ART IN BHUTAN
Most art in Bhutan is Buddhist and regarded as sacred. It includes painting and sculpture. Among the crafts elevated to art form are weaving, metalworking and woodcarving. Bhutanese art featured at an exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2008 included a copper and silver sculpture of a torma (a ritual cake left as an offering on temple altars); a 17th-century ornamental chorten, or stupa. a wooden image of Zhabdrung Mgawang Namgyal, the 17th century leader that unified Bhutan; and a 19th century thangka (painting on cotton cloth) of Guru Dragpo Marchen, a wrathful form of Padmasmabhava, the Indian sage who brought Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan; [Source: Smithsonian magazine, March 2008]
On the art in the exhibition, the Honolulu Museum of Art: “The Dragon’s Gift comprises 117 works of art, including two-dimensional thangkas painted in mineral pigments and appliquéd in silk, gilt bronze sculptures, and ritual objects ranging in date from the 8th to the 20th centuries, with especially strong examples from the 17th through the 19th centuries. The majority of the art works in the exhibition come from active temples, where they continue to serve religious purposes. Due to the sacred nature of the art, monks will accompany The Dragon’s Gift to each venue, and will remain in residence, performing the necessary ritual observances. [Source: Honolulu Museum of Art, Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan : Exhibition, February 23, 2008 — May 23, 2008]
Bhutan art is little known and little studied. Susan Emerling wrote in the New York Times: “One reason lay in the history of Bhutan, which is the least accessible and least known of the Himalayan countries. Unlike Nepal and Tibet, Bhutan forbids trekkers in its sacred mountains, which range as high as 23,000 feet. The country is also unique among its neighbors in that it has never having been colonized, conquered or invaded, so its treasures have never been looted. Because its art remains largely sacred, restricted to veneration within monasteries, it has remained almost unknown both in and outside Bhutan. [Source: Susan Emerling, New York Times, February 24, 2008]
See Separate Article TIBETAN ART AND PAINTINGS factsanddetails.com
Buddhist Art in Bhutan
Much of the art in Bhutan would classified as Tibetan art. Tibetan art is oriented towards Buddha, gods and merit. Many works have complex iconography and symbolism that requires extensive knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism to unravel. Influences come from the Pala kingdom in India, the Newari kingdom in Nepal, Kashmir in India, Khotan in Xinjiang, and China. Treasured religious works of art include mandalas (Buddhist Wheel of Life) and thangka (a painted religious scrolls).
Bhutan's culture is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. According to the Honolulu Museum of Art: “Bhutan is the only country in the world to adopt Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism [Tibetan Buddhism] as its official religion, and the particular form of Buddhism found in Bhutan permeates all aspects of culture and the arts. Bhutan is remarkable for the antiquity and continuity of its Buddhist teachings, with the first temples in the region established during the 7th century. The arts of the two main branches of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan, the Drukpa Kagyu and the Nyingma schools, are represented the exhibition. [Source: Honolulu Museum of Art, Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan : Exhibition, February 23, 2008 — May 23, 2008]
Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In Bhutan Buddhism is almost the only theme in art forms such as painting and sculpture, though much of what can be classified as folk craft, comprising architecture, metalwork, weaving, carving, and bamboo work, has little to do with religion. [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
The major art forms of Tibetan art are: 1) paintings, including thangkas (cloth paintings), frescos, rock drawing and contemporary painting; 2) sculptures, including Buddhist sculptures, metal sculptures, clay modelings and stone carvings; 3) handicrafts, including metal wares, masks, block-printing, textiles handicrafts and wooden wares; and 4) architectures including ancient tomb architecture, monastery architecture, palace architecture and residence architectures;
Production of Bhutanese and Tibetan Buddhist Art
Most Tibetan art has traditionally been produced by monks at monasteries. Most artists were anonymous and rarely signed their works, although names have survived in texts, in murals on monastery walls, and on some thankas and bronzes. Mark Stevenson, a lecturer on Asian art at Melbourne University told the New York Times, “Every monk has a need for artistic talent. They make alms and assemble tormas, which are offering cakes. Many have to work on mandalas as well. This is part of being a monk. Every monk needs some manual dexterity skill in designing ritual objects."
