When considering the history of human dwellings, the use of timber predates the use of stones. Evidence of buildings framed with timber can be found in many countries, including even the pyramids of Egypt. Most virgin primeval forests that existed were used for structural framework and this began to develop into an art. Large temples were built simply using timber and without any metal fasteners. Instead, they were joined together using notches with thick pegs and nails made of wood, and these wooden structures were designed to last for 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 mechanization of works began when many industries appeared.
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 are instrumental in fashioning intricate designs that goes into the construction of our fortresses-the Dzongs, our palaces, our temples and monasteries and the traditional Bhutanese farm houses. The Dzongs that have its origin in the 17th century features some of the most elaborate wood works and designs that draw appreciation not only from the Bhutanese populace but from outside visitors as well.
People interested in becoming carpenters serve as apprentice under a master carpenter for a few years till they develop the confidence to practice the skills on their own. Master carpenters are found all over the kingdom and for every important structure to be raised they are called upon to contribute. A master carpenter who is still revered today is the Zow Balep, whose architectural skills can still be witnessed today in the ancient fortress of Punakha Dzong.
Do zo as it is widely known is an old craft that is still being practiced today by the Bhutanese. Just as the many temples and palaces that have been built in stone the world over, the Bhutanese temples, Dzongs, the Chortens or the stupas and the farm houses are all built of stones.
Indeed no construction ever takes place without the use of stones. Classic examples of stone work are those of Chorten Kora in Tashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan and Chendebji chorten in central Bhutan.
Par zo or carving is another traditional art that has been perfected by the Bhutanese. The major carvings are carried out on stone, wood and slate. The traditional designs crafted on these materials create some distinctive art works.
Since Bhutan has been blessed with an abundant variety of wood, woodcarving is seen in a variety of forms. The wooden masks that feature during the annual religious festivals are all carved out of wood besides the many traditional motifs that are engraved on the Bhutanese houses and on Dzongs. Besides, a unique wood carving that draws attraction are the phalluses of various sizes and shapes that are hung on the four corners of the Bhutanese houses and stuck onto the main entrance of the door ways. These carved wooden phalluses are also displayed by the Acharyas- the clowns during the religious festivals as a sign to bless the spectators and drive away the evils and misfortunes.
Another important art that is being practiced is the art of slate carving. The master craftsman is known as Do Nag Lopen and the material used is the slate found in abundance in both western and Eastern Bhutan. While slate carving is not as diverse as stone and wood work, yet one can come across many religious scriptures, mantras and images of deities being carved onto slates besides the religious figures. Slate works are fund mostly in religious places such as Dzongs, temples and chortens.
Another important craft that has survived in Bhutan is the stone carving. While it is certainly less evident, yet 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 of the Bhutanese art and craft tradition. An old art that has been practiced since antiquity, painting captures the imagery of the Bhutanese landscape. The work of master painters known as Lha Rip are reflected in every architectural piece be it the massive Dzongs, the temples and the monasteries, the nunneries and the stupas or a modest Bhutanese home. Indeed, paintings and the varied colors and hues epitomize the Bhutanese art and craft.
The art of painting is revered and painters are believed to accumulate merit. Young novices are taught by the master Lha Rips and the huge scrolls of thangkha or thongdrols that depicts religious figures and displayed during religious festivals are some classic works. A mere sight of these huge scrolls is believed to deliver us to nirvana. Thus, it brings merit not only to the believers but for the painters as well.
The materials used in Bhutan are the natural pigmented soils that are found in most places in the country. These natural soil pogments are of different colours and are named accordingly. The black lumps of soil is known as ‘sa na’, and red lumps as ‘Tsag sa’, for instance.
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 where pilgrims and devout Buddhists draw their inspiration from. The master craftsmen are known as Jim zo lopen and the skill is imparted to the young novices through vigorous trainings spread over the years.
Besides the clay statues, the tradition of clay potteries is still alive though much of the potteries are now being used as show pieces and flower vases. While the art of modeling statues are confined to men, the art of pottery is normally the handiwork of women. While we find three distinctive types of clayware: earthenware, stoneware and the china-clayware, in Bhutan, we find only the first type, the 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.