The most exciting and vital aspects of the Bhutanese tradition and heritage are found in its arts and crafts. Much of Bhutan’s spiritual and intellectual life is manifested through its arts and crafts. Bhutanese arts are not primarily concerned with abstract concepts of “beauty” (that may appeal to a few), but rather with an interpretation of values and beliefs that are held by the vast majority and that embody the eternal stream of life or consciousness. It is a subjective process deeply imbued with a strong sense of morality, with many art forms epitomizing the eternal struggle between forces of good and evil.
Bhutanese art and crafts, particularly those that are religious in their thematic content, follow strict iconographic rules. Merit can be earned only if the prescribed rules are strictly followed. The use of creative energy is used mostly in secular artistic ventures. Zorig Chosum or the 13 aspects of Bhutanese arts and crafts includes shinzo (woodwork), dozo (stonework), jinzo (clay crafts), lugzo (bronze casting), parzo (wood, slate and stonecarving, lazo (painting), shagzo (wood turning), garzo (blacksmithy), troeko (sliver and goldsmithy), tsharzo (bamboo and cane crafts), dhezo (papermaking), thagzo (weaving) and tshemzo (tailoring).
The skill of Bhutan’s craftsmen’s working with bronze, silver and other fine metals is seen in myriad ways: statues of deities, doors and pillars of temples, bells, trumpets, swords, tables, candlesticks, rice boxes and jewelry. Wooden crafts include a wealth of items from bowls to finely worked bamboo hats, baskets, butter containers, and bows and arrows.
Architecture is also a significant feature of the Bhutanese identity. Dzongs (fortresses). Lhakhangs (temples), Goenpas (monastries), Chortens (stupas), palaces, bridges, and housing that can be seen across the countryside form diverse but harmonious architectural expressions of the cultural heritage and living traditions of the Bhutanese people. The unmatched combination of engineering skill and aesthetic beauty is reflected in all structures. Traditional shapes, color, patterns, and “motifs” on walls, doors, and windows place Bhutanese architecture in a class of its own.
Among the diverse architectural expressions of the country are the castle- like Dzongs, with their massive stone walls, large courtyards, and beautiful architecture. These impressive monasteries, set in commanding positions on hilltops or at the confluence of rivers, are the administrative centers of their regions. The Dzong represents a unique architectural marvel. Hundreds of wooden planks are joined together without a single nail, and no formal architectural plan goes into its construction.
Secular architecture in Bhutan finds its main form in traditional farmhouses. Bhutanese houses have a distinct character from those of other Himalayan countries. Because of the steep terrain, they are usually built as scattered houses or in clusters, rather than in rows.
Most traditional houses are relatively spacious and take advantage of the natural sunlight. Family dwellings are often three storied, with room for livestock on the ground floor, storage and sometimes living quarters on the second floor, while the third floor houses living quarters and a Choesham (shrine). Between the third floor and the roof an open space is usually kept for open-air storage. Boulders over the lath are used to hold down wooden shingles on the roof truss. Windows and doors are normally painted, giving the house a very festive appearance. Floral, animal, and religious motifs are mainly used as themes for colorful paintings. The typical construction materials used in traditional Bhutanese houses are timber, stone, clay and bricks.
Vibrant fabrics and intricate weaves are an inseparable part of Bhutan’s rich culture. The colors, weaves and designs have evolved over centuries together. A specific design cannot be attributed to a particular village alone but also to a home and a family. Textiles are an evolving art, changing their role as Bhutanese life evolved. They represent prestige, commodity, wealth, and capital as well as expressions of religious devotion.
Textiles, Bhutan’s premier art, is the product of centuries of individual creativity and transmitted in fiber preparation, dyeing, weaving, cutting, stitching, and embroidery. Wild silk, cotton, nettle, wool, and yak hairs are the fibers basic to the country. However, imported fibers and dyes have become widely available and weavers have adopted these with enthusiasm, altering the palette, textures, and surface qualities of the cloths produced. Bhutanese intricate brocades and complex warp-striped patterns are unmatched anywhere in the world.
Bhutanese textiles are a national treasure, and the government’s policy along with people’s appreciation will ensure the preservation of this creative art and its tradition.