To bring Buddhism to the people, numerous symbols and structures are employed. Religious monuments, prayer walls, prayer flags, and sacred mantras carved in stone hillsides were prevalent in the early 1990s. Prayers printed with woodblocks on cloth are made into tall, narrow, colorful prayer flags, which are then mounted on long poles and placed both at holy sites and at dangerous locations to ward off demons and to benefit the spirits of the dead. To help propagate the faith, itinerant monks travel from village to village carrying portable shrines with many small doors, which open to reveal statues and images of the Buddha, bodhisattavas, and notable lamas. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The teacher-disciple relationship is very important in Tibetan Buddhism. Teachers are regarded as Living Buddhas and impart secret teachings and initiations to their students. Lineages of Buddhist teachers figure prominently in both texts and works of art. Historical figures from both the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, many unique to Bhutan, are represented, with examples in painting, sculpture, and a remarkable embroidered thangka of the important master Je Thrinley Gyaltshen.
Painting in Bhutan (Lha-zo)
Bhutanese paintings is known as Lha-zo. Subjects include Buddhist and Bon themes and figures and imagery in the Bhutanese landscape. Master painters are known as Lha Rips and their work is displayed in massive dzongs (fortified monasteries), temples and gompas (monasteries) as well as Bhutanese homes and farm houses. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Paintings and their varied colors and hues epitomize the Bhutanese art and craft. A perfect example of this art form are the massive thongdrols or thangkas, huge scrolls depicting religious figures that are displayed during annual religious festivals. The mere sight of these enormous scrolls is believed to cleanse the viewer of his sins and bring him closer to attaining nirvana. Thus, it brings merit not only to the believers but for the painters as well.
Traditional paintings drape Bhutanese architecture including dzongs, monasteries and homes. The materials used in Bhutanese paint are the natural pigmented soils that are found throughout 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 red lumps as ‘Tsag sa’, for instance.
Thangkas are traditional Tibetan painted tapestries or cloth scrolls designed as aids in meditation. Painted on cotton or linen, they usually contain images of deities and religious figures and often are representations of spiritual or historical events. As is true with mandalas both making a thangka and gazing at one are regarded as forms of meditation. The idea is to lose oneself in thangka not express it. Traditionally, they were never bought or sold. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 29, 2009]
The content of thangkas varies quite a bit. They usually contain portraits of bodhisattvas, giant mandalas, and images of Buddhas. They often depict Tibetan gods and other religious iconography such gods like Padmasambhava and White Tara and Green Tara, and the circle of life with people reclining in heaven and roasting in hell.The setting, the background, architectural elements, secondary figures are all executed with special aims and symbolic meaning. One thangka artist told the Japan Times, “There is no room for originality in thangka painting. The iconography, the colors, even the way you hold the brush — everything must be done just so."
Unlike an oil painting or acrylic painting, the thankga is not a flat creation, but consists of a painted or embroidered picture panel, over which a textile is mounted, and then over which is laid a cover, usually cotton, but sometimes silk or linen. Generally, thankgas last a very long time and retain much of their lustre, but because of their delicate nature, they have to be kept in dry places so as to prevent the quality of the silk from being affected by moisture. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]
Thankas generally have embroidery around the edges. They are usually hung in temples or homes. In Buddhist monasteries, they are often used to focus meditation. In Tibet, thangkas are frequently the center of Buddhist religious ceremonies. Pilgrims throw money to the thangka to show their respect. Most thangkas are designed to be portable. Before they are transported they are mounted on a brace and rolled up between two sticks. They have traditionally been carried by nomads and used by holy men, teachers and healers. Some huge ones are made to be unfurled annually at festivals.. One thangka made after 15 months of work and $2.4 million was 148 feet high, 115 feet wide and weighed over three tons.
