Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Masterpiece of the seventeenth century, Phajoding Monastery © Tashi Lhendup

Traditional Embroidery in Bhutan

Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas roughly the size of Switzerland (38,394 Km) with a population of 817,054. The people of Bhutan are called Drukpas a term that comes from druk (dragon), and Druk Yul (the country of the Dragon) is the name of Bhutan in Dzongkha, the national language.

Thirteen Arts and Crafts

Bhutan has a superb artistic heritage and centuries-old traditions. In the seventeenth century the fourth temporal ruler, Desi Tenzin Gabgye (1680-1694), categorized the arts and crafts under one heading, the Thirteen Arts (Zorig Chusum). Embroidery (tshemzo), as one of the thirteen arts and crafts, is the most important.

Practice in Monasteries

Richest material and technique embroidery, thangka of the eighteenth century © Tashi Lhendup
Embroidery art in Bhutan was mainly practiced in monasterieso make religious costumes and thangka (embroidery works of gods and deities). Thangka were made and consecrated by spiritual masters to give life to these religious objects. These were not just work of art but also work of faith, following precise and symbolic iconographic rules. It is considered one method through which a person gains merit for the next life.

In the seventeenth century, Jamgoen Ngawang Gyeltshen (1647-1732), a religious master, commissioned many artistic embroidery thangkas. One included his own image and was adorned with precious materials such as pearls, coral, turquoise, and gold plates. This embroidery thangka is considered one of the richest in material and artistic skill.

Embroidery for Royals

The embroidery work for royals transcended from monastic lives. These practices were done by groups of artists working under the direction of a master especially to commission embroidery work for the royals. These transitions of embroidery work from the monastic to layman were in early nineteenth century. In 1907, with the crowning of the first king, the Royal Crown an embroidery work done by a monastic body. During the second king’s regime, he trained hundreds of laymen to practice embroidery.

Embroidery Today

In the 1970s, the government of Bhutan enrolled local lay embroiders as permanent workers under the Ministry of Finance to produce embroidery works for the government. From the late 1990s, the art of embroidery was taught at the School of Arts and Crafts, which was established in early 1080s. Today, there are still many embroiders enrolled with the ministry, and they are trained at the School of Art and Crafts. Many high school students are enrolling in the school to get four years of training on embroidery. Therefore, at present, the motivation of becoming an embroider has changed. In the early times, it was religious motivation to work for great masters and commission religious images for gaining merit. Today, these motivations have been overcome by the desire to become an artist and to make the living of it. These reasons explain why embroidery works are now found on sale in markets for foreign visitors.

Training

Today the School of Arts and Crafts is called the National Institute for Zorig Chusum (School for Thirteen Arts and Crafts). The art of embroidery is taught for four years. In the first year, students are taught to make traditional drawings and patterns. They use two types of silk threads. The best quality silk is abstracted from silk brocade. They learn how to pull warp threads from silk brocade and taught to spin the silk for different uses.

National Institute for Zorig Chusum trainee working in a classroom © Tashi Lhendup
For large embroidery works, embroiderers use silk threads that are readily available for weaving. But they also need to be spun as per the requirements. The two types of identified prepared silk are chakued for outlines and tshemkued for general use. The chakued is spun first to the right and then the ends are brought together and spun left. Tshemkued is first spun to the left, and the two ends are brought together and spun right.

From the second year, the application of embroidery work starts with simple traditional motifs and symbols; gradually the students learn to make animals and clouds. In the third year, the syllabus includes embroidery work of Buddhas. It is all strict to traditional scale and methods. In the final year, the training includes creating wrathful images of deities.