No place has more comprehensively embodied traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts than the Dzongs, the imposing monastic fortresses that appear throughout the landscape. Within their massive walls and measured beams are found items ranging from the most basic and functional to ones of spectacular beauty. Particularly striking are the paintings and statues representing important religious figures. Many intricate and colourful illustrations serve as allegories, dramatizing the continuing struggle between good and evil.
Bhutanese art and craft possesses three main interrelated characteristics: it is religious, it is anonymous and it corresponds to a certain uniformity of style. As such, items possess no intrinsic aesthetic function, and are instead interpreted as outward expressions of the holistic Buddhist religion. The distinction between more ornate (what one might consider artistic) forms and more practical applications is therefore somewhat blurred. All craftsmen would be considered artisans (scrupulously following tight traditional conventions) rather than artists (who might place greater emphasis on innovation). The Bhutanese style has over centuries been significantly influenced by Tibetan designs, whilst developing its own definite forms and themes.
In Bhutan the relationship between religion and the arts is extremely intimate. No artistic expression can be separated from its religious significance. This may be exhibited both directly, through the making of items used directly for religious purposes, and indirectly through the motivations involved in the production process. In many respects artistic heights are associated with spiritual achievement. Many of the most eminent religious figures through Bhutanese history were also renowned for their artistic talents. PemaLingpa was an accomplished painter, sculptor and architect, and was raised by a family of blacksmiths. The Shabdrung was gifted in painting and sculpting. The great 15th Century bridge-builder ThangtongGyalpo is revered as an important saint.
Artistic forms used directly for religious purposes include temples, Dzongs, Chortens and Mani walls, Thangkas, wall paintings and images, and numerous ritual objects. Paintings and sculptures are consecrated in a special ceremony, whereby they come to personify the deities they depict. Such works are produced through support from all strata of society. The royal family, nobility and clergy continue to provide very significant patronage. The commission of a work of art is seen as a pious act that will earn great merit. The ubiquity of the arts in Bhutan alludes to the importance of Buddhism in everyday life and the intensity of faith.
Buddhist art serves a very different purpose from other art forms, being concerned with highlighting certain important values associated with spiritual experience. The role of the artist is therefore to transmit such teaching through their art. The iconographical conventions are thus very strict, and artistic freedom may only be expressed in minor background details. Each deity is viewed as having particular special attributes that cannot be changed without altering the meaning and religious function. Such a design places emphasis on traditional wisdom over and above novelty and innovation.
In Bhutan the series of traditional skills or crafts is defined as zorigchusum. Zo means the ability to make, rig stands for the science or craft, chusum is thirteen. These refer to those practices that have been gradually developed through the centuries, often passed down through families with long-standing relations to a particular craft. Although the skills existed well before, across the country’s isolated settlements, it is believed that the zorigchusum was first formally categorized during the rule of Tenzin Rabgye (1680-94), the 4th Desi (secular ruler). The following provides a brief overview of the thirteen traditional crafts:
DEZO – Paper Art
Handmade paper made mainly from the Daphne plant and gum from a creeper root.
DOZO – Masonry
Stone arts used in the construction of stone pools masonryand the outer walls of Dzongs, Monasteries, Stupas and some other buildings.
GARZO – Blacksmithing
The manufacture of iron goods, such as farm tools, knives, sworblacksmithds and utensils.
JINZO – Sculpture
The making of religious statues and ritual objects, pottery and the construction of buildings using mortar plaster and sculpturerammed earth.
LHAZO – Painting
From the images on thangkas (religious wall hangings), walls paintings and statues to the decorations on furniture and window-frames.
LUGZO – Casting
Production of bronze roof-crests, statues, bells and ritual instruments, in addition to jewellery and castinghousehold items using sand casting and the lost wax method. The earliest bronze castings were made in sand, and this method is still used today, even for casting bells. However, clay and stone moulds were developed later on. Clay is usually used nowadays for making bells.
PARZO – Carving
In wood, slate or stone, for making such items as printing blocks for religious texts, masks, furniture, altars, and the slate images adorning many shrines and altars.carving
SHAGZO – Woodturning
Making a variety of bowls, plates, cups and other containers.
SHINGZO – Woodwork
woodEmployed in the construction of dzongs, monasteries, houses and much smaller household goods.
THAGZO – Weaving and Dying
The entire process of weaving from the preparation of yarn, the dying and final weaving to produce designs ranging from the most simple weaveto the fantastically intricate.
TROKO – Ornament-making
Working in gold, silver and copper to make jewellery, ritual objects ornaand more practical household items.
TSHAZO – Cane and bamboo working cane
The production of such varied items as bows and arrows, baskets, drinks containers, utensils, musical instruments, fences and mats.
TSHEMZO – Embroidery and Stitching
Working with needle and thread to make clothes, boots or the most intricate of appliqué thangkas (religious wall hangings).