Bhutan’s cultural heritage is based on thirteen traditional arts and crafts. It has been practiced from time immemorial. These arts were formally categorized during the reign of Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, the fourth temporal ruler of Bhutan
The thirteen arts and crafts are categorized as follows:
The women and some men in Bhutan mainly from eastern side of the country are expert in weaving, some of the most highly prized textiles. These textiles are woven from cotton, raw cotton and silk with intricate motifs woven into cloths. Most of the textile comes to market from Lhuentse, Pemagatshel, Wangdue Phodrang, Bhumthang, Trongsa districts. There are four types of loom used by Bhutanese weavers, black strap loom, the horizontal fixed loom, horizontal-framed loom and the card loom.
Tsha means bamboo. Bhutanese people have mastered the skill of weaving cane and bamboo products. People produce baskets, winnowers, mats, container known as Palangs and bangchungs.
Crafting wooden cups and bowls traditionally known as dapas and phobs. These wooden bowls are made of special wooden knots known as zaa. It was highly priced till the advent of steel and brass plates.
Paintings capture the imagery of Bhutanese landscape. The master painters are known as Lha Rips. The painters are believed to accumulate good deeds and merits. Huge scroll of thankha or thondgrols that depicts during religious festivals are some classic works. A mere sight of these huge scrolls is believed to deliver us nirvana. Thus, it brings merit not only to the believers but to the painters as well.
Do zo as it is widely known is an old craft that is still practiced today by the Bhutanese people. DO means stone. Bhutanese temples, Dzongs, Chortens or the stupas and farm houses are all built of stones. Indeed no construction ever takes place without the use of stones. Classic examples of stone work are those of Chorten Kora in Tashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan and Chendebji chorten in central Bhutan.
Carvings are done on stone, wood and slate. The traditional designs crafted on these materials create some distinctive art works.
Woodcarving is seen in a variety of forms. The wooden masks that feature during the annual religious festivals are all carved out of wood besides many traditional motifs that are engraved on the Bhutanese houses and Dzongs.
Another important art widely practiced is the art of slate carving. The master craftsman is known as Do Nag Lopen and the material used is slate.
The other important craft that has survived in Bhutan is stone carving.
Jim zo or clay work has been practiced and passed on over the centuries. Statues of deities, gods & goddesses and other prominent religious figures in fact exemplify clay work in Bhutan. The master craftsmen are known as Jim zo lopen and the skill is imparted to the young novices through vigorous trainings spread over the years.
Besides the clay statues, the tradition of clay potteries is still alive though much of the potteries are now being used as show pieces and flower vases.
The period in history between the Stone Age and Iron Age is known as the Bronze Age because bronze was commonly used to cast containers such as cups, urns, and vases. People also shaped bronze into battle-axes, helmets, knives, shields, and swords. They also made it into ornaments, and sometime even into primitive stoves. Bronze was developed about 3500 BC by the ancient Sumerians in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.
Bronze casting in Bhutan was introduced only in the 17th century. The Newars of Nepal were first invited by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal to cast bronze statues and religious items such as bells and water offering bowls. It was through these artisans that the art was introduced and today, a lot of Bhutanese people are into bronze casting.
Black smithy in Bhutan began sometime in the late 14th century and it is believed that it was introduced by a Tibetan saint known as Dupthob Thangtong Gyalpo. He has been revered as the master engineer for his skill in casting iron chains and erecting them as bridges over gorges. In Bhutan, he is supposed to have built about eight suspension bridges and one can still come across a bridge over Paro Chu linking the highway to the famous Tachog lhakhang in Paro.
Master craftsmen having skills in shaping beautiful ornaments are regarded as Tro Ko Lopen. Using precious stones such as corals, turquoise, silver and gold, these master craftsmen shape out ornaments such as necklaces, bangles, earrings, rings worn on fingers, brooches, amulets to contain ritual objects, traditional containers to carry the much chewed beetle nuts, ritual objects and many more.
People engaged in producing the traditional Bhutanese paper or De zo are known as Dezop. Traditional papers were widely used in the past. Most of the religious scriptures and texts were written on Dezho’s using traditional Bhutanese ink, at times in gold. People still produce Deshos which is used as carrying bags, wrappers for gifts and even used as envelopes. The art still continues in Trashiyangtse where the raw material is readily available.
The art of tailoring is popular tradition amongst the Bhutanese. This art can be broadly classified as Tshem drup or the art of embroidery, lhem drup or the art of appliqué and Tsho lham or the art of traditional Bhutanese boots. The art of embroidery and appliqué are normally practiced by the monks. Using this art they produce large religious scrolls known as Thangkas that depict Gods and Goddesses, deities and saints.
The Bhutanese still practice this ancient art termed shingzo. The master craftsman known locally as Zow chen and Zows are instrumental in fashioning intricate designs that goes into the construction of our fortresses- Dzongs, palaces, temples, monasteries and the traditional Bhutanese farm houses. Dzongs that have origin in the 17th century feature some of the most elaborate wood works and designs that draw appreciation not only from the Bhutanese populace but from outside visitors as well.