Zorig Chusum: The Thirteen Traditional Crafts

Known as Zorig Chusum, the Thirteen Traditional Crafts, to a large extent define the Bhutanese and their ways of living. This ancient yet classic, refined and colourful tradition is in many ways unique to the Bhutanese society. The Bhutanese have mastered them for many centuries.

However, it is widely agreed that it was only in the late seventeenth century that they were formally categorized, named and grouped during the reign of the fourth Druk Desi Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (1680-1694).

Today, the traditional craft is very much alive and continues to sustain families whose products find their outlets in various handicraft shops spread across the country. They constitute the following crafts which are unique to some places while others are common throughout the region.

Wood work (Shing zo)

Wood work or shing zo continues to play a pivotal role especially in the construction industry of Bhutan. Most of our houses, palaces, dzongs, temples and the bridges are fashioned from timber by the master carpenters, the Zowo and the Zo-chen. The Dzongs are some of the finest examples of woodwork in the country and are appreciated for their uniqueness. Almost everything from designing, measuring, carving to completing the work is done by the master carpenters, the chief architect. Trulpai Zowo Balep is even today revered as a great craftsman for his architectural ability exhibited during the construction of Punakha dzong in 1637.

Stone Works (Do zo)

Masonry is an old craft in Bhutan as it is true for many countries in the world. Most civilizations that flourished had built vast cities, magnificent temples and palaces in stone. Just as the pyramids of Egypt reflect the skills of the Egyptians, the Dzongs and Chhoetens of Bhutan reflect the quintessential essence of masonry in Bhutan. The art of stonework is not restricted or confined to one area in Bhutan but is found throughout the Kingdom. The massive Choeten Kora in Trashiyangtse and Chendebji, the monasteries and temples, the rural houses that punctuate the Bhutanese landscapes all reflect the skills and artistic refinement of our master masons. The people of Rinchengang village in Wangdue Phodrang dzongkhag are well known for their skills as they produce one of the finest stone works in the country.

Carving (Par zo)

Carving in Bhutan has been experimented and perfected upon various materials like stone, wood and slate. Traditional Bhutanese designs carved on these materials create the most wonderful pieces of artwork and woodcarving has manifested in many forms. Carved wooden masks of various shapes and sizes are used in religious dances; decorations are found engraved on houses, dzongs, palaces, temples and monasteries; wooden symbols are found adorning altars and wooden containers like the bowls and cups, scabbards and handles for knives and swords. The beautiful carved pillars and beams, printing blocks of wood and the altars are excellent examples of woodcarving.

Slate carving is another important art that has found its way into Bhutan. Slate is called do nag and the artisan is known as do nag lopen. Though not as diverse as woodcarving, works of slate carving can be seen everywhere: on the high passes, in the villages around Chhoetens, and at the junction of rivers. Crossing a pass or a Chhoeten one can often come across carved images of deities, religious scripts and the mantras on slate that are embedded into the structures or are rested onto them.

Stone carving has also survived in Bhutan for many centuries though less evident. One can often come across stonework while passing through a village ruin or an earlier settlement. Products carved out of stone are the large grinding stone mills turned by water; the smaller ones used by peasants at home; the hollowed-out stones for husking grain; troughs for feeding animals; the images of gods and deities carved onto large rocks and scriptures are examples that survive today.

Painting (Lha zo)

One of the lasting impressions created in the minds of every visitor to Bhutan is the variety and diverse range of designs and colours mirrored everywhere. These shades of colours are prominent in houses, in temples and monasteries, in dzongs and on every architectural piece. They are reflected on the prayer flags that adorn the mountain tops and the sacred sites and valleys, in the intricately designed woven clothes, on wooden furniture and on chhoed sham, the altars. Undeniably, every material aspect of Bhutan is reflected in these shades of colours. Indeed, paintings represent the most complete of the people’s beliefs and ideas, feelings and thoughts and aspirations and hopes of the Bhutanese way of life and the colour epitomize the Bhutanese art.

Painting is as old as the people herself and the art of painting has been passed down from generation to generation, from a master painter, lharip to novice students. This profession like most others is considered an act of reverence and devotion and painters are believed to accumulate merits and append to one’s karma.

Painters paint a wide range including painting simple motifs and the eight lucky signs to undertaking painting huge scrolls of Thangka and Thongdroel. A lharip can decorate a house, an altar, paint a Thangka or Thongdroel, the statues of deities or on any other article and pieces that needs painting.

The materials used in Bhutan are the natural pigmented soils that are found in most places in the country. These natural soil pigments are of different colours and are named accordingly. The black lumps of soil is known as sa na, and the red lumps as Tsag sa, for instance.