The Paro Tshechu (Festival) in Paro in late March and Early April is is one Bhutan's best known and most-visited dance festival. Early in the morning on the last day of the celebration the monks display a gigantic thangkha (embroidered painting), the Guru Throngdel, inside the dzong. Thongdrols are especially impressive examples of Buddhist art and never fail to amaze viewers. They are considered so sacred that simply seeing a Thongdrol is said to cleanse the viewer of sin. The 400-year-old Throngdel is unfurled for a few hours before dawn so that direct sun light does not damage its vegetable dye colors.
See Separate Article TIBETAN MANDALAS AND THANGKAS factsanddetails.com
Subjects in Bhutanese Art
Buddhas: According to the Honolulu Museum of Art: Paintings depicting the Buddha’s (Shakyamuni’s) life and previous incarnations complement sculptural representations. Depictions of the five cosmic Buddha Families, such as an elaborate sculpture of Aksobhya, provide a broader definition of Buddhahood. [Source: Honolulu Museum of Art, Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan : Exhibition, February 23, 2008 — May 23, 2008]
Bodhisattvas (beings who defer their own attainment of complete Buddhahood to assist others on the path to enlightenment) are highly venerated in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Popular and revered Bodhisattvas such as as Manjushri, shown in multiple forms including a sumptuous painted thangka of the White Manjushri, Vajrapani, and Avalokitesvara.
Padmasambhava, who spread Buddhism to parts of Bhutan in the 8th century, is an important figure in all forms of Bhutanese Buddhism. There are multiple manifestations of Padmasambhava in both peaceful and wrathful forms. It will also include narrative paintings of Padmasambhava’s life story, a variety of sculptures reflecting regional styles, and dance content to illustrate his importance in Bhutan. Padmasambhava is closely associated with the “Treasure Revealers” of the Nyingma School, particularly in Eastern Bhutan. These Treasure Revealers discovered texts and other religious treasures previously hidden by Padmasambhava centuries after the latter’s death. Portraits of the Treasure Revealers are a common subject
Arhats and Mahasiddhas introduce extraordinary adepts who attained high levels of spiritual insight. The Sixteen Arhats are represented by an outstanding and complete set of paintings from the 18th century. The Mahasiddhas, Indian sages who employ unconventional means to achieve enlightenment, are also represented in painted thangka.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), a charismatic historical figure, was the founder of modern Bhutan. A revered lama, Zhabdrung came to Bhutan from Southern Tibet in 1616. He soon unified the country, established a unique system of governance, and built a series of local fortress-monasteries (dzongs) that still function as centers of political and religious administration. Zhabdrung figures prominently in almost every Buddhist temple in Bhutan. He is represented in both paintings and sculptures.
Deities: A wide variety of spiritual figures comprise the Buddhist pantheon in Bhutan. Many of these deities are the focus of Buddhist ritual practices such as visualizations and mantra chanting. These figures of represent concepts and associated practices. Examples include a powerful yab-yum sculpture of Vajrasattva and his consort, representing the feminine wisdom and masculine “skillful means” (upaya) that lead from ignorance to enlightenment.
Ritual Art in Bhutan
According to the Honolulu Museum of Art: “Perhaps no visual expression of Buddhist thought is as mysterious and attractive to the Western viewer as the mandala. Intricate spiritual diagrams that are considered maps leading to wisdom and spiritual knowledge, mandalas are powerful tools employed in the quest for enlightenment. A variety of painted mandalas will be presented along with references to associated ritual practices. [Source: Honolulu Museum of Art, Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan : Exhibition, February 23, 2008 — May 23, 2008]
“A gilt repoussé Buddhist altar is based on an example from Trashigang Goempa, an important monastery near Thimphu. The altar will be furnished with a variety of sacred objects as a site for pujas (rituals) conducted by the monks who will accompany the exhibition, and to give the viewer a sense of temple interiors in Bhutan.
