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Madanjeet Singh in his book, Himalayan Art gives us an overview of the evolution of art in these regions and the influences that shaped them. The art of Hinduism from the time of the Indus culture to present day has been largely devoted to the making of images of deities. Hinduism has many gods, each of whom have several forms, but this vast pantheon was ordered, systematised, and standardised in the ancient holy texts mostly of the Gupta period. Each God is assigned special shapes, colours, objects (a lotus, a conch-shell, a thunderbolt, a begging bowl), and attributes. All holy images have to be made to exact specifications - these precepts have remained remarkably unchanged for centuries.

Buddhism in its earliest and most ascetic form (Hinayana) had no idols. After Buddha's death, stories of his life - often featuring animals - were illustrated in art but Buddha himself was represented only symbolically. He was regarded as a teacher and not a God. Gradually he became deified. The Buddha image developed in the first century AD and soon there evolved a pantheon of Buddhas and boddhisatvas, who were assigned symbols and characteristics and represented in art and worshipped. It was a third school of Buddhism - Vajrayana - that became the most important in the Himalayas. Vajrayana or the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt relied on magical formulae (mantras) and magical ceremonies (tantras), and also on the introduction to the Buddhist pantheon of goddesses (taras).

Both Buddhism and Hinduism have a strong monastic emphasis and it was inevitable that these institutions, which by tradition were set up in isolated areas (but on major trade routes), should become the basis of religious life in the Himalayas and also the centres of art, education, and culture. The monasteries and temples contain incredibly beautiful works of art.

Monasteries served not only as theological colleges but also as workshops for the casting of bronze images. Students and pilgrims came from all over the Buddhist world to study at the Indian monasteries and to take back to their native lands portable examples of art forms, which increased their understanding of the instructions of Mahayana teachers and later tantric texts.

Chinese travellers took back religious texts and contingents of artists and scholars. Among the eminent teachers who crossed the Himalayas on such missions (spread of Buddhism and Buddhist art) and were themselves deified were Padmasambhava and Atisha in the Himalayas.

In the ninth century, renaissance of Buddhism and Buddhist art brought Nepal into intimate contact with the Pala culture of Bengal and Bihar. In terms of art the emphasis shifted from purity and refinement to a form of iconography, even though the new images were basically derived from canons of the Gupta period. These canons became more or less permanently established - they were copied generation after generation not because the artists could do no better but because in doing so it was believed that they accrued definite merit. When it finally emerged in Bhutan the art traditions of Pala culture of Bihar and Bengal, Kashmiri-Chinese-Central Asian and Tibetan influences were all a part of it. By the fifteenth century the reverberations of this magnificent art tradition were felt in Bhutan where people became more conscious of Vajrayana Buddhism and the mysteries of its art.

Bhutanese art is particularly rich in bronzes of different kinds that are collectively known by the name Kham-so (made in Kham) even though they are made in Bhutan, because the technique of making them was originally imported from the eastern province of Tibet called Kham. Wall paintings and sculptures, in these regions, are basically formulated on the principal ageless ideals of Buddhist art forms. Even though their emphasis on detail is derived from Tibetan models, their origins can be discerned easily, despite the profusely embroidered garments and glittering ornaments with which these figures are lavishly covered. In the grotesque world of fantasy (demons) the artists apparently had a greater freedom of action than when modelling images of Gods.

The strength and vitality of Bhutan's traditional Buddhist culture is in clear evidence throughout the land in its arts and crafts. This heritage is seen in both the ancient and the more modern structures, images, and artefacts. What is particularly remarkable is the overall sense of regularity, where there appear to exist only superficial differences between the old and the new.

In Bhutan the series of traditional skills or crafts is defined as zorig chusum (zo = the ability to make; rig = science or craft; chusum = thirteen). These refer to those practices that have been gradually developed through the centuries, often passed down through families with long-standing relations to a particular craft. These traditional crafts represent hundreds of years of knowledge and ability that has been passed down through generations.

The Great Treasure Discoverer, Pema Lingpa introduced the art taught in Bhutan today, in the fifteenth century. In 1680 Shabdrung Nagawang Namgyel ordered the establishment of the school for instruction in the . Although the skills existed well before, across the country's isolated settlements, it is believed that the zorig chusum was first formally categorised during the rule of Tenzin Rabgye (1680-1694), the 4th desi (secular ruler). The following provides a brief overview of the thirteen traditional crafts:

  • : Handmade paper made mainly from the Daphne plant and gum from a creeper root.

  • : Stone arts used in the construction of stone pools and the outer walls of dzongs, monasteries, stupas, and some other buildings.

  • : The manufacture of iron goods, such as farm tools, knives, swords, and utensils.

  • : The making of religious statues and ritual objects, pottery and the construction of buildings using mortar, plaster, and rammed earth.

  • : From the images on thangkas (religious wall hangings), walls paintings, and statues to the decorations on furniture and window-frames.

  • : Production of bronze roof-crests, statues, bells, and ritual instruments, in addition to jewellery and household items using sand casting and the lost wax method.

  • : In wood, slate or stone, for making such items as printing blocks for religious texts, masks, furniture, altars, and the slate images adorning many shrines and altars.

  • : Making a variety of bowls, plates, cups and other containers.

  • : Employed in the construction of dzongs and monasteries

  • : The production of the famous hand-woven fabrics of Bhutan

  • : Working in gold, silver, and copper to make jewellery, ritual objects, and more practical household items.

  • : The production of such varied items as bows and arrows, baskets, drinks containers, utensils, musical instruments, fences, and mats.

  • : Working with needle and thread to make clothes, boots, or the most intricate of appliqué thangkas (religious wall hangings).

Articles for everyday use are still fashioned today as they were centuries ago. Traditional craftsmanship is handed down from generation to generation. Bhutan's artisans are skilled workers in metals, wood and slate carving, and clay sculpture. Artefacts made of wood includes bowls and dishes, some lined with silver. Elegant yet strong woven bamboo baskets, mats, hats, and quivers find both functional and decorative usage. Handmade paper is prepared from tree bark by a process passed down the ages.

Each region has its specialities: raw silk comes from eastern Bhutan, brocade from Lhuntshi (Kurtoe), woollen goods from Bumthang, bamboo wares from Kheng, woodwork from Tashi Yangtse, gold and silver work from Thimphu, and yak-hair products from the north or the Black Mountains.

Most Bhutanese crafts have evolved and been produced for use of the Bhutanese themselves. Except for goldsmiths, silversmiths, and painters, craftsmen are peasants who make things in their spare time. It is the surplus production of the peasants which is sold, the daily articles and fabrics of their traditional life. Most products, particularly fabrics, are relatively expensive. Every step of production is performed by hand, from dyeing hanks of thread or hacking down bamboo in the forest, to weaving or braiding the final product. The time spent in producing handicrafts is considerable and can involve as much as year for certain textiles.

G. N. Mehra in his book, Bhutan Land of the Peaceful Dragon, states that:

Were I to epitomise Bhutanese art with one word, that word would be colour. The Bhutanese use colour extravagantly in their clothes, houses, decorations and above all in their thangkas, murals and frescoes adorning the walls of temples. The attention to detail, the symmetry of figures, the nature of the theme and above all the bold colour treatment are perfectly combined.

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