History of Bhutanese handicrafts

With the written History of Bhutan, Handicrafts in Bhutan is said to be started before the arival of Great Saint “Guru Padmasambava” which is sometimes before 8th Century. During those times, one would find the statues mainly of the Buddha Vairochana, Shakyamuni and Maitreya, made by the Bhutanese Craftsmen. After the 8th century,, at the sacred shrines and sites around Bhutan we find gradually spreading, statues and paintings of Guru, of his Eight Manifestations and of his disciples.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, one could find faithful followers starting to make statues and paintings of their own Lama (Teacher). During 15th century, in Bumthang, at the Central Part of Bhutan, a Terton (Treasure Revealer), Pema Lingpa, made representations of the Eight Manifestation of the Guru. These images are especially perfect and beautiful to the eyes, inspiring instinctive devotion. Today, he is remembered as one of the best Craftsmen, who has a ability to gain a name in Zorig Chusum, which means The Thirteen Traditional Arts & Crafts.

Zorig Chusum, The Thirteen Traditional Arts & Crafts, have been known to Bhutanese Artisans since the Mid 17th Century and have developed and flourished in response to the necessity of daily life in the country. History witnessed the massive construction of Dzongs, Temples and monasteries throughout the country which was carried out under the stewardship of the Great Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) having used the all Thirteen Arts and Crafts of Bhutan.

The Thirteen Traditional Arts & Crafts, Zorig Chusum, comprise of:

1. Art of Thangka (Scroll) Painting, known as Lhazo in Bhutanese Language
Scroll painters of Bhutan have to have basic knowledge of Painting, not how to use the colours, paints or brush but to make a perfect picture of the subject. In Bhutan, most paintings, as well as most parts of Arts are deflected towards religion, so as a result, Bhutanese paintings are never credited to the name of the Painter but to the sponsor, who initiate to paint one scroll, and no doubt, the painting comes of one of the well renowned and worshipped saint as like Guru Padmasambava, Zhabdrung or other religious saints. Its finely painted that one would hardly imagine the painting as a hand paint, rather one would take it to be a machine made.

2. Art of Sculpturing – Jimzo
Where ever in Bhutan you visit, you would never miss to see the best sculturing of statues made from Clay. Starting from the Building Structures till the statues that you would find inside a monastery or Dzong, most of which are product of good Sculpture and finely use of Clay.
In order to prepare clay for sculpturing, it must be baked and mixed with the powder of many precious substances such as onyx, coral, turquoise, pearl, diamond, gold, silver, saffron, camphor, medicinal Plants and the bark from the Daphne tree in order to stick together well during the shapping process. The clay then needs to be beaten until it becomes softs. Then the sculpture do the design of the subject.

3. Art of Carving – Parzo
Parzo, in Bhutan is one of the most important part of Arts and Crafts. Many texts of teachings of Buddha have been carved on the wood in order to reproduce the copies through printing on Daphne paper. Actual Wood Carving skill came to Bhutan in the early 13th century. No part in Bhutan is without Arts of Carving. You can see a typical carving in all Bhutanese homes and to the surprise of the world, a Great saint, Terton Pema Lingpa, has carved his own statue, which can be still be seen in Bumthang. (The statue is restricted to all the visitors except Bhutanese Men.)

4. Art of Calligraphy – Yigzo
Before the introduction of woodcarving tradition in Bhutan, all texts were primarily written by Calligraphers for centuries in the past. The art of Calligraphy is one of the earliest arts used for the purpose of communication and for record-keeping in the country. Traditional written texts would be mostly in Gold and Silver ink, and even to these days, important religious texts are written in Gold and Silver ink. Its never the best Calligrapher, until you poses a good knowledge to write in Gold and silver ink using traditional Bamboo Shoot, in Bhutan.

5. Art of Casting – Lugzo
There are two types of Casting traditions which are practiced in Bhutan and these include wax and sand casting. Both continue to be practiced in the country but in former times, was casting was the more well-known version which was used by Bhutanese casters. Hundreds of casting tools are required for both wax and sand casting. For carving alone, there are around sixty different types and shapes and sizes of tools in accordance with the size of the objects to be cast. The casting process master has to be skilled in all of the six stages of the casting process and these include drawing, sculpturing, casting, wielding, carving, and polishing.

6. Art of Paper Making – Shogzo
There are many ways of making paper in accordance with the availability of the raw materials but in Bhutan, paper is mainly made from the bark of the Daphne Tree which is plentiful and found in many locations around the country. There are two different kinds of paper produced by the traditional paper makers. One is quite thick and slightly brown in color and is locally known as Tsharshog, which means Bamboo paper, and the other one is known as Reshog, which means cloth-paper. Bamboo paper is made in a bamboo frame and its color is brown whereas cloth-paper is made in a cloth frame and its color is white.

