Thagzo, or the Bhutanese textile-weaving tradition, enjoys a lofty place amongst the national “Thirteen Arts and Crafts,” or zorig chusum. Globalization and the gradual, tightly controlled integration of the Bhutanese economy into the global economy have opened up cultural, anthropological, academic, and commercial avenues into this relatively unfamiliar area of Bhutanese craftsmanship. It also represents Bhutan’s delicate balancing act between the old and the new, between Buddhist values and international business. Although the art has always been respected (with royal weavers, thama, being the most highly trained), weaving enjoys an even more elevated status today under the patronage of Queen Mother Sangay Choden, who founded the Bhutan Textile Museum in Thimphu in 2001.
In this region of the Himalayas, Buddhism and the arts are inseparable as concepts and as living practices. The landlocked country has always been receptive to neighboring influences: Bhutan art specialist Susan Bean wrote in Marg magazine that the men’s attire could be linked to Tibet, the women’s dress and back strap loom weaving to northeast India and Southeast Asia, and luxury textiles for ritual and royalty to China and India (Bean 2015, 17). However, it is Tibetan culture that has exercised the greatest influence on Bhutan, and it is no exaggeration to say that Buddhism arrived in Bhutan at around the same time that the latter entered world history with the building of two Buddhist temples by the first emperor of imperial Tibet, Songtsen Gampo (c. 605–50). These were Kyerchu Lhakang in the Paro valley and Jampa Lhakang in the Choekhor valley (Karma Phuntsho 2013, 76–84).
After Tibet’s Era of Fragmentation between the 9th and 11th centuries, the Drukpa Kagyu school laid the foundation for its dominance in the region thanks to the master Phajo Drugum Zhigpo (his dates are variously assigned to 1184−1251 or 1208−75). The Drukpa Kagyu further consolidated its influence when the monastic warlord Ngawang Namgyal unified Bhutan into a single state in 1634, concurrent with the age of the early modern Eurasian continental empires (Qing China, Imperial Russia, and Ottoman Turkey). By the ascension of the ruling Wangchuck royal house in 1907, the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Buddhism was part and parcel of Bhutanese life, embodied in the leader figure of the Je Khenpo.
According to the most recent booklet from the Bhutanese government, Druk Thagzo: The Bhutanese Art of Weaving (2014), it is neither the famous men’s gho nor the women’s kira dresses that have the earliest documented origins, but the ceremonial scarves (kabney), the originals of which were introduced by Ngawang Namgyal to distinguish men of high governmental or ecclesiastical status. Local traditions of weaving could therefore, like Buddhism, have been circulating long before the invention of Bhutan as an entity. Weaving can be inferred to have been a flourishing art for centuries from the long-established regional diversity of materials used for textiles: cotton and nettles in Trongsa, sheep wool in Bumthang, and yak hair (and their underbelly wool) in the highlands of the country. Silk and raw silk (bura) remain popular materials in many districts. Although east and central Bhutan have the reputation for the widest variety of textiles and patterns, such is the diversity of textiles that each of the country’s 20 districts can be associated with a unique pattern.
The colors of Bhutanese clothing are some of the most vibrant in the world and betray inspiration from Himalayan Buddhist art. Bright, striking hues of red, green, yellow, and blue derive from the attire of the masked dancers that bless Buddhist festivals such as the Tamshing Phala Choepa festival (celebrated for the eminent Nyingma tertön Pema Lingpa at Tamshing Lhakhang), which will be held from 23–25 September this year. Colors that are woven in a more complex and intricate manner (often with earthy shades like brown and magenta) are frequently taken from the quieter surroundings of the monasteries themselves, such as the famous Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest). Some components, like fruit dye, are being abandoned or combined with modern processed raw materials like synthetic dye, which offsets issues like seasonal availability.
The designs of the jackets, dresses, and other attire communicate a rich repertoire of Buddhist motifs and indigenous symbols. The Buddhist symbols are woven into the fabrics as potent, intricate reminders of spiritual power. They include the endless knot (dramey), double thunderbolt (dorji jadram), swastika (yurung), vase (tshebum), and offering (torma). The endless knot and swastika hearken back to an older stratum of Mahayana imagery that diffused into the Himalayas from India and Central Asia before the transformation of the region into a Vajrayana stronghold, whilst the double thunderbolt and offering motifs are direct influences from Tibet.
Traditional methods of weaving remain in use nowadays, passed down from mother to daughter. Bhutanese legend claims that Pema Lingpa was also an accomplished weaver (although if the hagiographies are to be believed, he was accomplished in all things cultured), but whether he used any of the various types of loom extant in Bhutanese society is open to speculation. The most popular and oldest, the indigenous back strap loom (pang tha), is certainly simple and portable enough to have been useful to itinerant male practitioners. While men have been encouraged to take up weaving via a legend that textiles woven by a man have potent protective powers, functioning like an amulet that safeguards the wearer, this has not been an entirely successful narrative, and women remain the majority among weavers (Yaganegi 2014, 9).
Today, the Bhutanese government has balanced the need for prosperity and progress with mindfulness of Bhutan’s irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage. Yet aside from government policy, there is immense potential for the private and non-profit sectors, particularly when the two are combined through social entrepreneurships, to offer solutions to wealth creation that cut a fair deal for Bhutanese workers and preserve their culture. I have been told that some Bhutanese entrepreneurs and CEOs feel the temptation to follow a Western-style corporate model, where cost-cutting and mass production offer higher short-term profits. Instead, they should focus on how their business can generate profits for Bhutanese workers and traders, who then reinvest their money into the country’s economy and society. For example, a scarf-weaving business called Ana by Karma, which was founded only in 2014, is one of the small start-ups that pay their profits back to their team—in this case numbering around 30 female weavers, who can then invest in a secondary school education for their children.
Bhutan is a tiny country that has the capability to punch far above its weight, both economically and culturally. Its main strengths are its rich cultural heritage and the careful balance between preserving its traditions and ecology and the realities of global capitalism. Its textile industry is already playing an important part in these negotiations, for the simple act of wearing Bhutanese clothing is the most visible and everyday statement of the country’s heritage.
Bean, Susan. 2015. “Introduction: Art in Bhutan.” Marg 66(4): 14–19.
Karma Phuntsho. 2013. The History of Bhutan. Noida: Random House India.
Kesang Anayat Yaganegi. 2014. Druk Thagzo: The Bhutanese Art of Weaving. Thimphu: Agency for Promotion of Indigenous Crafts, Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Thag-zo (Tourism Council of Bhutan)