Bhutanese have always lived in complete harmony with the natural environment, as have people from anywhere in the world before industrialization. People learned to obtain all of their basic needs, such as food and water, medicines, housing, clothing, and other key necessities, from their immediate surroundings in a sustainable way. Taking advantage of these abundant natural resources, most of the forests in Bhutan are richly stocked with bamboos and canes of various species, Bhutanese people have mastered the skill of weaving cane and bamboo products known as Tsharzo.
As people learned to make tools and equipment from materials available in the forest, they discovered that bamboo and cane could be used to make a variety of items; and they were abundant in the forest. Without the cane and bamboo, life for the early Bhutanese would have been considerably more difficult. Although the items they created were initially primitive, as they learned more about weaving patterns into their work, they grew more beautiful. Beautiful bamboo goods can now be found all over the country.
The traditional art of crafting bamboo
The art of crafting items from bamboo and cane is called ‘Tsharzo’ in Bhutan. At first, people produced bamboo and cane products for their personal domestic use but today, the products are largely sold for cash. It is a significant source of income for many Bhutanese.
Bamboo is a tall perennial grass with hollow stems that grows in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. There are around 39 species of bamboo in Bhutan, each with its own characteristics. The stems of a bamboo plant called culms are cylindrical, woody, and jointed. Bamboo shoots grow best during the monsoon season and take as long as 6 to 12 years to grow into full-sized culms. In general, rural people are both producers and consumers of this product. It’s largely produced in eastern and southern Bhutan, where the resources grow in abundance.
The preparation of the bamboos for crafting
For hundreds of years, the people of Bhutan have passed down a tradition of making bamboo products—a practice that is still alive in many rural areas. Children born in those areas often watch their elders make the objects they need to use every day, and so they swiftly pick up the skills necessary to contribute to the community.
The process of making bamboo articles begins with peasants harvesting bamboo from November to March. They cut the bamboo with care to avoid damaging the clumps. After the harvest, thorough processing of the bamboo is required to get good quality raw material (good colour, smooth, flexible, and durable). Bamboo is cut to conventional lengths, soaked in water, and boiled with herbal remedies. This makes the bamboo unaffected from the contamination from pests, termites, and other external triggers. Bamboo craftsmen sun-dry the bamboo stems to make them more durable. If weather conditions don’t allow drying quickly after harvesting, they dry it near a fire and then polish it with coconut oil. The stems degrade quickly if they are not thoroughly dried soon after harvesting.
Bamboo strips are frequently colored to produce geometric patterns. The process of dyeing bamboo in order to make colourful products was adopted in the 1970s. Traditional colours include yellow, green, natural, blue-purple, and maroon. All of these hues come from natural vegetation and plant roots.
The strips of bamboo are then woven together to create a variety of objects.
Bamboo and cane products handcrafted in Bhutan
There is hardly any aspect of rural life in Bhutan where bamboo products are not in use. Bhutanese people wear bamboo hats while they work on the farm. They use bamboo to build fences and roofs for their traditional houses. Bamboo is also used to produce baskets, wine caskets, mats, butter containers, bows and arrows, and other items.
Zepchu, traditional bamboo basket
Beautiful bamboo baskets, locally known as “Zepchu,” are the most popular bamboo and cane item; they are ideal for storage and adornment. They were traditionally used as a horse pack for long treks, but tour companies are now using them to transport camping equipment and culinary things for guests. These vividly coloured baskets are designed to withstand falls and jolts. The baskets are woven from finely split cane; some lengths of cane are coloured to form a pattern. They are made in two pieces that fit closely enough when carrying goods. The Bhutanese use them to carry food while travelling long distances.
Bangchung, the Bhutanese "Tupperware"
Another bamboo product is the bangchung, which is used as a plate by Bhutanese people. Bangchung is made of Yula, a species of bamboo with lovely designs. These products come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and qualities, as well as diverse patterns. Foods such as cooked rice and snacks are packed in them. People used to eat out of them, but now they use them to transport and serve meals around the table, or to give as gifts to friends and family. They can be used to store food, present bread and snacks, or simply to add decoration to your home.
Ara Palang, the ancestor of the hip flask
Ara palang is a bamboo container used by the Bhutanese as a wine container for many centuries. It is decorated with woven Yula and stitched well with cane thread on top and bottom. The people in eastern Bhutan are widely known for using it to store and offer alcohol to their guests even to this day. Some people use it as a decorative item in their homes.
Other products made of bamboo include Bamboo containers, Quivers for storing arrows, Lagu or Tshog trhung vessels for serving snacks, Bhao (Baekhu) containers for wool and threads, and Patsha dromchung containers for valuables. Through the complicated process of weaving and under the skilled hands of the experts, beautiful and sophisticated bamboo and cane products are made.