Bhutanese art displays coherence between the natural environment, the culture and the faith community
As I prepared for the Lentz Center’s fall exhibition, “The Daily Arts of Bhutan,” I’ve had the chance to experience Bhutan’s uniqueness in some depth. My most overwhelming impression is of its coherence: the strong relationship among the natural environment, the culture and the ubiquitous faith community.
From the harmonious relationship that extends from the dzongs (monastic castles) to the land, the presence of water as a resource and a cultural phenomenon, and the value of woven cloth as costume and as social and governmental exchange product, Bhutan proves its coherence.
The year 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the monarchy, the coronation of the new king, the election of the National Council and new Parliament. As Bhutan moves into the modern world, it is a fitting time to examine its unique character and to hope that much of that character will be maintained. For us, as residents of a large, heterogeneous and individualistic society, much of Bhutanese life seems of a different tone and magnitude.
Within the striking scenery of Bhutan with its high mountains, waterfalls and valleys, the dzongs are appropriately grounded in the landscape. The dzongs house both civil and monastic functions as well as outdoor space for festivals in which the monks perform yogic dances called cham. The thick walls of the dzongs are made of stone or rammed earth and topped with elaborate wooden roofs and superstructures. They are expertly painted with Buddhist designs.
This architecture is entirely completed without plans on paper. The master carpenter knows how to proceed as he has been trained in the apprentice system. Astrologers are consulted to determine the appropriateness and setting of the building. No nails are used, only wood joinery.
Because the upper levels are made of timber, the parts are replaced when necessary. This is not a problem for the Bhutanese craftsman whose underlying philosophy is the Buddhist idea of impermanence. Various Buddhist ceremonies continue to be celebrated at specific points in the building process.
There are other architectural works as well, including temples and chortens (reliquaries). It is the dzongs, however, that signify the harmonious union of civil and religious powers. These sacred buildings are all constructed under strict Buddhist guidelines. Often sacred buildings have a wide red stripe painted around the top under the roof. This is saturated color that is a characteristic of all Bhutanese art.
Water, that most elemental of all resources, abounds in Bhutan. There are many rushing rivers and streams and many waterfalls as the water pours down from the Himalayas. In fact, the biggest Bhutanese export is hydroelectric power. The presence of so much water brings up such issues as agriculture and bridge building, which are fascinating themselves, but it is to the cultural impact of water that my attention is drawn. More precisely, it is drawn to water’s relationship with Buddhism. Water is channeled into wooden troughs and is used to turn prayer wheels, sending the prayers skyward and causing a bell to ring.
Water from springs is used to fill the seven bowls on the Buddhist home or temple altar. Water is used in these offerings and purifications because of its universality. It is thought by some that this morning ritual references the Enlightenment of the Buddha when many gods and spirits came to give offerings.
A word about the Esoteric Buddhism practiced by almost all Bhutanese is in order. Vajrayana Buddhism is named after the vajra. The vajra is a double-ended instrument that symbolizes the “impenetrable, imperishable, immutable, indivisible, and indestructible state of absolute reality, which is the Enlightenment of Buddhahood.”1 The vajra is often held by wrathful and serene deities or practitioners. Vajrayana was brought to Bhutan from Tibet by a saint called Padmasambhava in the eighth century.
Padmasambhava is connected with many water rituals in Bhutan. The name Padmasambhava means “lotus born.” Padmasambhava, being born of a lotus, which spreads its leaves and flowers just above the water, indicates the life-giving power of water. A spring near a cave where Padmasambhava meditated is believed to have sprung up spontaneously at the close of his meditation.
The roar of thunder heralding rain is often heard in Bhutan. The story about how Bhutan, called Druk Yul (meaning the Land of the Thunder Dragon), initially got its name fits right into our story. During the search for a spot for the dedication of a temple, there was a great roar of thunder, so the 12th-century lama decided that it was an auspicious spot to build on. He called the monastery Druk after the roaring dragon that brings the rain.
Rivers, oceans, springs and lakes are portrayed in Bhutanese painting. Water is also a subject in the cosmic mandalas, where the genesis of the universe is depicted.
The Bhutanese have 13 arts and crafts called zorig chusum. The last and most important of these is weaving. Weaving is done only by women, and they are considered artists. Cloth was often sold or traded, and Bhutan became known for its magnificent woven textiles. Most often the textiles are produced on a backstrap loom, but looms with treadles and card looms are sometimes used. Previously textiles were used to pay taxes. Not only is cloth produced for laymen and women but was used in Buddhist ceremonies and temple decorations.
Textiles are the most common and preferred gift in Bhutan. The nature of the gift depends on the status of the giver and the recipient. More than a material gift, it is an affirmation of a relationship.
Literary references to weaving are few, but one is especially interesting. A delog (one who has returned from the dead to tell her experiences in hell and indicate a path to salvation) named Ashi Nangsa celebrates the backstrap loom as a simile, identifying the various parts of the loom as objects for meditation. Ashi Nangsa identifies the square frame beam as a single occupancy meditation hut, the square weaving mat as a meditation cushion. The backstrap cast behind symbolizes the casting off of samsara (worldly existence).2 Although Ashi Nangsa is a quasi-legendary character dated to the 11th century, the fact that the poem still resonates with the Bhutanese shows the depth of both weaving and Buddhism in the culture of Bhutan.
“This white woolen cloth, soft and long, causes delight when conceived as this girl’s superior aspiration.”3
1. Beer, Robert. “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols.” (Boston: Shambala, 2003), 87.
2. Myers, Diana K. and Susan S. Bean, eds. “From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan.” (Salem: Peabody Essex Museum and Serindia, 1994), 42–43.