Bhutan: Thirteen Traditional Arts and Crafts, The Institute of Zorig Chusum, and One Large Beautiful Museum
“If you’re a good human being, then the skills and knowledge you acquire will benefit the whole society. Otherwise, it is like giving a weapon to a child.” – His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, the 5th King of Bhutan
During my days in Bhutan, I felt like I was not only in a country, but I was also in one large beautiful museum. Everything, and I mean everything, was so colorful, intricately decorated, and quite artistic. From the grand architecture of the buildings, including the homes, palaces, bridges, temples, and monasteries; down to every painted and sculpted detail on the outside, and the inside of these buildings, was well worth the price of admission.
From the thousands of representations of religious figures, whether in statues, or in carvings, or in thangkas (religious pictures either painted or embroidered); to the weaved clothing (such as the kira and gho, the national dress of Bhutan for women and men), to the paper, and even the kitchen utensils. My hotels were as grand as the other buildings; and I came home with appliqués, wood carvings, paintings, and more.
I visited the school where many Bhutanese acquire the skills that decorate the country, where the people study and then contribute to the museum-like quality of Bhutan. The National Institute of Zorig Chusum, translated as “to make science thirteen,” is where 13 traditional arts and crafts are taught. Here I witnessed the concentration, the attention to detail, the talent, and realized the time put into each work of art, whether it be a small statue of Buddha or other deity, or a larger chorten (a religious structure containing religious relics), or a tool, or an instrument.
The 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan are deeply rooted in their religion, in Buddhism. Thus there is much significance to all that I was seeing. Many of the arts and crafts produce ritual items like the masks worn in religious festivals, or symbolic items placed on altars in temples, or the murals and frescoes inside temples and monasteries that tell stories of Buddha and other important religious figures.
These arts and crafts have been practiced since the 15th century in Bhutan, and were formally categorized into the 13 traditional groups towards the end of the 17th century. Passed down from generation to generation, studying these arts and crafts today involves an intensive 4-6 years of training at the Institute. Students live at the Institute’s hostel where the government of Bhutan finances room and board, and opportunities for employment once finished with the studies are in demand. For example, “instructors and students paint houses, thangkas, and temples, and create other culturally significant art objects. They contribute their skills to the beatification of both public and private buildings.”
Even some of the various representations of the fable of The Four Friends is created by the extremely talented people who study at the National Institute of Zorig Chusum. (Actually the fourth picture in that blog is of a sculpture of The Four Friends that is seen when you enter the Institute.)
Specifically the 13 traditional arts and crafts are: drawing and painting, sculpture, carving (wood, stone, and slate), calligraphy, paper-making, casting, tailoring (stitching clothes, embroidery and appliqué, and boot-making), weaving, carpentry, masonry, bamboo and cane weaving, gold- and silver-smithing, and blacksmithing.
Now I could make a long list of what products each of these 13 categories creates, but that has already been done, and I have included several links below which describe in more detail the materials used and the products created. I could have also included in this blog many, many, many photos of examples of the products and buildings. But I wanted this blog to be a tribute to the talented people who create it all, to those who turn Bhutan into one large beautiful museum.
(The quote at the beginning of this blog is in the background of the third picture.)
Sweet (and artistic) Travels!
Bhutan Excursions: The Thirteen Traditional Arts and Crafts of Bhutan (Zorig Chusum)
Bhutan Travel Portal: Zorig Chusum: The Thirteen Traditional Crafts of Bhutan
Craft Revival: National Institute of Zorig Chusum (Traditional Arts and Crafts)
Bhutan Cultural Atlas: Introduction to Arts and Crafts (Zorig Chusum) in Bhutan