Sculpture (Jim zo)
Clay sculpture is one of the ancient crafts in Bhutan, which takes precedence over brass or other metal works. One of the most celebrated works of a Jim Zo Lopen is the making of clay statues, paper mache, clay masks, and other religious items. The clay statues made by Trulku Dzing during the time of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal are still found in many dzongs and monasteries.

The other clay work found in Bhutan is the art of pottery. While the making of statues and other religious items are confined to men, the art of pottery is attributed to women. The earthen wares are still produced using the same ancient techniques and are basically composed of clay, often blended clays and baked hard, the degree of hardness depending on the intensity of heat.

While this tradition is almost on the verge of dying, one can still come across some artisans. However, the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu is taking initiatives to revive this beautiful art.

Casting (Lug Zo)
Bhutan has a long history of Bronze casting. Evidence found within the monasteries suggests that amongst the settlers, particularly among those who came in the seventeenth century were a variety of crafts people, which provided the monasteries with ritual objects and ornaments for the deities. Some of the migrating craftsmen established shops for bronze casting at Punakha, Simtokha, and Thimphu Dzongs. The remnants of a foundry for bronze casting can be seen in Punakha Dzong.

Wood turning (Shag zo)

Shag zo or woodturning is yet another ancient tradition that is found in Bhutan. Like other traditions, Shag zo is still a vibrant institution and represents a part of the material culture. A person skilled and engaged in shag zo is known as Shagzopa or master of wood turning. Unlike other traditions that are found almost in every part of the kingdom, this tradition is limited to the people of Trashiyangtse and Kengkhar in Mongar in Eastern Bhutan.

Shagzopa are skilled in making a variety of bowls, plates, cups and containers from a wide range of woods. Wooden cups and bowls that are made from special knots of trees known as zaa are highly prized and represent the finest tradition of a shagzopa. While wooden bowls and cups are designed by Shagzop of Trashiyangtese, the people of Kengkhar are known for the special container of ara called jandam.

Black Smithy (Gar zo)

The origin of black smithy in Bhutan is lost in antiquity. But recent findings show evidences of this art having been one of the earliest domains of the Bhutanese people. Records can be traced back to the fourteenth century and the visit of Drubthob Thangtong Gyalpo (1385-1464). The iron cast suspension bridges over many parts of the rivers in the Kingdom trace back to the fourteenth century and are strongly approved to be the work of this highly renowned builder recognized for his feat of engineering skills and constructing bridges over gorges in many parts of the Himalayan world. It is believed that Thangtong Gyalpo constructed as many as eight bridges in Bhutan using iron that was extracted in Bhutan. The remains of these iron works can be seen over Pa chu connecting the Tachog Lhakhang in Paro .

Evidences of extracting iron ore and casting implements as recent as in the twentieth century can be traced in many parts of the Kingdom. One village which took up this art and paid tax to the government in the form of tools and implements and in raw iron is Barshong village in eastern Bhutan. The extraction holes that have been dug up and the crude wrought iron left behind can even be witnessed today. The other areas where this tradition of black smithy and the actual extraction of iron from the rocks were being carried out are Woochu in Paro and Chakorla in Thimphu in western Bhutan.

As the iron industry evolved over time, blacksmithing became a specialized trade. However, today, there are only few Bhutanese who practice this art. The majority of the blacksmiths are the wandering Tibetans that are found mostly in eastern Bhutan who make a living out of this art.

Ornament making (Troe ko)
The art of ornament making is also vibrant. The master craftsman is known as Troe ko Lopen. Jewellery used in Bhutan are of two main types: the ones made of semi-precious stones like turquoise, coral or etched agate (zee) and the second comprise of the silver and gold ornaments like brooches, bangles, necklaces, earrings, and finger rings. The master craftsman engages in producing all these ornaments besides working on the silver amulet container, traditional silver boxes for keeping betel leaf, areca nut and lime. The ritual objects like butter lamp containers, offering bowls as well as musical instruments are also made. Gilding on silver and copper is also an art practiced by the silversmith and goldsmith.

Bamboo work (Tsha zo)
With abundant cane and bamboo species in the country, these raw materials are of great versatility and form an integral part of the lifestyle and economy of Bhutan.

Tsha zo are of two kinds, one made of cane and the other of bamboo. These products actually complemented the use of wood items. Among the large practical uses, they are used for making a variety of containers – bangchungs, palang, chungchung, floor mats and mats for drying grains, musical instruments like flutes, matted bamboo for roofs and fences, traditional bows and arrows and as quivers, among many others.

