Crafts in Bhutan often come as a surprise to first-time visitors. Many go Bhutan to see the temples, the dramatic landscape and even to learn if the land of utmost happiness is for real. But watching an award-winning artist weave the finest, colorful silk on a back-strap loom may leave you as wonderstruck as arriving at Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Seeing a villager weaving intricate bamboo baskets quickly and without looking down is a marvel, too. And the best part? You can take these crafts home to remind you of your magical journey.
Almost anything handmade that you buy in Bhutan is special, but here is a singular Bhutan Shopping List, a guide, a short-cut to the items “you–can’t–go–home–without” to treasure yourself or give to friends.
GHO AND KIRA: THE NATIONAL DRESS OF BHUTAN
Another surprise—how colorful the people are. You may think that since there is a prescribed “driglam namzha,” or official Bhutanese dress code, that everyone would look alike. The reality is far from it. The only similarity is the silhouette. Men’s robes (ghos) tend to be the same silhouette and the colors are subdued. In Bhutan women are the peacocks. Their official outfit is a traditional, ankle-length dress or skirt (kira) that is especially brilliant, especially on festival days.
Handwoven, often of natural dyed cotton or silk, a kira is patterned in varicolored stripes and festooned with symbols and patterns. They are typically as unique from each other as the women who wove them. Some kira textiles, such as those made for family and friends to be passed down through generations, take as long as a year of 10-12-hour days to make. Once the traditional techniques were taught in homes and villages, but today women can enroll in 6-year programs at the Royal Thimphu College and The Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan in Thimphu and learn to master the skills.
For the wearer, learning the wrapping technique of the approximately 8-foot piece of fabric is the hard part of donning a kira. Today, to simplify the process, often women wear half kiras, a skirt in a kira design, with a “wonju” or long-sleeved blouse and a short jacket or toego, accented with a vibrant narrow scarf.
Find it here:
- Tridunima Store, on the ground floor of Etho Metho Plaza in Thimphu, has the best collection of Bhutanese ghos and kiras. Locals shop here, too.
- You can also buy yards of textiles at Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Changzomtog, Thimphu to take home to make your own kira.
TEXTILES OF BHUTAN
In addition to kiras and ghos, Bhutan has other types of textiles. The intricately woven designs and delicate fabrics of the thinnest silk fibers are considered among the most sophisticated in the world. Bhutanese weavers consider the act of weaving itself to be a spiritual exercise.
Everyday textiles, such as those that blanket horses or cover a table, are simpler but often a lovely pattern or design. Coats and scarves of woven sheep or yak hair called Yathra are found in the Bumthang area and keep local Bhutanese warm on cold days.
Some of the finest textiles, such as the raw silk or Bura are made in eastern Bhutan in Radhi, near Trashigang. Kushuthara, perhaps the most prestigious women’s textile in Bhutan, is found in Khoma, near Lhuntse in the east. Many of these pieces are sent to Thimphu to the local stores.
Find it here:
- Textiles are not hard to find in Bhutan, but visit the Bhutan Textile Museum to learn about them before you shop. The museum shop has high quality textiles and products for sale in a wide price range.
- To watch weavers at work, visit the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Changzomtog, Thimphu. The ghos, kiras, tablecloths and fabric by the yard made by the Center’s 20 weavers are for sale in the top-floor showroom.
Wearing jewelry on a daily basis is a tradition for women. For weddings, promotion ceremonies and festivals, the gifts and priceless heirlooms come out. A woman may wear a pair of intricately detailed, silver koma pins to hold a neck-to-floor-length kira in place at her shoulders. She will also wear a pair of gold and silver wrist cuffs, often studded with turquoise or precious stones and an endless knot necklace over her toego.
You may not have Princess Kate’s budget to spend on jewelry and precious stones, but you can do as she did on her first visit to Bhutan – find inexpensive, unique earrings on the street. Here you’ll find yak bone bracelets and carved pins, too. But be careful spending major ngultrum ($$$) on street jewelry or in handicraft stores. Some are likely to be of poor quality and made in Nepal or India.
Find it here:
Most locals buy their prized ornaments from goldsmiths in Thimphu or Phuntsoling, a town on the border with India. The gold does not come from Bhutan but from Thailand or Switzerland, and local Bhutanese jewelers then fashion their own pieces for clients.
THANGKAS AND SECULAR ART
A thangka is a painted or embroidered image on cotton or silk of a Buddhist deity or a mandala. It’s typically framed by an appliqued, tailor-made patchwork of differently colored silk panels. Some have a sheer silk cover to pull down to protect the Thangka, and they can be rolled up to be portable. Thangkas are traditionally used as objects of meditation – one reason why they are called “roadmaps to enlightenment.”
Galleries, markets and shops sell old ones shaded by the patina of time and contemporary ones by Bhutan’s leading thangka artists.
Find it here:
- Near Yangchphguh High School in Thimphu and close to the Kyichu Temple in Paro are two stores selling high-quality thangkas. Ask your guide, and s/he will take you there. Both stores will even customize one for you and ship it to your home. Less expensive but lovely thangkas are also available at the street market and handicraft shops.
- A well-known thangka painter in Bhutan is Phurba Namgay. You can make arrangements to visit his gallery (http://www.lindaleaming.com/gallery) or perhaps even meet with him. His work includes both traditional as well as modern-style thangkas.
- Terton Gallery in Thimphu features the artworks of actor Kelly Dorji as well as his collection of antiques and other objects.
- Art Gallery in Thimphu, near the weaving center, sells both contemporary and religious artwork.
- VAST Bhutan – Voluntary Artists Studio in Thimphu is a non-profit organization founded by three young men a decade ago. VAST Bhutan’s mission is to share the joy of giving and nurture young artists through its art classes, camps and other programs. The Gallery offers contemporary art exhibitions.
HANDICRAFTS OF CARVED WOOD, WOVEN BAMBOO, LEATHER, INSTRUMENTS, HANDMADE PAPER AND MORE
Blending design and practicality, the Bhutanese honed their skills in making everyday objects into an art form. Paper items are exquisite and bamboo baskets and wooden bowls are pretty as well as useful.
Find it here:
1. You won’t have to look far for gifts to take home for friends—or for yourself. Booths of handicrafts line the street beyond the Textile Museum in Thimphu, the weekend market is a virtual emporium, and handicraft stores are everywhere.
2. In Thimphu, make a stop at Kelzang Handicrafts, especially for textiles, and Lungta Handicrafts.
3. In Paro check out Yosel Handicrafts.
CONTEMPORARY BHUTAN FASHION
Young Bhutanese designers are coming into their own, and their fashions typically blend the old with the new.
Find it here:
- CDK is a small studio and shop in Thimphu’s Main Town. Chandrika Tamang, the founder and owner, designs clothing and accessories using natural dyed fabrics and incorporating Bhutanese textiles. Chandrika sells only eco-friendly clothing, since the modern fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world.
- CHIMMI HOUSE OF DESIGN began in the home of Tshering (Chimmi) Choden and is now a boutique in the Namgay Heritage Hotel in Thimphu. Chimmi and her weavers combine traditional techniques with new designs and unusual fibers to create contemporary clothing, or as she says, “a style that very much reflects the social evolution happening in Bhutan today.” CMD also provides employment for local weavers, tailors and artisans.