Bhutanese arts and crafts are known for their bold use of colours, exquisite attention to detail and symmetry. Portraying deities, plants and animals and more, art is used to decorate the homes, temples and everyday objects of the Bhutanese people. From the Buddhists monks making intricate sand mandalas to the woodworker carving a garish mask, art is seen as a religious experience, leading to enlightenment. There is said to be 13 arts and crafts of Bhutan, collectively known as Zorig Chusum. Here, travel blogger, Neethu from India, looks at four of these arts that she discovered while travelling in Bhutan.
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Bhutan’s traditional arts and crafts
Bhutan is a beautiful country located in the Eastern Himalayas, sandwiched between India, Myanmar and China. This Buddhist Kingdom is known to be one of the happiest and the first carbon-negative countries in the world, balancing culture and traditions with modernity almost perfectly. Surrounded by massive mountains and crystal-clear rivers, Bhutan is a place to witness nature at its finest. It’s nicknamed Druk Yul, the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’, thanks to the violent thunderstorms that rampage down through the valleys from the Himalayas. During our recent trip to Bhutan, as well as stnning landscapes, we also came across some wonderful traditional arts and crafts from religious temple paintings to handmade souvenirs.
below: Bhutan mandala (and the top of a phallus wooden carving)
Bhutanese wall paintings
The Bhutanese wall paintings, called Lha-zo, are the traditional paintings you can find all around the country – mainly on walls, but also on flags, canvas, wood, or even on fabric.
Lha-zo are almost always associated with Buddhist mythology and spiritual teachings. The masters of Lha-zo are known as the Lha Rips. These intricate, highly detailed paintings are often very colourful. You can find some extraordinary temple paintings on the inner walls of the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten and the Punakha Dzong located in Punakha.
Depictions of the ‘winged phallus’ are popular on the way to Chimi Lhakhang, a fertility temple. The phallus paintings are said to be done in honour of a saint named Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman to whom the temple is dedicated. The entire area around the temple is called the ‘Phallus valley’ due to the many phallus painting on the old buildings. Most of these paintings are done using only natural soil pigments like sa na (black soil) and tsag sa (red soil).
Traditional sculptures in clay, an art known as Jim-zo, date back to ancient times depicting deities for monasteries and Bhutanese fortresses or dzongs, as they are called locally. Intricately crafted sculptures are regarded as an integral part of a temple or dzong. The master sculptors are known as the Jim zo lopens, and any novice sculptor must undergo rigorous training to master the craft. Sculpting is considered a job for men, with women mostly make pottery.
The sculptures of deities at the Paro Taktsang, commonly called the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, are some of the finest you can see in Bhutan. The Folk Heritage Museum in Thimpu and the National Museum of Bhutan in Paro both have many pottery and clay figures from more than 150 years ago.
All Bhutanese crafts are quite intricate and awe-inspiring, and the same goes for the traditional art of engraving, called Par-zo. It is done mostly on wood, stone, or slate to create unique pieces like the traditional wooden masks used during religious festivals and Tshechus, a colourful annual festival held throughout Bhutan. The National Museum of Bhutan has a great exhibit of the different kinds of traditional masks used during Tshechus.
Apart from these, Pra-zo also represents carvings of religious texts, furniture, windows, and pillars. Many souvenir shops along the path leading to the Chimi Lhakhang in Punakha are filled with phallus themed souvenirs carved in wood for sale. Keyrings, pendants, or just carved sculptures, the choices are many!
Those visiting the temple will also find another interesting scene there as devotees are tapped on the head with a 10-inch long phallus carved from wood, ivory, and bone.
Punakha Dzong is one of the biggest and oldest dzongs in the country. They are all built using ancient techniques and follow a unique style of construction and woodwork known as the ‘Shing-zo‘.
What’s unusual here is that these dzongs are built without using any nails. Being one of the most used craft, Shing-zo is found in most traditional buildings around Bhutan including homes, monasteries, and bridges and even inside buildings in the forms of pillars and furniture. This exquisite style of architecture gives Bhutan its identity and is different from any you would see elsewhere.
Woodturning, paper making, needlework, masonry, blacksmithing, ornamental metalwork, casting, weaving, and bamboo weavings complete the traditional 13 arts and crafts in Bhutan. It’s a country that exudes creativity and culture in every aspect – from the traditional attire of Gho and Kira, the national dress for men and women respectively, to the simple lifestyle of its people. I was also impressed by how seriously they take conservation of their environment and stick to a completely organic farming lifestyle.
Where to buy traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts
You can buy many of the Bhutanese handicrafts at the Thimphu Handicraft Market, or Authentic Bhutanese Crafts Bazaar, as it is called, located on Nordzin Lam, Thimphu in western Bhutan. More than 80 shops here, sell everything from handmade jewellery, paintings, bamboo goods, wood carved show pieces, and more! It is a great place to stop if you are a lover of arts and wish to take home an authentic part of Bhutan with you!
Where to stay in Bhutan?
Neethu Nair, India
Hello! I am Neethu and my blog Our Backpack Tales focuses on budget travel. I love travelling to less explored places with my husband Athul. Most of our trips are spontaneous and we always travel light!