These bamboo and cane products are of great commercial value. Some of the master craftsmen are found in the villages of Kangpara and Kengkhar and in Dogar (Bjoka) in Kheng in central Bhutan. It provides part time employment to the people and is also a source of income for the family.

Paper making (De zo)

The art of papermaking has been in Bhutan for several centuries. It is also likely that the tradition was actually taken up by the lay people but for monastic consumption since it was the monks who could read and write in the past. The raw materials were supplied by the villagers in the form of tax.

This tradition is also not widespread and is confined only to certain areas in the country. The art of papermaking is popular in Bomdeling and Rigsum Gonpa in Trashi Yangtse. It is a simple art which is taken up by both men and women.

Desho is especially made from the bark of a plant known as Daphne (Deshing). The trees are stripped of the barks and tied up in bundles and carried home. They are then soaked in water to wash off the outer layer and the residue of dirt and then let to dry in the sun. Once it is dried the outer hard layer of the bark is peeled off leaving only the soft inner tissue of the bark that is again soaked in water. This soft fiber is then placed in a big pot and treated with ash water. The mixture is then boiled for many hours. The boiled fiber is then beaten with heavy wooden hammers into pulp. The mixture is then poured onto a screen and dried in the sun. Once dry the fiber becomes a thin sheet of translucent paper that is peeled off and is ready for use. Today, the paper is used for a wide range of purposes including writing scriptures, envelopes, and wrapping presents and gifts.

Tailoring, embroidery and appliqué (Tshem zo)

The knowledge and art of tailoring, of cutting and sewing cloth which are the two basic aspects of making clothes from a pattern developed slowly in Bhutan compared to the other traditions. Tailoring of garments is a popular craft today. The three main crafts in tailoring are: stitching clothes such as the gho and kira worn by men and women, embroidery (Tshemdrup) and appliqué (Lhemdrup) and the production of traditional Bhutanese Tsho lham, boots. Today, tailors are important members of the community.

The monks also practice this craft and in particular, embroidery and appliqué. They also work on large scrolls, the thangkas, where they depict gods and deities. The other is the production of traditional boots that is made from leather and cloth and worn during important occasions by the officers.

Weaving (Thag zo)
Weaving in Bhutan is first mentioned in the biography of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and this is most probably the first to appear in the Bhutanese literature. Women of eastern Bhutan are one of the most celebrated weavers though weaving is an art that has widely spread throughout Bhutan. For centuries people of eastern Bhutan paid much of their taxes in woven materials. People from western Bhutan would travel all the way to places in Eastern Bhutan to trade for woven cloth and one of the brisk trades would take place in Gudama in Samdrup Jongkhar. Some of the finest weaving comes from Khoma in Lhuentse, and Radhi, Bartsham and Bidung villages in Trashigang. While women from Lhuentse are known for kishuthara, the women in Trashigang weave some of the finest ghos and kiras such as mentshi matha and aikapur, among many others.

In western Bhutan the women of Athang in Wangdue phodrang are known for Adha marthra, Adha rachu and Adha khamar. In central Bhutan, the Bumthaps are known for the yathra and the marthra, made of yak hair and sheep wool. People of Nabji Korphu and Kela villages are known for the nettle cloth and the wrapped garment kurel pagi and pakhi.

Looms used in Bhutan are of four types: backstrap looms, horizontal frame looms, fixed horizontal frame with backstrap (used in Laya) and card looms (for belts). Predominant of all is the backstrap looms that is found fixed in almost every house in eastern Bhutan.

The main fibres used for weaving are raw silk, cotton and acrylic. Most of the raw silks are imported from India. People also use nettles as materials for weaving. These were known as Yura. Many native dye plants can be found in eastern Bhutan along with stick lac (tsho), and madder which are preferred to the artificial synthetic dye imported from India. Bhutanese also grow indigo plants strobilanthes while the yellow leaves called symplocos are gathered from the wild. Native turmeric (yongka) is another source of yellow.
The Zo rig Chusum is mostly the trade of the layman though crafts like painting, statue making, embroidery and appliqué are also practised by monks. Besides this, there are several crafts like butter sculpture and sand mandala exclusively taught and preserved in the dzongs and monasteries. All these crafts are the wonderful medium of human expression.

Today, the Zo rig Chusum is extolled for its uniqueness. For instance, the textile of Bhutan is known for its intricacy and uniqueness. The crafts are not only a source of income for the people but also the identity of the Nation. The skills that the craftsmen master are sources of knowledge distinct to the Bhutanese. Thus, in all its aspects the Zo rig Chusum embodies the lifestyle and the philosophy of the Bhutanese.



Courtesy to Tourism Council of Bhutan.

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