High in the Himalayas, Solange Hando discovers the soul of Bhutan in traditional arts and crafts.
Bhutan, the ‘Land of the Drukpas’, was created in the 17th century when a high lama fleeing from Tibet unified the fiefdoms fighting in the ‘southern valleys’. Among his many achievements, Ngawang Namgyal defined the auspicious 13 arts and crafts, the cornerstone in the unique cultural identity handed down ever since.
The minute you arrive, it is all around you, and you gaze in wonder at the amazing architecture, every building along the road greeting you with exquisite carvings and lucky symbols while shrines and monasteries glisten like magic. Tourism is flourishing but for gifted artists or humble villagers, creating beautiful things goes far beyond personal gain. Inspired by their illustrious ‘Shabdrung’, it’s a way of life, a spiritual accomplishment showing respect for tradition and the natural world providing all we need.
No skill is gender-specific but for any woman, weaving is the ethos of life nurtured since childhood. Wander in remote villages, especially in the east, and in the quiet times after the harvest, you’ll see women on their terrace working on a back strap loom. No talking, no stress, it’s almost like meditation. The fabric is for traditional wear, gho -the man’s garment pulled up to the knees- and kira, the long wrap-around woman’s dress, most luxurious those produced in the Lhuntse district, the original home of the royal family.
Colours and patterns often identify a district, likewise traditional materials which may be organic cotton, yathra wool (sheep or yak), soft lustrous silk or raw silk, rough to the touch but Buddhist-friendly for the worm is allowed to escape when the cocoon is ready. You will find a few stalls along the way, selling jackets, belts, pouches, scarves, rugs, blankets and shawls though the widest choice is in Thimphu, the capital.
Fine jewellery is appreciated, particularly silver used in shoulder clasps to secure a kira or hanging from a pendant with coral and turquoise as enjoyed by the Laya women. Shops in Thimphu have excellent jewellery, including gold, and authentic items, decorative or for daily use, crafted across the country. There’s plenty of textile of course, kira makes a lovely throw back home, also look out for bamboo containers, lacquered bowls from Trashiyangtse, paper hand-made from the Daphne plant, painted thangka, carved wooden masks or embroidered festival boots.
Then if you would like to watch upcoming artists at work, visit the School of Traditional Arts (Zorig Chusum) in Thimphu and you will be impressed by the students’ skills and concentration. You can buy some of their work in the adjoining shop and if you travel all the way to Trashiyangtse, you could pop into the affiliated institute, set up to ensure equal status between the popular west and remote east.
Now wherever you are, the 13 arts and crafts simply take your breath away in temples, monasteries and shrines. Dazzling colours, embroidered banners, colourful statues, cymbals and horns, scriptures wrapped in cloth and at festival time, huge appliqué images (thongdrels) unfurled from the rooftops. Then murals have pride of place depicting religious figures and symbols, the core of Bhutanese painting, yet artists do not sign their work. Following the strictest rules, it’s all about tradition, not fame or creativity except in minor details.
“Look, a new temple on the hill,” smiled my guide, “many villagers came here to help, my family too, masonry, carpentry, embroidery, painting, sculpture, whatever we could do best. That’s how we preserve our culture and when we donate our time, we hope to earn merits for the afterlife.”
Well, it was too late for me, but I bought dozens of prayer flags and when they flutter along my garden path, I dream of the Himalayas and my next trip to this enchanting kingdom.
The official currency is the ngultrum, approx.100 BTN to £1.00.
Quality items are expensive, requiring days or weeks of work, so bargaining would be seen as a lack of appreciation.
Market stalls sell cheaper goods, usually imported or machine-made.