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The 13 traditional Bhutanese arts
Zorik Chusum (དྲུག་པ་ཚེས་བཞི་) is how the Bhutanese culture classifies their arts, crafts and technological skills. They are divided into thirteen different artistic expressions or categories. These categories are: calligraphy or yigzo, painting or lhazo, carving or parzo, clay sculpture or jinzo, metal casting or lugzo, silver- and gold- work or trözo, needlework or tsemzo, woodwork and carpentry or shingzo, textile production or thakzo, papermaking or delzo, bamboo craft or tsarzo, blacksmithery or garzo, and masonry or dozo. In some accounts, carpentry and woodturning are put together under woodwork but mentioned separately, and blacksmithery and gold- and silver work are also combined into one art of smithery.
Bhutanese art expressions are mainly of a religious nature, and anonymous, with uniformity of style. Items created do not have an intrinsic aesthetic function, instead they are interpreted as outward expressions of their holistic Buddhist religion. One important detail of Bhutanese art is that it is always anonymous, because the importance of it is in the craft itself, not in those who produce it, and they are not done to bring the author of said art into the spotlight. If a work of art bears a name, it is usually the name of the person who commissioned it, not the artist.
While the process of making these works of art has evolved and adapted through the new generations, the final purpose remains the same. For the Bhutanese people, each piece created represents a religious experience, a connection with something that goes beyond them, and enlightens all creatively.
These arts and crafts have been practiced since the 15th century in Bhutan, and were formally categorized into the 13 traditional groups towards the end of the 17th century. Passed down from generation to generation, studying these arts and crafts today involves an intensive 4-6 years of training.
Although these thirteen arts and crafts are generally presented as a comprehensive list of artistic tradition and craftsmanship in Bhutan, this does not include all arts and crafts, and some sources even have different classifications. Tannery and bone works are among some of the practices that do not fall within the Zorig Chusum classification, but are still considered forms of art expression for the Bhutanese.
The thirteen arts and crafts represent the artistic, and craft based, cultural heritage of Bhutan, so their study and mastery is actively promoted by the country.
Yigzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་) includes the art of writing in different scripts. It's done mostly by monastic scribes and priests who create books both for regular use and/or ornamental books with artistic calligraphy. Also associated with this are are other skills such as ink and pen making.
Lhazo (ལྷ་བཟོ་) is practiced as a form of high culture by artists who are trained in the field. Most Bhutanese paintings have Buddhist figures and themes dominate the content, and that gives it the name lhazo or ‘art of divine beings’. The painters have to learn iconographic mensuration and line drawings first, and gradually go on to create complex images of deities and Buddhas. The art also includes instructions on how to prepare and use traditional pigments, paint brushes and canvases. The materials used in the preparation of paint pigments are mostly the natural pigmented soils that are found throughout the country.
Bhutanese painting is an ancient art that has been practiced for many generations. Master painters are called Lharips in Bhutanese, and their work can be seen in the murals and frescoes inside the dzongs, temples and monasteries. A lharip can also paints houses, altar and thangka with traditional symbols.
These religious paintings are following precise, symbolic econometric and iconographic rules codified in ancient Buddhist texts. It is believed that the act of creating a religious painting earns great merit and should be done with a pure mind.
The most sacred painted scrolls are displayed only during annual religious festivals known as tshechu. The mere sight of these thangkas is believed to cleanse the viewer of their sins and bring them closer to attaining nirvana. The art as such then brings wellbeing not only to the believers but for the painters as well.
Parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་) is done in many forms. Bhutanese artists and craftsmen carve metals (such as copper, bronze, silver and gold), wood and stone. Stone carvings are usually mantras in either the Lantsha (ལན་ཛ་) or Uchen (དབུ་ཅན་) scripts, while wood and metal ones generally show Buddhist subjects and/or traditional motifs and symbols.
Carving is used a lot in the country to produce items like printing blocks for religious texts, furniture, altars, slate images embellished on the many shrines and wooden masks featured during the annual religious festivals.
This art is also used to carve phalluses of various sizes and shapes that are hung on the four corners of Bhutanese houses and placed over the main entrance door. The phalluses are an homage to the Divine Madman, who used the phallus to subdue evil spirits and transform them into protective deities.
The art of slate carving is also practiced by master craftsmen known as Do Nag Lopens. Slate is found in both Western and Eastern Bhutan. Slate carving is not as diverse as stone or wood works, and is mostly found in religious scriptures and mantras. Stone carvings is also used for more practical things, like the carving of grinding mills.
