Bhutan is a fascinating country for craft lovers. I visited this small kingdom in Himalayas first time in 2005 and returned there again more than ten years later. I had expected to arrive in the same secluded, unique and sleepy fairytale kind of country but instead I arrived in a country that had gone through a massive transition from a very traditional society to a modern country.
I still cherish the memories of my first visit to Bhutan: the capital Thimpu as a little, quiet village type of town, polite and a bit distant people wearing national dresses kiras and ghos, cleanliness of the environment on the trek routes, snow melting on the slopes and ditch bottoms in the spring sun and tranquility in all places.
While dwelling on my nostalgic memories, I can see the benefits of the development for the people. According to Asian Development Bank, Bhutan has become the fastest growing economy in Asia. The country’s extreme poverty rate has fallen drastically and was 2% in 2012, life expectancy has raised, gender equality has improved, education and health care are free and infrastructure has been developed country-wide.
Despite the fast-paced development, Bhutanese have taken pride in preserving and promoting their distinctive traditional crafts and arts that form a corner stone of their culture and identity. Traditional arts and crafts known as Zorig Chusum are divided into thirteen groups: weaving,
embroidery, painting, sculpting, calligraphy, carpentry, woodcarving, paper making, bamboo or cane weaving, casting, goldsmithing, masonry and blacksmithing and they are rooted in the national religion, Buddhism.
The Royal Family, widely respected among Bhutanese, has taken an active role in protecting and preserving the ancient crafts and arts. Director of the Royal Textile Academy Rinzin O. Dorjin tells me that when the weaving tradition started disappearing in Bhutan, the Royal Textile Academy was established on the Royal Family’s initiative in 2005 in order to ensure that weaving skills and know-how are passed on to future generations.
Today, the Royal Textile Academy encompasses three entities, the Royal Textile Museum, the Textile Conservation Center and a weaving school established to showcase, promote and preserve the Bhutanese weaving and embroidery techniques and produce, and to teach weaving to a new generation of students. In recent years, the Royal Textile Academy together with local NGOs has started reinvigorate natural dyeing, a skill that was also almost disappearing among weavers. http://www.rtabhutan.org/
As a continuation of the country’s efforts to keep alive its ancient traditions, a small team of craft and art experts was appointed for the Agency for Promotion of Indigenous Crafts under the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Thimpu. Chief Executive Officer Lam Kezang Chhophel cheerfully welcomes me to their office and tells that the team was established in 2011 to execute craft related projects and initiatives and facilitate the economic growth of the craft sector. According to Lam Kezang Chhophel, the agency has been active in reviving already disappeared livelihoods such as sheep breeding and nettle farming. Likewise, a Thimpu craft bazaar consisting of 80 stalls showcasing a wide range of art and crafts produced by local artisans mostly from rural areas is a fruit of the agency’s attempt to preserve and promote traditional handicraft skills and provide a venue for artisans to earn income for their work. www.apic.org.bt/our-projects/craft-and-cluster-development/craft-market/
Curious to meet artisans and see especially their hand woven products in rural villages, I pack my bags and travel all the way through Bhutan to the furthest eastern weaving villages to see how the women are making their intricately decorated textiles. My first stop is in Khoma, a village at a misty mountain top in the East of Bhutan. At the end of a narrow rocky road stands this tiny village that surprises its visitors with beautifully embroidered hand woven silk textiles mostly used for kiras and ghos.
I am led to a traditional Bhutanese two-story house in which the second floor serves as a store and a show room for the fabrics. The women weavers of different ages from nearby areas gather to the house to show their textiles made from silk and raw (bura) silk and cotton. The silk is bought from middlemen who supply it from just across the border from Assam in India. What impress me are the patterns that are so intricate and delicate that it is hard to believe that the women are using no templates to direct their work but the patterns just flow from their heads creating very elaborate fabrics.
At first glance, the prices may first feel expensive. A young woman shows me a very beautiful and artistic fabric which she has made and tells that it took her almost ten months to finish the three meter long textile. The price tag for this piece is about 1000 USD. When the price is shared by the months used for making the fabric, it means that the woman earns only approximately 100 USD a month minus material costs. Suddenly, you feel that perhaps 1000 USD is not even a fair price!
My next visit heads to the village of Radhi that is famous for its kiras and ghos made of raw (bura) silk. A lively group of women weavers circles me in the village storage room and while talking and laughing chipperly, they start laying in front of me piles of traditional kira and gho fabrics. The textiles are very traditional by patterns and color combinations and their roughness differs them from the very delicate fabrics in Khoma. In Radhi, there is more variation in the quality of fabric designs but somehow the feel of the roughness and the durability of the textiles gives a sensation of authenticity and stability.
My last visit directs to Khaling National Handloom Development Center in the village of Khaling in Trashigang. The Center is run by National Women Association of Bhutan and its mandate is to preserve and promote the age-old Bhutanese weaving traditions and endorse weaving as a source of income in the villages where there are often a limited number of opportunities for employment available. Manager Sonam Drugyel gives a tour in the center’s well-maintained facilities and explains how the center is operated. The center has its own nine month vocational training program which is free of charge. The students who come from remote rural areas are offered a small stipend to cover basic living costs and a free accommodation in the center’s dormitory. Adjacent to the center, there is a small shop where the students and the weavers from the villages can sell their products. The center grows vegetables and plants in its own garden for natural dyeing of the fabrics. The colors are gorgeous ranging from earthy shades to very bright hues and they look amazingly even on the fabrics.
Bhutan is an extraordinary example of a country that is determined to keep its rich and distinct cultural identity alive alongside with accelerating development. If the country success to shape the development in harmony with the preservation of the environment and to keep the old traditions in the mind and lives of the people I bet Bhutan will become a laboratory of sustainable lifestyle for the rest of the world looking for peace of mind in our frantic digitalized planet.