Susan Emerling wrote in the New York Times: “When American curators arrived one spring morning at Norbugang Yu Lhakang, a Buddhist temple in a remote village in western Bhutan, they found a group of monks sitting on the floor in bright robes, chanting. They had been there since 6 a.m., intent on creating the right ambience for a divination ceremony. The question before them was whether a small 18th-century gilt bronze sculpture — a female personification of supreme Buddhist wisdom — could make its way to the United States for a traveling exhibition of Bhutanese art. It fell to the sculpture’s owner, a Bhutanese businessman whose family had had the piece for generations, to roll the divination dice. Tremulously, he rolled a two, a six and a nine. [Source: Susan Emerling, New York Times, February 24, 2008]
“A furious dialogue ensued in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, among the priests, the owner, the government official overseeing the country’s cultural properties and the curators’ Bhutanese driver over how to interpret this ambiguous sign. (Even numbers are bad, ascending numbers are good, and nine is great, the most auspicious number of all.) The priests, eager to see their temple receive some international exposure, kept on chiming in to say “Give it a chance,” recalled Stephen Little, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, describing the scene in an interview. But it wasn’t their decision. It was up to the owner, who seemed to have a presentiment that if he allowed the object to depart, his father would die. A member of the curatorial team who is also a physician pointedly told the owner that there was a 50-50 chance that his father would die anyway. (The father was 90.) But Mr. Little, observing the owner’s clouded face, called an end to the discussion.
Phallic Art in Bhutan
Penises are prominently featured throughout Bhutan. They are painted on the walls of houses next to images of dragons and birds and at shops and restaurants above sack of grain. Phallus symbols are used as scarecrows, worn as jewelry and donned by masked dancers in religious festivals. Women hoping to get pregnant worship stone phalluses. They are even prominently featured at temples and monasteries and children walk passed them on their way to school. The sight of so many phalluses in an otherwise conservative, chaste society is shocking to many outsiders. Many of the disembodied penis belong to the revered saint Drukpa Kunley described above.
Heather Elton wrote for bayleafyoga.com: “The phalli you can see painted on the outer walls of buildings across Bhutan are traditionally intended to ward off the evil eye and malicious gossip. You can find them painted on homes, schools, businesses, sculpted as pillars holding up roofs and as talismans swinging from the eaves. You may even be surprised to find one sitting between you and your fellow diners as a centerpiece at a restaurant.” [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
Reporting from Lobesa, which can described a phallus central in Bhutan, Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “For centuries, Bhutan has celebrated the phallus. They are painted on homes, or carved in wood, installed above doorways and under eaves to ward off evil, including one of its most insidious human forms, gossip. They are worn on necklaces, installed in granaries and in fields as a kind of scarecrow. They are used by masked jesters in religious festivals and at one temple near here in Lobesa as a blessing of fertility. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, August 24, 2017]
“The symbol, like Bhutan itself, seems suspended between two impulses: the country’s headlong embrace of modernity and its preservation of traditions that made it unique to start with. “Stories of Bhutan’s engagement with the phallus shed light on traditions and lifestyle that make Bhutan one of the happiest places on earth,” Karma Choden wrote in the 2014 book “Phallus: Crazy Wisdom from Bhutan,” which was published here and claims to be the first scholarly effort to document the ubiquity of the phallus.
“House after house is painted with phalluses. While highly stylized, they are in some cases graphically detailed: always erect, often ejaculating. One appears with the country’s name, a marketing ploy by the owner of one of the proliferating souvenir shops. The displays in some — rows of colorful wooden carvings — would not seem out of place in a sex shop. Bhutan’s phalluses are not considered explicitly sexual, noted Ms. Choden, the writer. “In essence, the phallus represents the center of the male ego, and not a celebration of sex,” she writes. “It reminds onlookers that if this force is harnessed properly, it will fuel productivity and creativity rather than wanton lust.” Lotay Tshering, a 51-year-old rice farmer, owns a house in Sopsokha that is adorned with two giant penis murals. His wife’s uncle painted them in homage to the Divine Madman, “who has blessed this place,” as he put it. He and his wife have six children.
