Zorig Chusum: The thirteen traditional crafts of Bhutan
Zorig Chusum refers to the thirteen traditional visual arts and crafts that Bhutanese have practiced for generations. It came into prominence and into proper categorization only in the late seventeenth century during the reign of the fourth Druk Desi (Secular Head). Art serves both secular and religious functions in Bhutan. The National Institute for Zorig Chusum located in the capital city Thimphu, and Trashi Yangtse (in eastern Bhutan) was established by the Royal Government of Bhutan to preserve and promote these traditional arts in contemporary Bhutan. The Choki Traditional Arts School (CTAS), a small privately supported not for profit school located in the beautiful alpine village of Kabesa in the Thimphu valley, offers training in traditional drawing, painting, sculpture and woodcarving to disadvantaged and underprivileged Bhutanese youth, contributing towards the preservation and promotion of these age-old arts and crafts.
The thirteen crafts are:
Shing zo- Wood Work
Wood has long been a good friend of man and it has long been in use before the advent of stone tools and weapons. Wood has always been the centerpiece and at the heart of every structures. In the past, when steel and iron were not as popular as it is today, wood was used as the structural framework and structures have been built with but no metal or steel aids. Wooden pegs, nails and fastening and holding aids made out of wood were used in even huge structures and they were designed and built to last for centuries withstanding both natural as well as man-made forces.
Most ancient structures in Bhutan, the famous ones being the Dzongs (The Fortress), Lhakhangs (Temples), and bridges and houses were all built using wood. The designing, measuring, carving, fitting and final touches are all provided by the skillful master carpenters called Zow and Zo chen. Carpenters skilled in woodworks were the chief architect in all projects relating to building of structures before the advent of steel, iron rods and concrete.
Anyone wishing to master this traditional craft undertakes an internship with the master craftsman until he excels and is confident enough to undertake projects on his own.
Do zo – Stone Work
Masonry is an age-old popular craft all over the world. All major ancient structures decorating the skyline are built with stone. In most cultures, stone form an integral part of their structure of worship as well as their homes. Stone is used as a medium of expression of their rich culture and traditions. The complex Mayan inscriptions, the Egyptian Pyramid Wonders, the Great Wall of China, the stone structure grandeurs of the ancient civilizations all have one thing in common – Stone.
Prominent structures in Bhutan like the Dzongs and chortens have been built with stone as its integral component. The art of stonework is not restricted or confined to one area in Bhutan, but is found throughout the kingdom.
The massive Chhoeten Kora in Trashi Yangte and the Chendebji Chhoeten in Trongsa are fine specimens of the skills and artistic deftness of the masons.
Par zo – Wood, Slate and Stone carving
Carving as part of the thirteen traditional arts and crafts is executed on various mediums like stone, wood and slate. Craving serves religious functions in the form of masks of various shapes, sizes, forms and characters used in the traditional chhams or religious dances. Wood carvings also serve aesthetic appeal in the form of carvings on building structures. Traditional symbols are also getting carved into wood like bowls and cups and other religious items kept on the household altars. The altar is another excellent showpiece of wood carving found in almost all households in Bhutan.
Slate carving is another important art that has found its way into Bhutan. The material is also found aplenty in two districts of Bhutan, namely Wangdi Phodrang and Pema Gatsel. The medium is called Do nag and the craftsman is called as Do nag Lopen. Although, this art is not as diverse and popular as wood carving, it has established its own rightful place in the traditions of Bhutan. This form of carving can be seen on mountain passes, on chhoetens with inscriptions of prayers, religious figures and deities.
Stone carving is not as popular as other carvings but it can still be seen in the traditional settings. Flour mills turned by running streams, another lighter and smaller version of the flour mill operated manually at home to grind flour; hollowed-out stones for husking grain; troughs used for feeding domestic animals are very much in use if we venture into the rural corners of the country. Stone blocks with prayer and images of deities can also be seen.
