The story of Bhutan unfolds with every river, every bridge, every hill, every dzong, every flutter of its prayer flags, every turn of its prayer wheels, its dances and tsechus, its crafts and traditions. Here, history, legend, and religion coexist and are inextricably linked. Not a rock moves without the sanction of the priests, without the invocation of the gods.

The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful - massive dzongs, chortens, and stupas, and beautiful buildings, with colourful prayer flags dotting the countryside at strategic places. What makes Bhutan special are its people - gentle, fun loving, earthy, living and breathing their culture. The Bhutanese are a religious people - they are deeply rooted in their traditions and families - and yet have a gay, charming irreverence.

For Bhutan an era of economic and technological isolation is over. To an outsider the country seems to be at a crossroad - holding on to its traditions and values while opening itself to other cultures and influences. Its cultural heritage, a vital source of its identity is, simultaneously, vulnerable to Western influences and also securely protected from it by government legislation. Many traditional techniques are under threat and cheaper foreign imports are gradually substituting local handicrafts. The Bhutanese are, however, determined to forge their own particular blend of technology, global influences, and traditional wisdom and culture, and are striving to balance the old with the new.

  • Full country name: Kingdom of Bhutan

  • Capital city: Thimphu

  • Area: 46,500 sq. km

  • Population: (1999 Estimate) 657,548

  • People: 50 per cent Bhote, 35 per cent ethnic Nepali, 15 per cent indigenous or migrant tribes

  • Language: Dzongkha

  • Religion: 75 per cent Buddhist, 25 per cent Hindu

  • Government: Monarchy

  • King: Jigme Singye Wangchuck

  • Flag: The upper part of the flag is golden yellow in colour and represents the secular power of the king; the lower orange part symbolises the Buddhist religion; the white dragon represents the purity of Bhutan - the jewels held in its claw stand for the wealth and perfection of the country.

Government and religion remain closely linked. The king combines religious and temporal powers. The king wears the raven crown, symbolic of Mahakala the guardian deity. The country is composed of 20 districts (Dzongkhags) each headed by a provincial governor called Dzongda. The Je Khempo is the head of the religious order.

Internally Bhutan is struggling to balance national identity with the realities of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Bhutan does not have an ethnic group that can be considered, unequivocally, as the original inhabitants of the country; the 'Bhutanese' comprise people who migrated from neighbouring countries many centuries ago. In political parlance Bhutanese includes all groups who have settled in Bhutan and are its citizens but from the cultural point of view it refers primarily to people who follow the Drukpa sect of Buddhism and are know as Drukpas. The challenge is to maintain a distinct cultural identity that honours the varied traditions of its people.

The people can broadly be categorised according to three main regions:

  1. The Southern Belt: The majority of the South Bhutanese are called Lhotshampas. They are of Nepalese origin and included Sherpas, Tamangs, Gurungs, Rias and Limbus, who are Tibeto-Burmese peoples, while Bahuns and Chetris are Indo-Nepalese. The majority are Hindus, but the Sherpas and the Tamangs are Buddhist.

  2. The Central Zone Belt: is divided into three distinctive regions, each having its own characteristics.

    • The western region is made up of five valleys: Haa, Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, and Wangdue Phodrang. It was traditionally populated by the Dzongkha speaking inhabitants.

    • The central region includes Trongsa, Bumthang, Lhuntse, and Zhemgang districts. People of these regions speak different dialects. Bumthang is known for its rearing of cattle, yak and sheep and correspondingly by its woollen textiles woven by the women of Bumthang. To the east of Bumthang - and linked to it by linguistic historical and economic ties - is the Lhuntse region, called Kurtoe in olden times. It produces exquisite textiles with a brocade technique.

    • The eastern districts comprise Mongar, Trashiyangtse, Trashignag, and Pemagatshel. This is the most populated area and the least forested.

  3. The Northern Belt: The regions of Lingshi, Laya, and Lunana are inhabited by semi-nomadic herders who speak dialects of Dzongkha. Laya, in the north-west of Bhutan, is one of the kingdom's highest regions - the only way to get to Laya is on foot. The Layap people, about 800 in number, live here. They have their own language, customs, and dress.

In Bhutan, the relationship between politics, religion, and the arts is extremely close. Many eminent spiritual, religious, and political figures throughout Bhutanese history were also renowned for their artistic talents. Pema Lingpa, the Treasure Discoverer, was an accomplished painter, sculptor, and architect, and was raised by a family of blacksmiths. The great fifteenth century bridge-builder Thangtong Gyalpo is revered as an important saint. The Shabdrung Ngawang Namgayel, who unified Bhutan in the seventeenth century, was gifted in painting and sculpting. Therefore, understanding Bhutanese art necessarily requires an understanding of the growth of Buddhism in the region and the history of Bhutan.

Much of Bhutan's written records and historical records have been tragically lost in successive fires and earthquakes. An independent self-contained state is known to have existed prior to the 8th century and the early settlers in the valleys of Bhutan seem to have been nomadic tribal people from eastern India. It was in the seventh century AD that Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan, when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo established lakhangs or temples at Kyichu in the Paro Valley and at Jampel in Bumthang.