Jinzo (འཇིམ་བཟོ་) is an art in which the Bhutanese have excelled for generations. Clay sculptors are renowned for their clay figurines, mostly religious icons or symbols. A special type of clay is used for these objects that is collected only from specific areas in the country. Like other fine arts, clay sculpture is taught in schools for traditional arts and crafts.
Jinzo not only includes the making of religious statues and ritual objects, but also clay masks, pottery and is part of the construction of buildings using mortar, plaster and rammed earth. Usually this sculpting is made with clay combined with other materials such as the traditional desho paper or the beaten bark of the Daphne plant.
Bhutanese clay sculptures are some of the best artists in the Himalayan region, and many renowned sculptors were invited to build statues in some ancient monasteries in Tibet.
Tsatsas (sacred objects molded with clay) are also common in Bhutan. The ashes of the deceased loved ones are mixed with clay to make these tsatsas. You can find these sacred objects in caves, underneath rocks, inside stupas, alongside the roads or any other places as long as they are sheltered from the elements. They are usually painted white, red or gold. The bereaved family members usually commission for the production of tsatsas as a way of honoring and bidding farewell to their loved ones.
Lukzo (བླུག་བཟོ་) is also done in Bhutan. Most objects are created through the lost-wax casting method. This is the art of bronze casting. It was first introduced to Bhutan by Newari artisans from Nepal in the 17th century. It involves the creation of more utilitarian articles like kitchen utensils, as well as roof pinnacles, statues and musical instruments, certain types of pottery, and tools and ornaments such as incense holders.
Casting involves a complex process that requires a lot of skill and artistry in the two techniques that are practiced: wax and sand casting. Bronze was also used in the past to cast containers such as cups, urns and vases and shaped into weapons and armors including axes, helmets, knives, swords and shields.
Precious metal smithery
Trözo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་) is a refined tradition. Silver- and goldsmiths create a wide range of intricate objects including religious figures, ritual artefacts, jewelry, and even household items. The vibrant craft of ornaments made from gold, silver or copper is also known as troeko. The master craftsmen in jewelry and ornament making are known as Troeko Lopen. Using precious stones and metals such as corals, turquoise, silver and gold, they create necklaces, earrings, prayer wheels, incense holders and traditional containers to store the much-chewed beetle nut among other things.
Tsemzo (ཚེམ་བཟོ་) is practiced by many people, but the more specialized arts of embroidery and appliqué are done only by people with specific training and/or skills. Needlework also includes basic tailoring to produce garments and the ornamental pieces that Bhutanese use in religious activities and ceremonies. Special pieces such as wall hangings, tongdröl, and thangka are created using the embroidery and/or appliqué techniques.
This art can be broadly classified as Tshem drup, the art of embroidery, lhem drup the art of appliqué, and Tsho lham, the art of traditional Bhutanese boot making. The art of embroidery and appliqué are normally practiced by monks. Using this art, they produce large religious scrolls known as Thangkas that depicts Gods and Goddesses, deities and saints.
Traditional boot making is normally the work of Bhutanese lay men. Tsolhams are made from brocade and embellished with intricate embroidery. Bhutanese wear these special boots during special occasions and certain religious ceremonies. Special craftsmen in the villages also make simple boots from uncured leather.
The third category is tailoring. These craftsmen are skilled at sewing the traditional Bhutanese garments known as Gho and Kira.
Known as shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་) is a very common craft. Most Bhutanese houses are built with intensive use of timber, portions of which incorporate various designs and decorations. Master carpenters and architects are crucial parts of the building process. Wood work is also carried out to produce household utensils. Traditionally, most Bhutanese crockery was created from wood using woodturning.
The ancient generations used the process of woodturning to make handmade containers. This art form of Bhutan is known as Shagzo, churning out bowls, cups, plates and other unique containers of different shapes, sizes and colors. The master woodturning artisans are known as Shagzopa.
Many different kinds of wood are used but the most exquisite and expensive items are made out of burl wood. Burls are hunted often by the Bhutanese people to be sold in the markets for a good price. Nowadays, the most common items are wooden cups and bowls traditionally known as dapas and phobs. These bowls are still used in many local restaurants in the country to serve food.
Carpentry plays a vital role in the construction of Bhutan’s 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 known for their uniqueness, in particular the Punakha Dzong. These dzongs are built without using any nails in their construction.