Lha zo – Painting
Bhutanese paintings are quintessential of the arts and crafts tradition known as Lha-Zo. It is an ancient art that has been practiced since time immemorial and these grand intricate paintings capture the visual treat of the Bhutanese landscape. Master painters are called Lha Rips and their pieces of arts are seen in all places and structures of religious and historical values. The paintings are some of the lasting impressions and memories that all visitors to Bhutan take back with them. A typical example of this art from is the massive thongdrols (Painting scrolls) unfurled during annual Tshechu festivals in Bhutan. The mere sight of these enormous paintings of religious figures is believed to cleanse a person off all his sins and evils pulling him closer on the road to enlightenment. Thus, in the end, the painter also merits a lot of good karma.
Young painters who wish to master this art are trained and tutored by the master painter, Lha Rip. The materials used in this paint are the natural pigment soils that are found throughout the country. For instance, the yellow color is available in Gasa and Bumthang; red in Wamrong; black in Phuntsholing and Trashigang and white in Paro.
Jim zo – Clay turning
Clay sculptural pieces are yet another ancient crafts of Bhutan widely found in all religious places. The master craftsman who has excelled in this art is known as Jim Zo. Statues of religious figures and protecting deities and other popular figures are testament to this craft. Every religious place has clay statues of Buddhist masters and protecting deities where worshippers pray and prostrate.
The art of Jim Zo is imparted to young novices through several years of rigorous training. This art of modeling statues is a wholly manly affair. In the past, the tradition of clay pottery was also very popular. This was usually done by women. In Bhutan, only earthenware is found. In other parts of the world, stoneware and china-clayware are very popular. Nowadays, these clayware pieces are being exhibited as show pieces at private homes and public museums. The success of the clayware depends on the composition of the clay, deftness of the craftsman/or craftswoman in baking it to the right temperature. The baked items are then coated with a layer of lac to make them water-proof.
Although, it might appear to be a dying crafts, all is not lost as women in parts of Lhuentse in the east and Paro in the west are still practicing it. The Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu also supports initiatives to revive this dying art.
Lug zo – Bronze casting
Bhutan has a long history of bronze casting. And it is evident from the various bronze items on display in the architectural set up of the country. Evidence found within monasteries suggests that amongst the early settlers, particularly among those who came in the seventeenth century, were a group of highly skilled craftsmen who crafted ritual and spiritual objects for the temples. Bronze came into popularity during the Bronze Age at around 3500 BC when it was widely used by the ancient Sumerians in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Bronze was commonly used to cast containers such as cups, urns, and vases. It was also used to cast weapons and protective gears like axes, helmets, knives, swords and shields for battle. In Bhutan, Bronze casting was introduced only in the 17th century by the visiting Newari artisans from Nepal when they were first invited by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to cast bronze statues and religious items such as bells and water offering bowls.
Shag zo – Wood turning
This craft is widely popular in the eastern district of Trashi Yangtse where they craft wooden bowls and cups. Shag Zo or the craft of wood turning is still a very vibrant craft. The master craftsman of this craft is known as a Shag Zopa. Wooden bowls called Dapas and wooden cups called phobs are a typical example of this craft. The Dapas and phobs are crafted out from a very rare tree node known as zaa. Any wooden products crafted out of this rare wood node are highly prized and is also believed to bring good luck.
Gar zo – Blacksmithing
The art of iron work is called Gar zo. This art began in the Iron Age when early inhabitants began crafting crude tools from iron. In Bhutan it began in the late 14th century when it was introduced by a Tibetan saint called Dupthop Thangthong Gyalpo (1385-1464). He is revered as a Master Engineer for his skills in crafting iron chains and building bridges over steep gorges and difficult terrains not only in Bhutan but across the Himalayas. Records reveal that the great Tibetan Bridge-builder built as many as eight iron chain bridges in Bhutan using iron that was extracted in Bhutan. A living example of his craftsmanship is the bridge linking the Tachog Lhakhang on the Thimphu-Paro highway. The temple was also built by Thangthong in 1420 as a private temple.