In the eighth century (year 737) the legendary saint, Padmasambhava, a wandering tantric from the Swat region in North West Frontier mountains of present day Pakistan, widely known as Guru Rimpoche, brought the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism to Bhutan. His eight manifestations, representing the eight-fold path preached by the Buddha, are worshipped in temples throughout the kingdom. Guru Padmasambhava is recognised as the father of the Nyingmapa sect, which is linked to tantric Buddhism, the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt.

Buddhism continued to flourish in Bhutan and in the fifteenth century the country gave sanctuary to many Tibetan lamas who, due to the internal struggles and differences between the Red Hat Sect and the Yellow Hat Sect, fled Tibet. The newcomers, who owed allegiance to the Red Hat Sect, crossed over the Wagay Pass into Bhutan.

Evidence found within the monasteries suggests that among these settlers, particularly among those who came in the seventeenth century were a variety of craftspeople, who provided the monasteries with ritual objects and ornaments for the deities. Some of the migrating craftsmen established shops for bronze casting at Punakha, Simtoka, and Thimpu Dzongs. The remnants of a foundry for bronze casting can be seen in Punakha Dzong. This suggests that the refugees came from the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, which was famous for its Kham-so bronzes.

For a while Bhutan faced internal political and religious strife, internal conflict, and incursions from Tibetan aggressors; eventually in the seventeenth century Shabdrung Ngawang Namgayel, an aristocratic lama of the Drukpa school, who had earlier fled to Bhutan from Tibet, managed to unify the country. He built dzongs at strategic places in each valley - either surrounded by waters of rivers or on top of hills - commanding a good all round view. The feudal lords who ruled the valleys of Bhutan came together under his leadership. Buddhism was established as the state religion and the administration was shared by civil and ecclesiastical heads of state - the Governors and the Je Khempo. The dzongs, imposing fortresses strategically placed throughout the country, became the provincial centres of religion and governance and continue to combine both functions even today.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Bhutan was once again caught up into regional fiefdoms with intermittent civil wars. At the beginning of the twentieth century Ugyen Wangchuk, the then Governor of Tongsa in Central Bhutan, emerged as the most powerful of the regional leaders, partly because of the tacit support of the British, whom he had assisted in their 1904 treaty negotiations with Tibet. In 1907 an assembly of leading Bhutanese elected Ugyen Wangchuk to be their first hereditary King (druk gyalpo) establishing the supremacy of the secular leadership for the first time in the country's history. The Wangchuk dynasty traces its ancestry to both Guru Rimpoche and the Shabdrung.

Madanjeet Singh in his book, Himalayan Art gives us an overview of the evolution of art in these regions and the influences that shaped them. The art of Hinduism from the time of the Indus culture to present day has been largely devoted to the making of images of deities. Hinduism has many gods, each of whom have several forms, but this vast pantheon was ordered, systematised, and standardised in the ancient holy texts mostly of the Gupta period. Each God is assigned special shapes, colours, objects (a lotus, a conch-shell, a thunderbolt, a begging bowl), and attributes. All holy images have to be made to exact specifications - these precepts have remained remarkably unchanged for centuries.

Buddhism in its earliest and most ascetic form (Hinayana) had no idols. After Buddha's death, stories of his life - often featuring animals - were illustrated in art but Buddha himself was represented only symbolically. He was regarded as a teacher and not a God. Gradually he became deified. The Buddha image developed in the first century AD and soon there evolved a pantheon of Buddhas and boddhisatvas, who were assigned symbols and characteristics and represented in art and worshipped. It was a third school of Buddhism - Vajrayana - that became the most important in the Himalayas. Vajrayana or the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt relied on magical formulae (mantras) and magical ceremonies (tantras), and also on the introduction to the Buddhist pantheon of goddesses (taras).

Both Buddhism and Hinduism have a strong monastic emphasis and it was inevitable that these institutions, which by tradition were set up in isolated areas (but on major trade routes), should become the basis of religious life in the Himalayas and also the centres of art, education, and culture. The monasteries and temples contain incredibly beautiful works of art.

Monasteries served not only as theological colleges but also as workshops for the casting of bronze images. Students and pilgrims came from all over the Buddhist world to study at the Indian monasteries and to take back to their native lands portable examples of art forms, which increased their understanding of the instructions of Mahayana teachers and later tantric texts.

Chinese travellers took back religious texts and contingents of artists and scholars. Among the eminent teachers who crossed the Himalayas on such missions (spread of Buddhism and Buddhist art) and were themselves deified were Padmasambhava and Atisha in the Himalayas.

In the ninth century, renaissance of Buddhism and Buddhist art brought Nepal into intimate contact with the Pala culture of Bengal and Bihar. In terms of art the emphasis shifted from purity and refinement to a form of iconography, even though the new images were basically derived from canons of the Gupta period. These canons became more or less permanently established - they were copied generation after generation not because the artists could do no better but because in doing so it was believed that they accrued definite merit. When it finally emerged in Bhutan the art traditions of Pala culture of Bihar and Bengal, Kashmiri-Chinese-Central Asian and Tibetan influences were all a part of it. By the fifteenth century the reverberations of this magnificent art tradition were felt in Bhutan where people became more conscious of Vajrayana Buddhism and the mysteries of its art.

