Timber predates stone as a building material in human history. Timber framing, including in the Egyptian pyramids, can be found worldwide. Virgin primeval forests provided a structural frame, which evolved into an art form. Temples constructed only with timber, without metal fasteners.
The Bhutanese Tradition of Shingzo
Instead, they connected wooden structures using notches, thick pegs, and nails. These structures were designed to last centuries. Slowly, in many countries, woodwork became a profession and the craftsmen became the engineers, architects, carpenters, and builders of their age. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, this craft began to disappear from many parts of the world as the mechanization of work began when many industries appeared.
The Importance of Master Carpenters in Bhutanese Culture
While most people across the world are trying to rediscover and learn the secrets of this old tradition, the Bhutanese still practice this ancient art termed shingzo. The master craftsman known locally as Zow Chen and Zows is instrumental in fashioning intricate designs that go into the construction of our fortresses-the Dzongs, our palaces, our temples and monasteries, and the traditional Bhutanese farmhouses. The Dzongs have their origin in the 17th century and feature some of the most elaborate woodworks and designs that draw appreciation not only from the Bhutanese populace but from outside visitors as well.
The Legacy of the Zow Chen and Zows Master Carpenters
People interested in becoming carpenters serve as apprentices under a master carpenter for a few years until they develop the confidence to practice the skills independently. Master carpenters, including the renowned Zow Balep, are prevalent throughout the kingdom. Balep’s skills in construction are often sought to build essential structures, such as the ancient fortress of Punakha Dzong.
The Bhutanese continue to practice the traditional craft of do zo, which is widely recognized. They use the stone to construct temples, palaces, Dzongs, Chortens, stupas, and farmhouses, similar to many other structures built around the world.
Bhutanese artisans have mastered the art of Par zo carving, which involves carving on stone, wood, and slate. The traditional designs crafted on these materials create some distinctive artworks.
Woodcarving in Bhutan
In Bhutan, woodcarving is popular and used in various forms, such as wooden masks displayed during religious festivals and traditional motifs carved into Bhutanese houses and Dzongs. Acharyas, also known as clowns, hang and display wooden phalluses of various sizes and shapes on the corners of houses during festivals as a blessing and protection against evil.
Slate carving in Bhutan
The art of slate carving is practiced in Bhutan. Do Nag Lopen, a master craftsman, uses abundant slate found in the western and eastern regions of the country. Although slate carving is not as diverse as stone and woodwork, one can find many religious scriptures, mantras, and images of deities carved onto slates, as well as religious figures. Funding for slate works often comes from religious places such as Dzongs, temples, and chortens.
Stone carving in Bhutan
Another important craft that has survived in Bhutan is stone carving. While it is certainly less evident, the water-driven grinding mills are classic examples of stone works. The huge grinding mills 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.
Bhutanese paintings represent the quintessential Bhutanese art and craft tradition. Skilled artists known as Lha Rip have captured Bhutan’s landscape in paintings for centuries. They have contributed to Bhutanese architecture in many forms, including Dzongs, temples, monasteries, nunneries, stupas, and even small homes. Indeed, paintings and the varied colors and hues epitomize Bhutanese art and craft.
Master Lha Rips teaches novice students. Classic works include large scrolls of thangkha or thongdrols featuring religious figures, displayed during festivals. These scrolls are believed to bring believers to nirvana and earn merit for both believers and painters.
Bhutanese art uses natural pigments derived from soil found in the country, including black “sa na” and red “Tsag sa.”
Jim zo or clay work is an ancient craft having been practiced and passed on over the centuries. This art work preceded other sculpture works such as bronze or other metal works. Statues of deities, gods and goddesses, and other prominent religious figures in fact exemplify clay work in Bhutan. Every monastery, temple, and the Dzongs have in them installed clay statues from which pilgrims and devout Buddhists draw their inspiration. Jim zo lopen, master craftsman, trains young novices through years of vigorous training.
While the art of modeling statues is confined to men, the art of pottery is normally the handiwork of women. While we find three distinctive types of clayware: earthenware, stoneware, and china-clayware, in Bhutan, we find only the first type, earthenware.
What is required for success in the work on clay is the composition of clay by using balanced materials, skills in shaping the wet clay, and firing to the correct temperature. The baked items were then coated with lac to render them waterproof. While this tradition is almost dying the women of Lhuentse and Paro still try and keep this tradition alive.