7. Art of Embroidery – Tshemzo
The art of embroidery has played a very important role in the making of Thangkas and other decorative clothes throughout Bhutanese history. In 1957, the third King of Bhutan, Druk Gyalpo King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck commisioned Lam Durlop Dorji of Bumthang (Only one man skilled at embroidery) to instruct young monks in this field and so a school of embroidery was established at Dechen Choling Palace with 30 young monks. Few finished embroideries to be found in Bhutan are Thongdrol (Large Thangkas unfolded from the roof tops of Monasteries and Dzongs), Thagkas (Scroll Painting) and more or less related to Buddhism.

8. Art of Textile – Thagzo
Bhutan is known around the world for its beautiful and unique textiles which are woven both by women and men. Bhutan’s textile is neither similar to the embroidered silk of China nor to plain silk of India but instead they are completely different in terms of their fabrication, weaving, patterns and colours. According to Buddhism, if a weaver produces cloth and gives it to another, her or his positive action will be increased and eventually enable weaver to be born in the pure-land where ornaments are in abundance. Following this, there are always offerings of a set of clothes or new silk to the newly reincarnated lama or those being honored by friends and followers along with prayers and wishes for continued good actions.

9. Art of Carpentry – Shingzo
Bhutan has unique architectural aesthetics built in timber. The master carpenters of Bhutan are in great demand since every house being built with wood would employ their knowledge and skill. For centuries, master-computers have played an important role in the building of dzongs, temples and palaces, bridges, furniture and so on. Bhutanese Carpenters have to be skilled especially in the delicate work of joining wood. They should possess both vast knowledge and experience in planning and use of accurate measurement.

10. Art of Masonry – Dhozo
One can find that the fortresses (Dzongs) and temples in Bhutan are built with stone and even the smallest farm houses also employ stone. These structures which use stone are locally known as TSIGKHIYM which translates as “Stone House” and also link to the belief that Bhutan is a country where all ten recognized virtues can be found. According to Buddhist scriptures, a country is considered as scared or virtuous if all ten virtue are present within the country. These virtues includes good land for the building of houses, productive or cultivatable land for agriculture, plentiful resources of stone for construction of the house, availability of hard stone for grinding water irrigation, timber resources again for construction purposes, plentiful firewood resources, sufficient high altitude pasture and low grazing land.

11. Art of Bamboo Weaving – Tsherzo
For centuries, Bhutanese have woven many varieties of bamboo items. The art of Bamboo weaving is still alive and practised today mainly in the areas of Kheng which is located in Zhemgang district, Nanung of Mongar district and Trimshing Kangpar of Tashigang District. Bamboo weavers are skilled in the production of variety of functional objects such as bamboo plates, baskets, bamboo-sieves, roofing, fencing, mats for drying grains and so on. The bangchung – or traditional container – alone have more then twenty different designs and sizes. Bangchungs are mainly used as plate while eating and can also be used as Tiffin, whereas the larger bamboo baskets are used for storing house hold items and transporting goods (as like back pack).

12. Art of Gold and Silver Work – Trozo
In Bhutan, products made from Gold and Silver can be group into both those for religious and secular use. Religious include all ritual objects, such as offering cups, vases, plates, bowls, butter-lamps, short and long trumpets and so on. Whereas those falling within the secular use category includes all ornaments and containers such as brooches, fibulas, necklaces, bracelets, bangles, earrings, finger rings, betel nut containers and others. During the time of the Second King Jigme Dorje, there was a great master named Troko Gomchen who was skilled in both gold and silver smithy. He was a royal court smith and trained many young men in the art of Gold and Silver work. Troko Gomchen was acclaimed to be the best smith in that day and age and his handmade silver ornaments and ritual objects can still be seen today.

13. Art of Blacksmithy – Garzo
Since Bhutan has always had its own iron mining resources, blacksmiths have long been skilled at producing tools for farming, short knives for daily use and other carpenters’ tool which are necessary to build wooden structures. These smiths were also responsible for the fabrication of the gorgeous long swords which were used for both defense and to signify status of a higher statesman or hero. Even today, the Dasho’s sword is a revered symbol of respect and power for those who achieve this very important rank.
In the 14th century, well-known iron bridge builder and adept artist, Thangtong Gyalpo (1345-1464) traveled to Bhutan in order to collect iron for the construction of an iron bridge at Chagzamchowori in Tibet. He discovered that iron mines already existed at the pass located above the Wochu valley in Paro. The site is locally known as Chagkola, which literally means the “Digging the iron pass”. Excavation sites can still be seen at this location.

Information Source:
Bhutans Thirteen Arts and Crafts
A Book by Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi
Thimphu, Bhutan