern Bhutan. Slate carving is not as diverse as stone or wood works, it is mostly found in religious scriptures and mantras.Stone carving was mostly used for more practical usage such as the carving of grinding mills.
The art of bronze casting, Lugzo
Lugzo is the art of bronze casting. It was first introduced to Bhutan by Newari artisans from Nepal in the 17th century. It ranges from the creation of kitchen utensils, pinnacles and statues to musical instruments, pottery, tools and ornaments such as incense holders.
Casting involves a complex process that requires a lot of skill and masterfulness in the two techniques that are practiced: wax and sand casting. Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye, 13th Je Khenpo (a religious authority) of Bhutan, mastered wax casting, and crafted 1,000 Buddha, including the main Buddha at the Punakha Dzong.
The art of Papermaking, Dezo
The origins of papermaking are deeply rooted in Bhutan and many sacred scripts have been written on this paper. The masters called Dezop, are making this paper from the bark, fibre and pulp of Daphne and Edgeworthian plants. It is beautifully, elaborated with extensive care to be extremely resistant, since it is termite and insect repellent. This craft used to be specifically monastic; nowadays, all kinds of paper are available in the market, but people continue to use Desho paper for special occasions.
All the sacred and religious scriptures in manuscript books for monks used to be written on Dezo with traditional ink, sometimes even gold. Handmade papermaking is a very important part of Bhutanese tradition and culture.
The art of iron work, Garzo
It is believed the Tibetan saint, Dupthob Thangtong was the one who introduced this ancient craft to in the 14th century.
Skilled in casting iron chains and constructing bridges. He has built eight suspension bridges in Bhutan including the bridge over Paro Chu linking the highway to the famous Tachog Lhakhang in Paro. While blacksmithing is almost a dying art in Bhutan, there are still some settlers in Trashigang practicing this craft.
The art of carpentry, Shingzo
One of the most outstanding things you will notice about Bhutan is the distinctive architecture. Carpentry plays a vital role in the construction of Bhutan’s majestic dzongs, temples, palaces and bridges. These masterpieces with exquisite design and intricate details are created by the master carpenters known as Zo Chen and Zo Wo. The ancient fortresses are some of the finest examples of woodwork in the country and are often praised for their uniqueness, in particular the Punakha Dzong. What’s unusual here is that these dzongs are built without using any nails.
This exquisite style of architecture gives Bhutan its identity and is different from anything you would see elsewhere.
The art of masonry, Dozo
The ancient craft of dozo refers to building structures using stones.
The mason craftsmen are called Zope in Bhutanese and he is the one responsible behind the preparation of mortar, planning, construction and supervision of the building process from scratch to end. This craft is still prevailing today and can be seen in houses all over the country. Carpenters and masons together use their skills to build dzongs, walls, stupas, houses, bridges, courtyards and temples out of stone. Besides these, masons also produce utensils for daily use at home.
The art of wood turning, Shagzo
Before the popular ceramic, steel, brass or melamine utensils, the ancient generations used the process of woodturning to make handmade containers. This art form of Bhutan is known as Shagzo, churning out bowls, cups, plates and other unique containers of different shapes, sizes and colours. The master woodturning artisans are known as Shagzopa.
Many different kinds of wood are used but the most exquisite and expensive items are made out of burl wood. Burls are hunted often by the Bhutanese people to be sold in the markets for a good price. Nowadays, the most common items are wooden cups and bowls traditionally known as dapas and phobs. Apart from being a marvellous souvenir, these bowls are also used in many local restaurants to serve food until today.
The art of ornament making, Troeko
The vibrant craft of ornaments making from gold, silver or copper is known as troeko. The master craftsmen in jewellery and ornament making are known as Troeko Lopen. Using precious stones and metals such as corals, turquoise, silver and gold, they create necklaces, earrings, prayer wheels, incense holders and traditional containers to store the much-chewed beetle nut among other things.
The art of Tailoring, Embroidery and Appliqué, Tshemzo
Tshemzo or the art of tailoring is a popular art amongst Bhutanese. This art can be broadly classified as Tshem drup, the art of embroidery, lhem drup the art of appliqué and Tsho lham, the art of traditional Bhutanese boot making. The art of embroidery and appliqué are normally practiced by monks. Using this art, they produce large religious scrolls known as Thangkas that depicts Gods and Goddesses, deities and saints.
Traditional boot making is normally the work of Bhutanese lay men. Tsolhams (traditional knee-length boots) are made from brocade and embellished with intricate embroidery. Bhutanese wear these special boots during special occasions and certain religious ceremonies. Special craftsmen in the villages also make simple boots from uncured leather.
The third category is tailoring. These craftsmen are skilled at sewing the traditional Bhutanese garments known as Gho and Kira.
The National Institute of Zorig Chusum
In an effort to preserve these arts, the National Institute of Zorig Chusum was created. Commonly refer to as the painting school, student can learn the 13 arts and crafts of Bhutan over a course of 4 to 6 years. Integrity and dignity of labour are few of the many fine qualities which are not compromised on here, a tribute to the efforts put in by the people of Bhutan and the authorities to keep their art alive.
The institute is open to the public; it is possible to wander through the charming corridors, enter the classrooms to observe and talk to the students, and interact with them while they work. It offers visitors the opportunity to be part of this cultural tradition where art and religion are so intrinsically linked.