See Separate Article SEX IN BHUTAN: PHALLIC ART, PROMISCUITY, FERTILITY TEMPLES AND THE DIVINE MADMAN
Crafts in Bhutan
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: ““Bhutanese women are skilled at weaving and make their own clothing, bedding, tablecloths, floor coverings, and items for religious use. Embroidery is a favorite art. Much effort goes into making costumes and masks for the ritual dances performed at festivals. Smiths excel in working gold, silver, brass, and other metals. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
An essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage are the thirteen traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum) that have been practiced from time immemorial. These arts were formally categorized during the reign of Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, the fourth temporal ruler of Bhutan. The thirteen arts and crafts are categorized as follows:
1) Thag-zo (weaving), 2) Tsha-zo (cane weaving and basket making), 3) Shag-zo (wood-turning), 4) Lha-zo (thangka painting), 5) Shing-zo (carpentry), 6) Do-zo (masonry), 7) Par-zo (carving), 8) Jim-zo (ceramics), 9) Lug-zo (bronze casting), 10) Gar-zo (iron working), 11) Troe-ko (jewelry and ornament making), 12) De-zo (paper making), 13) Tshem-zo (tailoring and embroidery). [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Tsha-zo takes advantage of Bhutan’s forests which are richly stocked with bamboos and canes of various species. Bhutanese people have mastered the skill of weaving cane and bamboo products. Widely known as Tshar Zo, this art is spread throughout the country and products such as baskets, winnowers, mats, containers known as Palangs and bangchungs are all made. The people of Kangpara in eastern Bhutan and the Bjokaps of Central Bhutan are the pioneer’s and masters of this craft. Their products are now sold to tourists earning them additional income and keeping this craft alive.
Shag-zo (wood turning) has traditionally been practiced by the people of Trashiyangtse area in eastern Bhutan. The master craftsmen of this vibrant art are known as Shag Zopa. They are famed for the wooden cups and bowls traditionally known as dapas and phobs. These wooden bowls are made of special wooden knots known as Zaa and are highly valued. Until the advent of steel and brass, these bowls were widely used by the Bhutanese. Today they are typically sold at craft markets and offered as gifts. Khengkhar is a small village in eastern Bhutan where the villagers are well known for producing traditional wooden wine containers known as Jandup.
Do-zo is the ancient craft of masonry, a trade which is still practiced today. In Bhutan, temples, Dzongs, Chortens (or stupas) and farm-houses are all constructed using stone. Classic examples of stone work are those of Chorten Kora in Tashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan and Chendebji chorten in central Bhutan.
Troe-ko is the name given to the craft of making traditional jewelry and ornaments widely used by Bhutanese women. A master craftsman skilled in shaping beautiful ornaments is regarded as Tro Ko Lopen. Using precious stones and metals such as corals, turquoise, silver and gold, these master craftsmen create all manner of ornaments and implements including necklaces, bangles, earrings, rings , brooches, amulets to contain ritual objects, traditional containers to carry the much chewed beetle nut, ritual objects and much more.
De-zo (paper-making) is another art that has deep roots in Bhutan. People engaged in producing the traditional Bhutanese paper or De zo are known as Dezop. This traditional paper is made from the bark of the Daphne tree and was widely used in the past. Most religious scriptures and texts were written on Dezho using traditional Bhutanese ink or occasionally in gold. While the presence of readily available modern paper has overtaken the market, people still produce and use Desho as carry bags, wrapping for gifts and envelopes. The art still continues in Trashiyangtse where the raw material is readily available.
Carving (Par-zo) in Bhutan
Par zo (the art of carving) is a traditional Bhutanese art form that has been perfected over generations. Major carvings are carried out on stone, wood and slate. The traditional designs crafted on these materials create beautiful and distinctive art works unique to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
As Bhutan has been blessed with an exceptionally abundant variety of trees, woodcarving is seen in a variety of forms. The wooden masks featured during the annual religious festivals (Tsechus) as well as the many traditional motifs that are engraved on the Bhutanese houses and on Dzongs are all carved out of wood..