The remains of his iron works can still be seen at the National Museum in Paro.
Troe ko – Ornament making
This craft deals with crafting of ornaments. The master craftsman of this craft is known as a Troe ko Lopen. The end product of this craft is widely used by women as jewelry. Jewelry crafted and used in Bhutan are mainly of two types: Precious stones (Gold and silver ornaments like brooches, bangles, necklaces, pendants, earrings and rings) and semi-precious stones (Turquoise, coral etc…) Other products also include amulets, silver container for the ubiquitous Doma, butter lamp containers and other ritual objects.
Tsha zo – Bamboo craft
Tsha Zo is the art of making ornamental and utility products from bamboo and cane. Forests in Bhutan are blessed with a wide species of bamboo and cane. From use in daily farming activities to crafting a wide varieties of containers like baskets, bangchhung, palangs, chungchung, floor mats, mats for drying grains, bamboo fences, bamboo rooftops, traditional bow, quivers, musical instruments like flutes and many other household items.
The people of Kangpara in eastern Bhutan and Bjokaps in central Bhutan are famed for their ingenuity and skills in Tsha Zo. From a traditional in-house use, these wide varieties of indigenous products have finally made foray into the markets and they are doing brisk business.
De zo – The craft of paper making
This art of paper-making is deeply rooted in Bhutan’s culture and tradition. This art most likely came into prominence through the monastic institutions from their need and use of papers. The traditional paper is called De Zho and people engaged in paper-making are called Dezop. Dezho is made from the bark of a plant known as Daphne (Deshing). Presently, this tradition is not as widespread as it was in the past. Today, it is popular in Bomdeling and Rigsum Gonpa in Trashi Yangtse and is taken up by both men and women. From being used as papers in scripture writing in the past, today it serves a wide rang of purposes like envelopes, carry bags and gift wrappers.
Bhutan has a number of family-operated paper-making units. The only semi-mechanised unit is the Jungshi Hand-made Paper factory in Thimphu.
Tshem zo – Art of tailoring
This art of tailoring is broadly classified into three: Tshem Drup – The art of embroidery; Lhem Drup – The art of applique; and Tsho Lham – The art of traditional boot making. Tsem Drup and Lhem Drup are usually practiced by monks. Monks produce huge paintings called Thangkas depicting a Buddhist deity, saint or mandala on silk with embroidery and applique.
Tsho Lam or the art of traditional boot-making is normally reserved for lay men. These boots are worn by officials during very important functions and occasions. It is made out of leather and cloth piece. The origin of this craft is not known.
Thag zo – Art of weaving
The art of weaving forms an integral part of Bhutan’s tradition and culture. In some parts of the country, the art of weaving is a source of livelihood. Bhutanese textiles are woven from cotton, raw cotton and silk with intricate patterns woven with dexterity into the cloth. The art of weaving is very popular in the east where different areas are well-known for different textile products.
Khoma in Lhuentse is famous for Kushithara; while Radhi and Bidung in Trashigang are well-known for Bura textiles namely, Mentsimathra and Aikapur. Pema Gatshel is known for its cotton fabric known as the Dungsum Kamtham. Dechenling in Samdrup Jongkhar is known for its cotton fabric known as the Dechenling kamtham.
In the west, the women of Adhang in Wangdi Phodrang are best known for Adha mathra, Adha rachu, and Adha Khamar. Bumthang in central Bhutan is famous for Yathra and Mathra woven from wool and Yak hair. People in Trongsa and Zhemgang are well known for weaving clothes with nettle threads. The Bjobs or Brokpas (Highlanders) are well versed in the art of weaving. They weave clothes and even tents from yak hair and sheep wool.
Weaving is undertaken manually on looms. The main fibers used today in weaving are raw silk, cotton and acrylic. A huge portion of the raw materials come from India. Dye extracted from dye plants available in the country is preferred to the artificial synthetic dye imported from India.