Bhutanese art is particularly rich in bronzes of different kinds that are collectively known by the name Kham-so (made in Kham) even though they are made in Bhutan, because the technique of making them was originally imported from the eastern province of Tibet called Kham. Wall paintings and sculptures, in these regions, are basically formulated on the principal ageless ideals of Buddhist art forms. Even though their emphasis on detail is derived from Tibetan models, their origins can be discerned easily, despite the profusely embroidered garments and glittering ornaments with which these figures are lavishly covered. In the grotesque world of fantasy (demons) the artists apparently had a greater freedom of action than when modelling images of Gods.

The strength and vitality of Bhutan's traditional Buddhist culture is in clear evidence throughout the land in its arts and crafts. This heritage is seen in both the ancient and the more modern structures, images, and artefacts. What is particularly remarkable is the overall sense of regularity, where there appear to exist only superficial differences between the old and the new.

In Bhutan the series of traditional skills or crafts is defined as zorig chusum (zo = the ability to make; rig = science or craft; chusum = 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. These traditional crafts represent hundreds of years of knowledge and ability that has been passed down through generations.

The Great Treasure Discoverer, Pema Lingpa introduced the art taught in Bhutan today, in the fifteenth century. In 1680 Shabdrung Nagawang Namgyel ordered the establishment of the school for instruction in the 13 traditional crafts. Although the skills existed well before, across the country's isolated settlements, it is believed that the zorig chusum was first formally categorised during the rule of Tenzin Rabgye (1680-1694), the 4th desi (secular ruler). The following provides a brief overview of the thirteen traditional crafts:

  • DEZO - Paper Making: Handmade paper made mainly from the Daphne plant and gum from a creeper root.

  • DOZO - Stonework: Stone arts used in the construction of stone pools and the outer walls of dzongs, monasteries, stupas, and some other buildings.

  • GARZO - Blacksmithy: The manufacture of iron goods, such as farm tools, knives, swords, and utensils.

  • JINZO - Clay Crafts: The making of religious statues and ritual objects, pottery and the construction of buildings using mortar, plaster, and rammed earth.

  • LHAZO - Painting: From the images on thangkas (religious wall hangings), walls paintings, and statues to the decorations on furniture and window-frames.

  • LUGZO - Bronze Casting: Production of bronze roof-crests, statues, bells, and ritual instruments, in addition to jewellery and household items using sand casting and the lost wax method.

  • PARZO - Wood, Slate, and Stone 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.

  • SHAGZO - Woodturning: Making a variety of bowls, plates, cups and other containers.

  • SHINGZO - Woodwork: Employed in the construction of dzongs and monasteries

  • THAGZO - Weaving: The production of the famous hand-woven fabrics of Bhutan

  • TROKO - Silver and Goldsmithy: Working in gold, silver, and copper to make jewellery, ritual objects, and more practical household items.

  • TSHARZO - Cane and Bamboo Work: The production of such varied items as bows and arrows, baskets, drinks containers, utensils, musical instruments, fences, and mats.

  • TSHEMZO - Embroidery and Tailoring: Working with needle and thread to make clothes, boots, or the most intricate of appliqué thangkas (religious wall hangings).

Articles for everyday use are still fashioned today as they were centuries ago. Traditional craftsmanship is handed down from generation to generation. Bhutan's artisans are skilled workers in metals, wood and slate carving, and clay sculpture. Artefacts made of wood includes bowls and dishes, some lined with silver. Elegant yet strong woven bamboo baskets, mats, hats, and quivers find both functional and decorative usage. Handmade paper is prepared from tree bark by a process passed down the ages.

Each region has its specialities: raw silk comes from eastern Bhutan, brocade from Lhuntshi (Kurtoe), woollen goods from Bumthang, bamboo wares from Kheng, woodwork from Tashi Yangtse, gold and silver work from Thimphu, and yak-hair products from the north or the Black Mountains.

Most Bhutanese crafts have evolved and been produced for use of the Bhutanese themselves. Except for goldsmiths, silversmiths, and painters, craftsmen are peasants who make things in their spare time. It is the surplus production of the peasants which is sold, the daily articles and fabrics of their traditional life. Most products, particularly fabrics, are relatively expensive. Every step of production is performed by hand, from dyeing hanks of thread or hacking down bamboo in the forest, to weaving or braiding the final product. The time spent in producing handicrafts is considerable and can involve as much as year for certain textiles.

G. N. Mehra in his book, Bhutan Land of the Peaceful Dragon, states that:

Were I to epitomise Bhutanese art with one word, that word would be colour. The Bhutanese use colour extravagantly in their clothes, houses, decorations and above all in their thangkas, murals and frescoes adorning the walls of temples. The attention to detail, the symmetry of figures, the nature of the theme and above all the bold colour treatment are perfectly combined.

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