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Bhutan: Second Installment

by Andrea Maguire
Posted on March 7th 2008

outline: Artist and writer Andrea Maguire evokes Bhutan’s timeless landscape while describing the mountain kingdom’s textile arts, and the vibrant cultural context in which these sophisticated fabrics are produced.

As I write this it is still dark, but a nearby rooster is persistently announcing the dawn, and the clear, repeated ringing of a single bell is evidence that one of the huge prayer wheels in the village square is already being pushed in devotional prayer. Figures are still hard to discern, but their “work” in the accumulation of spiritual merit can certainly be heard. Soon, three separate prayer wheels are chiming in three distinct tones. It is cool this January morning, and fires dot the mountain landscape as the village and its surroundings awake. Wood smoke and incense pervade the air. (Image 7)

This is a timeless place of incidence, manifestations of human activity performed out of dedication, and we discover, witness, and participate in it. In the half-light, daily activities have already commenced in the frost-clad morning. It will take a little time before the golden sunlight climbs above the mountaintops to warm the students who have begun their long walk to the nearest local school. Shopkeepers are taking down the painted wooden boards from their windows, and women sit together chatting and warming themselves in the early morning sun on their front patios, as they prepare for the day's work at their looms. Newly dyed skeins of yarn are already hung out to dry on fences and poles and. Young women adjust the backstraps of their traditional looms, and the mesmerizing rhythm of the click of the shuttles and the beating of the cloth soon fill the air.  All locally woven textiles are produced on the tahshing, an ancient and simple backstrap loom (Image 8) in which the weaver leans back against a leather strap to maintain tension on the warp threads. (Image 9) When I visited a recent exhibition of Southeast Asian textiles in Bangkok, I read a written commentary which expressed the enchanting idea that a woman weaves magic into her fabric. That thought flickered through my mind as I watched these Bhutanese women — inspired by the preciousness of life, weaving beauty and colour, building resplendent patterns into their work. Textiles tell an intriguing story, and the textiles of Bhutan tell of an ancient culture and of traditions that reach back into the mists of time. Every Bhutanese woman who sits down to her loom in the morning recharges and revitalizes that culture.

Because of its geographical remoteness and the barrier posed by the Himalayas, Bhutan was spared extensive foreign infiltration in the past. As a result, it has developed a highly sophisticated weaving culture featuring an astonishing complexity of design, intricate weaving techniques and colour combinations. Bhutan has a decidedly unique culture on many levels, and this uniqueness is most apparent in the richness of its textile design. It is no accident that, within Bhutan’s predominantly Buddhist heritage, where colour plays such an important role in contemplation and visualization (Image 11),  the primary mark of an accomplished weaver in Bhutan is not necessarily the mastering of complex weaving techniques — which in itself is a considerable achievement — so much as the ability to incorporate colour combinations as wide-ranging as the colours of the rainbow (the rainbow being prevalent in Buddhist symbolism) in harmonious ways.

Weaving is so central to the Bhutanese that almost every household has a loom, and homes often have a room dedicated to weaving. Today, weaving is generally the domain of women, although at the turn of the last century many of the distinguished court weavers were men. Textiles were traditionally used as a measure of a person's status and wealth in Bhutan. Taxes were paid in textiles, which were considered as valuable a trade asset as gold. Honorific gifts of textiles are still highly esteemed. The significance of the role that textiles play in the Bhutanese way of life is clearly illustrated by the average Bhutanese individual’s willingness to spend a large portion of their yearly income on textiles, much as we might pay for a new automobile. One might think, with the inevitable influence of global technologies and their attendant commercialism, that intrinsic, traditional values might be set aside. However, the Bhutanese traditions of textile production are so much the central focus of everyday life, and so intimately woven into their experience and culture, that this art has actually gained status, reflecting the fierce pride and determination of the Bhutanese people to retain and develop their distinctive identity. Weaving is a vital and living tradition that is repeated again and again in everyday life. (Image 12)

The 2001 opening of the National Textile Museum in the capital of Thimphu has gone a long way towards elevating the importance and value of Bhutan’s textile arts among both foreign visitors and the Bhutanese themselves. The Museum has systematically catalogued an extensive collection of rare and ancient textiles from every region. The weekly markets are vibrant with burgeoning stalls of colourful textiles. The gho, a traditional coat worn by men, and the kira, the traditional dress of women, are still worn daily, and on festival and tsechu days, the specially woven sashes, belts and shawls create a breathtakingly colourful array. It is intriguing, and perhaps mysterious, that the Bhutanese have achieved such a high degree of sophistication in their intricate, creative and technically distinct designs, while employing such simple technology. The secret to this success is that the technology translates easily to any part of the country and can be taken up even with limited resources, boding well for future development. One of the greatest strengths of the Bhutanese is that they have relied on their own sustainable industry, their own ingenuity and their own artistic abilities to create and maintain a unique cultural identity.