Arts & Crafts

Zorig Chusum

The thirteen Traditional Arts and Crafts of Bhutan are together known as ‘Zorig Chusum’. These arts and crafts were officially categorized during the reign of Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay (secular ruler of Bhutan, 1638-1696). The thirteen arts and crafts are categorized as follows:

  1. Art of Paper Making (Shog Zo): The art of paper-making has existed since the 8th century and came into existence during the time of translation projects related to the teachings of the Buddha. For centuries, calligraphers transcribed the teachings of the Buddha and commentaries related to the teachings on paper. Most religious scriptures and texts were written on Shog-zo using traditional Bhutanese ink or occasionally in gold. This traditional paper is made from the bark of the Daphne tree which is found in many locations around the country. Today it is popularly known as Desho and the paper products today are mainly used for wrapping paper, writing paper, envelope, photo albums, journals, greeting cards, handmade paper bags, gift sets, etc.   The art still continues in Trashiyangtse and Thimphu.
  1. Art of Painting (Lha Zo): Basically the art of painting includes the painting of Thangka (a Buddhist painting on cotton, or silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala).The perfect examples of these art forms are the massive Thangka, which are displayed during annual religious festivals. It is believed that the mere sights of these gigantic scrolls cleanse the viewer of his sins and bring him closer to attaining nirvana. There are three major styles of Thangka painting in Bhutan viz. Kham-dri, Karma Gardri and The most common painting on the walls of monasteries, temples and Dzongs are those depicting religious figures.
  1. Art of Sculpturing (Jim Zo): Jim Zo or Clay Work is an ancient craft that has been practiced and passed down over the centuries. In the 17th century, there were many sculptors but the most renowned of them all was a man named Trulku Dzing and he was regarded as an emanation of the fifth Buddha Maitreya (Sanskrit). He was an extraordinary artisan and had sculpted hundreds of different deities in the dzongs and temples of Bhutan and those built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. One of such handmade sculpture is the statue of Bodhisattva Maitreya at Bongde Lhakhang in Paro. It is said that one’s wishes will be fulfilled by merely seeing his statues. Today we can also see many young sculpture masters known as Jim Zo Lopen and impart their skills to young learners over several years of rigorous training. In addition to sculpting clay statues, the tradition of crafting clay pottery is still alive in some part of western and eastern Bhutan.
  1. Art of Carving (Par Zo): Art of carving skill came to Bhutan in the early 13th century from various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Most of the carvings in Bhutan are done on stone, wood and slate. The wooden masks featured during the various Tsechus (religious festivals) as well as the many traditional motifs that are fixed on the Bhutanese houses and on Dzongs are all carved out of wood.

Most of the Buddha’s teaching and commentaries on the teachings are carved on wood in order to reproduce the copies through printing on Daphne paper. Moreover, images and drawings such as the eight lucky signs, mandalas, and the four harmonious brothers were also reproduced through the carving of wood blocks. For instance, Bhutan’s treasure revealer, Pemalingpa, had carved his own autobiography containing over three hundred folios in the late 15th century, and the present xylographs of Kuenkhyen Pemakarpo’s works containing seven thousand five hundred and thirteen folios in total are kept at the National Library.

Slate carving is found in many religious scriptures, mantras and images of deities and slate carvings are quite common in religious places such as Dzongs, Monasteries and Temples. Stone carving while less evident, is found in the huge grinding stone mills turned by water and the smaller ones used by farmers at home are still used by people in the villages of Bhutan and the images of gods and deities carved onto large rocks and scriptures are evident even today.

  1. Art of Casting (Lug Zo): The art of casting are of two types such as wax and sand casting. Both continue to be practiced in the country but, in former times, wax casting was the more well-known version. Wax casting is a solid casting method but is more time consuming as compared to sand casting which is fast and easy. Sand casting is completed by the pouring molten metal into a non-permanent sand mould, which is constructed from a suitable pattern.

For example, the 4th Regent, Tenzin Rabgay, was a master of wax casting. He produced many ritual bells, vajras, draggers and other ritual objects through the practice of this craft. Similarly, Sonam Lhundrub (r. 1768-1773), the 16th Regent of Bhutan, produced through his casting work, one thousand Buddha and eight manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava and Vajrapani. The 13th Je Khenpo (The Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan), Yonten Thaye, also cast one thousand Buddhas, including the main Buddha which was cast in Punakha in the actual size of a twelve year old boy.

In the ancient time, Bhutanese strive hard to shape Bronze into cups, urns, and vases, battle-axes, helmets, knives, swords and shields.

  1. Art of Tailoring (Tshem Zo): The art of tailoring is basically classified as, Tshem Drup (the art of embroidery), Lhem Drup (the art of appliqué) and Tsho Lham (the art of traditional Bhutanese boot making). Many embroidery-masters (normally the monks) have come forth since the 17th century and they have embroidered thousands of Thangkhas and other items used for religious purposes. One of the such masters is Penlop Dragpa Gyamtsho (1646-1711) who is one of the main artists and embroidery masters involved in the making of the world famous Thongdrel (a large appliqué religious image normally only unveiled during Tsechus) of Paro Dzong which is displayed every year during the Paro Tsechus.

