Zorig Chusum: The Thirteen Traditional Crafts of Bhutan
An essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage are the thirteen traditional arts and crafts 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:
Between the Stone Age and the Iron Age we have the Bronze Age around about 3500 BC. 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. 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.
The art of iron work is known as Gar-zo and blacksmithing in Bhutan began 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.
The vibrant craft of traditional ornament making is still designed today and is known as Troe ko. Its products are 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.
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.
Tzhem zo or the art of tailoring is a popular 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.