There are 13 traditional zorig chusum (arts and crafts) in Bhutan that have been categorised during the reign of the fourth desi, Tenzin Rabgye.
One of the most outstanding things you will notice about Bhutan is the distinctive architecture. Carpentry plays a vital role in the construction of Bhutan’s majestic dzongs, temples, palaces and bridges. These masterpieces with exquisite design and intricate details are created by the master carpenters known as Zo Chen and Zo Wo. The ancient fortresses are some of the finest examples of woodwork in the country and are often praised for their uniqueness.
The ancient craft of dozo refers to building structures using stones. This craft is still prevailing today and can be seen in the building of chortens, dzongs, temples and houses. Stones are frequently used for the construction of the walls and sometimes the masons also prepare flat stones for the courtyards. One of the classic examples of a stone structure is Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan and Chendebji Chorten in central Bhutan.
The art of carving, usually on stones, woods and slates is known as Parzo. Carving is extensively practiced in the country to produce items such as printing blocks for religious texts, furniture, altars, slate images embellished on the many shrines and wooden masks featured during the annual religious festivals. Slate carvings depicting the Buddha and various other deities can be found in the temples throughout the country. Aside from the masks, wooden sculptures are commonly seen in Bhutanese products such as carving of the eight lucky signs or even phalluses in various sizes and shapes. These sculptures are usually made of blue pine or walnut and further enhanced by painting them in vibrant colours.
Bhutanese paintings is an ancient art that has been practiced for many generations. Master painters are known as Lharips and their work can be seen in the murals and frescoes inside the massive dzongs, temples and monasteries.
A lhadrip also paints houses with traditional symbols, chosham (altar), thangka or thongdroel (religious scrolls) with the images of Buddha and other deities. These religious paintings are painted following precise, symbolic iconometric and iconographic rules codified in ancient treaties. Another striking feature of Bhutanese paintings is anonymity. The lhadrips would never sign on their works and it is believed that the act of creating a religious painting earns great merit and should be done with a pure mind. Natural pigmented soils are used in Bhutanese paintings and it is commonly found in the country. Sa-Tshoen (soil pigments) are of different colours namely black (sa –na), red (sa-tsag) and yellow (sa-ser).
Jinzo (sculpting) is one of the oldest forms of craft dating back to the 17th century. Jinzo includes making of religious statues and ritual objects, clay masks, pottery and construction of buildings using mortar, plaster and rammed earth. Usually the sculpting is made of clay combined with other materials such as traditional desho paper or beaten bark of the Daphne plant.
Bhutanese clay sculptures are amongst the best in the Himalayan region and many renowned sculptors were invited to build statues in some ancient monasteries in Tibet.
Another popular clay product is the traditional earthen pots. Only a few places in the country still make earthen pots such as Gangzur gewog in Lhuentse, eastern Bhutan.
Tsatsas (sacred objects moulded with clay) are a common sight in Bhutan. Ashes of the deceased are mixed with clay to make tsatsas. You can find these sacred objects in caves, underneath rocks, inside stupas, alongside the roads or any places that are sheltered from the elements. They are usually painted in white, red or gold. The bereaved family members usually commission for the production of tsatsas as a way of honouring and bidding farewell to their loved ones.
Lugzo (Bronze Casting)
Lugzo is the art of casting statues, sertog (pinnacles on the roofs), and other ornaments to decorate the temples and monasteries. The art of bronze casting was first introduced to Bhutan by Newari artisans from Nepal in the 17th century. Casting involves a complex process and Bhutanese artisans usually employ two methods of bronze casting, either using sand or wax. Bronze was also commonly used to cast containers such as cups, urns and vases and shaped into weapons and armours including axes, helmets, knives, swords and shields. The 13th Je Khenpo, Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye crafted 1,000 Buddhas, including the main Buddha at Punakha Dzong using wax.
The art of iron work and blacksmithing in Bhutan began in the late 14th century. It is believed the Tibetan saint, Dupthob Thangtong was the one who introduced this ancient craft to Bhutan. He is skilled in casting iron chains and constructing bridges. He has built eight suspension bridges in Bhutan including the bridge over Paro Chu linking the highway to the famous Tachog Lhakhang in Paro.
While blacksmithing is almost a dying art in Bhutan, there are still some settlers in Trashigang practicing this craft.
Troeko (Ornament making)
The craft of traditional ornaments making from gold, silver or copper are known as troeko. Usually stones such as corals and turquoise are integrated with the gold or silver to shape out the ornaments. The master craftsmen in jewellery or ornament making are known as Troko Lopen. These skillful craftsmen create various types of ornaments and jewellery including necklaces, earrings, brooches, rings and traditional containers to store doma.
Tsharzo (Cane and bamboo weaving)
Tsharzo is the art of weaving cane and bamboo to produce household products. Some of the bamboo products include the commonly used bangchung (a container and serving plates for snacks), covers for religious artefacts, lagchu (quiver for storing arrows), tshogtrhung (vessels for serving food), baekhu (container for wool and threads), and patsha dromchung (container for jewellery). Tsharzo is the main source of income for people in Trashigang, eastern Bhutan.
Thagzo, the art of weaving is one of the oldest crafts that have been practised for centuries. Weaving is an integral part of Bhutanese life and culture and the craft is widely practised throughout the country. Bhutanese textiles are woven from cotton, silk or wool in striped patterns - vertical for men and horizontal for women. However, each region has a speciality in terms of designs and types. Bhutanese textiles are admired for its rich vibrant colours, variations of patterns, intricate dyeing and manual weaving techniques. Some of the most popular textiles are woven by the women from eastern Bhutan. There are three types of looms that are used by Bhutanese weavers - blackstrap loom, horizontal-framed loom and the card loom. The primary type is the back-strap loom which is mostly used by weavers from eastern Bhutan. The horizontal-framed loom and the card loom were introduced into Bhutan from Tibet and are still used today.
Traditionally, when the government used to collect taxes in kind, people would pay taxes using textiles in lieu of money.
Tshemzo (Tailoring, Embroidery and Appliqué)
Tshemzo includes three forms of art - tailoring, embroidery and appliqué. Tailoring involves stitching all kinds of garments like the traditional costumes, Gho and Kira, while embroidery and applique are practised by monks to make religious scrolls: thangkas or throngdroel.
Traditional boot making is also a craft that falls under tshemzo. Tsolhams (traditional knee-length boots) are made from brocade and embellished with intricate embroidery. Bhutanese wear these special boots during special occasions and certain religious ceremonies.
Shagzo, the art of woodturning is traditionally practised by the people of Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan. The master craftsmen, Shagzopas are known to produce items such as turned dapas (wooden bowls) and dza phobs (wooden cups) in various shapes and sizes. Other popular items include ara (alcohol) container, utensils and tea kettles. A wide range of woods are used to produce the items. One of the highly prized raw materials is dza (special wooden knots).
These exquisite products can be easily found in the craft markets and are popular as souvenirs.
Dezo, paper-making is another art that has deep roots in Bhutan. The traditional paper is made from the bark of a Daphne tree and widely used in the past. Traditionally, most of the religious texts or sacred scriptures were written on desho (traditional Bhutanese paper) using the traditional Bhutanese ink or sometimes in gold. The traditional papers are now turned into more contemporary products such as greeting cards, notebooks, wrapping papers, envelopes or calendars. The art is still alive in Trashiyangtse where raw material is readily available.