A unique wood carving that draws attention from visitors are the phalluses of various sizes and shapes that are hung on the four corners of traditional Bhutanese houses and placed over the main entrance door. These carved wooden phalluses are also wielded by the Acharyas- the clowns during religious festivals as a sign to bless spectators and drive away their evils and misfortunes.
The art of slate carving is also practiced and the master craftsmen are known as Do Nag Lopens. Slate which is found in both Western and Eastern Bhutan are used in such carving. While slate carving is not as diverse as stone or wood works, it is found in many religious scriptures, mantras and deific engravings and Slate carvings are quite common place in religious places such as Dzongs, temples and Chortens. Stone carving while less evident, is found in huge grinding mills that are still used by people in the far flung villages of Bhutan. One can also come across hollowed-out stones used for pounding grains and troughs for feeding cattle and horses.
Weaving and Embroidery in Bhutan
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Bhutanese women are skilled at weaving and make their own clothing, bedding, tablecloths, floor coverings, and items for religious use. Embroidery is a favorite art. Much effort goes into making costumes and masks for the ritual dances performed at festivals. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
Thag-zo (the art of weaving) is widely practiced. Women of eastern Bhutan are skilled at weaving and some of the most highly prized textiles are woven by them. In the past, textiles were paid as a form tax to the government in place of cash and people from western Bhutan travelled all the way to Samdrup Jongkhar to acquire/barter for woven textiles. Bhutanese textiles are woven from cotton, raw cotton and silk with intricate motifs woven into the cloth. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
The textile industry is an integral part of Bhutanese life and culture. Khoma village in Lhuentse is famous for Kushithara, while Rahi and Bidung are known for bura textiles, namely Mentsi Matha and Aikapur. One type of cotton fabric woven in Pemagatshel is the Dungsam Kamtham. Which lends its name to the village Decheling (Samdrup Jongkhar)Adang village in Wangdue Phodrang is known for textiles such as Adang Mathra, Adang Rachu and Adang Khamar while the Bumthaps in central Bhutan are known for Bumthap Mathra and Yathra, both textiles woven out of Yak hair and sheep wool. It’s interesting to note that the people of Nabji and Korphu in Trongsa are known for textiles woven out of nettle fibers. Weaving is also a vocation amongst the Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng.
Men contribute in spinning yak hair and sheep wool into thread There are four types of looms that are used by Bhutanese weavers. They are the blackstrap loom, the horizontal fixed loom, the horizontal-framed loom and the card loom. The predominant type is the indigenous back-strap loom. It is used mostly by weavers from eastern Bhutan and is set up on porches or in thatched sheds to protect weavers and the cloth from the sun and rain. The horizontal frame loom and the card loom were brought into Bhutan from Tibet and are still used today.
Tshem-zo (the art of tailoring) is a widely respected art amongst the Bhutanese. 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. These boots, worn by officials during special functions and gatherings are made of leather and cloth. While boot making is an old craft, its origin is unknown. Special craftsmen in the villages also make simple boots from uncured leather. However, this is a vanishing practice but with the government’s support it has seem a recent revival in the kingdom’s urban centers. The third category is tailoring. These craftsmen are skilled at sewing the traditional Bhutanese garments known as Gho and Kira.
Sculpture and Ceramics in Bhutan
Jim-zoc (clay work) is an ancient craft that has been practiced and passed down over the centuries. This art form preceded other sculpture works such as bronze and other metal works. Statues of deities, gods and goddesses and other prominent religious figures exemplify clay work in Bhutan. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Every monastery, temple and Dzong in the country has intricately molded clay statues from where pilgrims and devout Buddhists draw their inspiration. Master sculptors are known as Jim zo lopens and impart their skills to young novices over several years of rigorous training. In addition to sculpting clay statues, the tradition of crafting clay pottery is still alive. However, these days most of the potteries are being used as show pieces.
While the art of modeling statues is confined to men, the art of pottery is normally reserved for women. While there are three distinctive types of clayware: earthenware, stoneware and the china-clayware, in Bhutan, we find only earthenware. When crafting clay pottery, success depends upon the composition of the clay, the crafter’s skill in shaping the clay and baking the material to the correct temperature.