Traditional Bhutanese boot making, worn by officials during special occasions and functions is generally the work of Bhutanese common men. These boots are made of leather and cloth. The art of tailoring is the stitching of traditional Bhutanese garments known as the Gho and Kira worn by men and women respectively.

  1. Art of Textile (Thag Zo): Bhutan is known around the world for its beautiful and unique textiles which are mostly woven by female and rarely by male. 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. Bhutanese textiles are woven from cotton, raw cotton and silk with complex designs woven into the cloth.

Each region has a specialty area or type related to textile production. For example, Khoma village in Lhuentse is famous for Kushithara whereas the Trashigang region is well-known for its production of Aikapor and Mentsi Matha. Bumthang produces Martha and Yathra, both textiles woven out of Yak hair and sheep wool. Adang village in Wangdue Phodrang is known for textiles such as Adang Mathra, Adang Rachu and Adang Khamar while Trongsa produce Chare and Takri Chenma, and weavers from Zhemgang produce Pangkheb, Monthang and Pontshed. Weaving is also an occupation amongst the inhabitants (Brokpa) of Merak and Sakteng.

  1. Art of Carpentry (Shing Zo): Bhutan is known for her unique architectural aesthetics built in timber and for centuries master carpenters have played an important role in the building of Dzongs, monasteries & temples, bridges, furniture, houses and so on. The beauty and the uniqueness of the Bhutanese woodwork art can be seen in the houses, Dzongs, Lhakangs, bridges, furniture, etc.

Punakha Dzong which is located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu was built by the great architect of Bhutan, Zowo Balingpa. The original design of the Dzong is said to have been based on a dream vision that Zowo Balingpa had while he was sleeping in the chamber of Zhabdrung Rimpochee.

  1. Art of Masonry (Dho Zo): In Bhutan most of the fortresses, temples and even the smallest farm houses are built with stone. According to Buddhist scriptures, a country is considered as sacred or virtuous if all ten virtues are present within the country. These virtues include good land for building houses, cultivatable land for agriculture, plentiful resources of stone for construction of the houses, availability of hard stone for grinding purposes, a clean water source for drinking water supply, unpolluted water for irrigation, timber resources for construction purposes, plentiful firewood resources, sufficient high altitude pasture and low grazing land. Bhutan possesses all these ten virtues as mentioned above.

For centuries, Bhutanese masons are skilled in the building of stone roofs, assembling and paving the flagged-stone inside the courtyards of Dzongs and temples, building the dry stone walls along farm-land, building Dzongs and temples at strategic points, and at the top of high passes and at trail junctions.

  1. Art of Bamboo weaving (Tsha Zo): For centuries, Bhutanese people have woven many varieties of bamboo and cane items. The art of Tsha Zo is still practiced in the areas of Kheng in Zhemgang, Nanung of Mongar district and Thrimshing Kangpar of Trashigang district. Bamboo and Cane products that exist today are the objects like plates, baskets, bamboo-sieves, roofing, fencing, mats for drying grains, musical instruments like drums & flutes, traditional bows and arrows, containers, etc. For example, the Bangchung (a traditional container) – alone has more than twenty different designs and sizes.
  1. Art of Black Smithy (Gar Zo): The art of black smith began in the late 14th It was mainly popularized by the well-known iron bridge builder and adept artist, Thangtong Gyalpo (1385-1464) of Tibet. He was venerated as the master engineer by Bhutanese people for his skill in casting iron chains and erecting them as bridges over canyons. He is supposed to have built numerous suspension bridges in Bhutan. In the 15th century, the king treasure-revealer, Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), produced many swords, farming tools, iron chains and cooking pans. Some of these tools can still be seen or found with some noble family in Bhutan.

Bhutanese blacksmiths are skilled at producing tools for farming, short knives, long swords which were used for both defense and to signify status of a higher statesman or King and carpentry tools.

  1. Art of Ornament Making (Troe Zo): There have been numerous decorative and ornamental objects made by gold and silver smiths in Bhutan. The products made from gold and silver can be grouped into both those for religious and secular use. Religious items include all ritual objects, such as offering cups, vases, plates, bowls, butter-lamps, short and long trumpets, etc., whereas those falling within the secular use category include all ornaments and containers such as brooches, fibulas, necklaces, bracelets, bangles, earnings, finger rings, betel nut containers and others.
  2. Art of Wood Turning (Shag Zo): The art of wood turning is traditionally known as Shag Zo. Such crafts are mostly practiced by the people of Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan. Bowls, plates, cups and containers from different types of woods were widely used by the Bhutanese people until the introduction of brass and steel but with impact of modernization today such wooden items are mostly found at handicraft markets.


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