13 traditional arts and crafts

Bhutan travelogue: Chapter 8 | Read other chapters – See photo gallery

National Institute of Zorig Chusum is a school of arts that trains students in Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts.

↑ National Institute of Zorig Chusum: Student accommodation building

In Thimphu, while my tourist permit was getting extended in the government office and my friend was sick (he probably couldn’t take the clean air and calm streets), I visited the Zorig Chusum school. It is located in the north of the city, few minutes away from the National Library.

It is indeed suggested to apply for or extend your travel permits on your first day in Thimphu. The process is bureaucratic and takes a whole day. While that happens, you are basically trapped in Thimphu, so it is a good time to explore the city!

‘Zorig Chusum’, the thirteen traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan were formally categorized during 17th century and are as follows:

  1. Shing zo (woodwork)
  2. Dho zo (stonework)
  3. Par zo (carving)
  4. Lha zo (painting)
  5. Jim zo (sculpting)
  6. Lug zo (casting)
  7. Shag zo (wood turning)
  8. Gar zo (blacksmithy)
  9. Troe ko (ornament making)
  10. Tsha zo (bamboo work)
  11. De zo (paper making)
  12. Tshem zo (tailoring, embroidery and applique)
  13. Thag zo (weaving)

Students interested in the Arts study at the National Institute of Zorig Chusum for four to five years after finishing highschool. Everywhere in Bhutan one can see buildings that are traditionally decorated, wall paintings, temple art and handicrafts, so I am told that finding jobs is not a problem for this school. (And here my business school is struggling…)

This institute is open for visitors. Infact, it is so open that visitors can enter a class in progress. I entered the school premises during working hours and went to the office to check. The lady there asked me to ‘go anywhere I want and see for yourself. If you need help, come back…’

I walked around. There were several classes in progress. I took a look from outside the door. It seemed unreasonable for a camera-wielding tourist to venture inside a class and disturb the students. One of the instructors in the sculpture class saw me standing hesitantly at the door. He came over and welcomed me to enter his class. He explained how the whole process works and how students more or less pick their own pace of studying. But the training is so rigorous that students progress quickly.

It was a wonderful experience to see this class.

Students are very shy (like most people) and are curious about the camera. I let them scrutinize my camera while I appreciated their wood carvings and sculptures. Students will enthusiastically describe the object on their work table – hand gestures of the sculptures or the expression on the demon’s face.

All this while the class was in progress and their teacher was in the same room. I guess they are not bothered by such minor disturbances while learning something that takes years to perfect. Now it makes sense! 🙂

Since I could not read Dzonkha, and all lavishly decorated buildings look the same, I entered a student dorm (boys) without knowing. It was very messy like any student hostel. Apart from the sleeping arrangements, they had a large hang-out area where some people were chatting and others were working on their art. The shrine inside the student house is a nicely decorated cozy room.

I met a lady from Norway who was residing in Bhutan for 3 years. She was trained in Tibetian music during her 7-year stay in India and now she was to Bhutan to teach it. She told me that this place is deceiving – before you know, you will fall in love with it and never go back. Interesting things people do! And I can totally see what she means… 🙂

I wanted to buy some students’ artwork (hoping that it would be cheaper) but the souvenir store inside the school was unaffordable for me. Maybe I would have got some interesting bargains had I asked some of the students directly…

↑ Students

It was interesting to see both boys and girls involved in all classes. Boys were a majority in the Black smithy class and mostly girls flocked in the Ornament making one.

This place was one of the intriguing aspects of Bhutan. Throwing open a school of arts to tourists takes this concept of cultural tourism to a whole different level.