The baked items are then coated with lac to render them waterproof. While this tradition is nearly dying out in some areas, the women of Lhuentse and Paro actively practice it and are still keeping the venerable art form alive.
Metalworking in Bhutan
Lug-zo (bronze working) is used to make functional, artistic and religious works. Bronze was commonly used to cast containers such as cups, urns, and vases. People also shaped bronze into weapons and armor such as battle-axes, helmets, knives, swords and shields. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Bronze casting in Bhutan was introduced only in the 17th century and was mainly spread through the visiting Newari artisans that came from Nepal. The Newars were first invited by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal to cast bronze statues and religious items such as bells and water offering bowls. It was through these artisans that the art was introduced and today, quite a few Bhutanese practice bronze casting.
Gar-zo (ironing work and blacksmithing) began in Bhutan sometime in the late 14th century. It is believed that it was introduced by a Tibetan saint known as Dupthob Thangtong Gyalpo. He is revered by the Bhutanese people as a master engineer for his skill in casting iron chains and erecting them as bridges over gorges. He is supposed to have built eight suspension bridges in Bhutan. You can still see one of the bridges crossing over the Paro Chu, on the road from Paro to Thimphu, and linking the highway to the famous Tachog lhakhang. The remains of another bridge can be viewed at the National Museum in Paro. While blacksmithing is almost a dying art, you can still find the original Tibetan settlers in Trashigang practicing this skill.
Studying and Tracking Down Bhutanese Art
It can be argued that call from John Johnston knows more about Bhutanese art than any other Westerner. He worked as a Chinese art specialist at Sotheby’s in New York and is known for his ability to quickly assess works of art. Susan Emerling wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Johnston was a practicing Buddhist and was willing to move to Bhutan for a couple of years and learn Dzongkha. He was also comfortable hiking in the mountains for days at a time and sleeping on the floor of a monastery. [Source: Susan Emerling, New York Times, February 24, 2008]
“From March 2005 to March 2007, Mr. Johnston lived in Bhutan virtually full time, taking the first several months to learn how to handle sacred images and develop a strategy for “how to conduct ourselves,” he said. He worked with Ms. Bartholomew, Mr. Little and an expert in Buddhist iconography, Reda Sobky, in the capital city of Thimphu reviewing snapshots of thousands of artworks at the government’s Department of Culture before heading out into the field to locate them. He was also hoping to find thangkas and sculptures that had not been documented.
“Over the next year he visited 200 temples and monasteries — about 10 percent of the sacred sites in Bhutan — accompanied by a high-ranking monk and a representative of the royal government. Some of these temples were easily located off main roads, but others were more remote, requiring seven to eight hours of hiking.
“When Mr. Johnston and his guides arrived at a temple or monastery, they would normally be welcomed with tea; if they were lucky, they would meet with the head lama or abbot before asking to view their works of art. Soon monks were sending him to places he had never heard of to see undocumented artworks. “We found the best works of art through word of mouth,” he recalled. “A monk would say, ‘Have you been there?’ They’d give us clues and we’d follow them.”
“One major find was Seula Gonpa, a monastery in Punakha in western Bhutan, which is now a school for young monks and seven hours by foot from the nearest road. There Mr. Johnston was shown 75 to 100 thangkas, each more beautiful than the last. Yet many of the works were in terrible condition after years of being rolled, handled, venerated in front of butter lamps emitting thick acrid smoke and stacked in bins infested with animals. “There was so much neglect, bad handling, bad storage,” said Mr. Jose, the conservator. “There is the Buddhist teaching of impermanence in Bhutan — they thought with art, too, nothing lasts forever.”
“Mr. Johnston returned to Thimphu with photographs of his discoveries. Before making selections for the show” at the Honolulu Art Museum described above “curators assembled a group of Bhutanese monks, lamas and scholars to discuss the paintings’ iconography. “Books could not help us because nobody had written about Bhutanese iconography,” Mr. Johnston said.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022