This style of architecture gives Bhutan its identity and is different from anything you would see in any other country.
Thakzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་). From creating yarn, to dyeing thread, to weaving the various patterns, Bhutan has a very rich and diverse tradition of textile production. Historically, Bhutan exported textiles created from wool, yak hair, silk, cotton and plant fibers to Tibet, and in more modern times, textiles remain objects of interest for everyone. It is exclusively practiced by women, but men can help in spinning yak hair and sheep wool into yarn thread. The craft is widely practiced throughout the country, but eastern Bhutan is especially renowned for the quality and complexity of their silks and cottons. Jambay Kelzang has gained popularity in the western world for her beautiful and intricate designs.
Bhutanese textiles have rich vibrant colors, with a wide variation of patterns, intricate dyeing and manual weaving techniques. These textiles are woven from cotton, silk, wool, nettle or yak hair in striped patterns – vertical for men and horizontal for women. However, each region has a specialty in terms of designs and types.
There are three types of looms that are used by Bhutanese weavers – blackstrap, horizontal-framed and 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.
Textiles play an important social role in Bhutan because they are an element of their strict social code, and until the late 1950’s they served as a form of currency.
Delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་) may have arrived in Bhutan from China via Tibet. As Bhutan grows abundant amounts of Daphne and Edgeworthia, Bhutan has maintained a vibrant tradition of paper production although it was practiced by a select few people. In the past, paper was sent to Tibet as a gift or merchandise and the state also collected paper from the people as tax.
The origins of papermaking are deeply rooted in Bhutan and many sacred scripts have been written on this paper. The masters are called Dezop, and make this paper from the bark, fiber and pulp of Daphne and Edgeworthian plants. It is beautiful, elaborated with extensive care to be extremely resistant, and termite and insect repellent.
This craft used to be specifically monastic; nowadays, all kinds of paper are available in the market, but people continue to use Desho paper for special occasions.
All the sacred and religious scriptures in manuscript books for monks used to be written on Dezo with traditional ink, sometimes even gold. Handmade papermaking is a very important part of Bhutanese tradition and culture.
Tsarzo (ཚར་བཟོ་) are widely created by common Bhutanese, and require comparatively little, if any, formal training. Most cowherders are able to create ropes, baskets, strainers, mats, and other items for household use. Thanks to Bhutan’s abundant vegetation, different species of bamboo and cane grow across the country. In southern parts of Bhutan, bamboo is also used to build houses.
Taking advantage of these abundant natural resources, Bhutanese people have mastered the skill of weaving cane and bamboo products. Villagers living near bamboo groves usually cut, split, dry the inner and outer layers of the bamboo before weaving to make fencing for the fields or domestic items such as baskets (called bangshungs), plates, quivers, sieves and alcohol containers.
Garzo (མགར་བཟོ་) was practiced by certain communities and families in the past. Blacksmiths produced a wide range of household items, farming tools, and also religious artefacts. Bhutan has had many deposits of iron ore, and the famed Tibetan bridge builder Thangtong Gyalpo used iron extracted and processed in Bhutan to create some of his spans. The tradition is now in decline as many raw materials, such as steel, and metal tools are imported from India.
It is believed that this saint introduced blacksmithing to Bhutan in the late 14th century. He had a special talent in casting iron chains and constructing bridges. 8 suspension bridges in Bhutan are credited to him, including the bridge over Paro River linking the highway to Tachog Lhakhang in Paro.
Dozo (རྡོ་བཟོ་) is a widespread form of art in Bhutan and refers to the building of different structures using stones. Homes in Central and Eastern Bhutan are generally built of stone and wood. Bhutanese masons used stone to build towering structures, many of which have lasted for many centuries.
Most valleys have quarries from where the stone is extracted before being chiseled or broken to get the desired shapes, and then stacked using mud plaster to hold them together. Whole stone slabs are sometimes put over a river to make a bridge. Stones are also used for millstones, mortar and pestles, knife sharpeners, and also griddle pans.
The mason craftsmen are called Zope in Bhutanese and they are the ones responsible behind the preparation of mortar, planning, construction and supervision of the building process from beginning to end. This craft is still prevailing today and can be seen in houses all over the country. Carpenters and masons together use their skills to build dzongs, walls, stupas, houses, bridges, courtyards and temples out of stone. Besides these, masons also produce utensils for daily use at home.