Overview of the Kingdom of Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan and its Magnificent Textiles
Bhutan, the remote Himalayan kingdom nestled between India, China and Tibet, perched atop the world’s tallest and most sacred mountain range. Known as Druk Yul or “Land of the Thunder Dragon” to its people, Bhutan remains the most isolated, well-preserved and mysterious country on earth. Over centuries of seclusion, the proud Drukpas, or “Thunder Dragon People” have steadfastly defended their sovereignty and cultural integrity.
In Druk Yul, textiles are considered the highest form of art and spiritual expression. The knowledge and skills required to create these textiles have been passed down through matriarchal and Buddhist Lama lineages for countless generations. By utilizing primarily the simple backstrap loom, the Thunder Dragon People have crafted one of the most advanced and sophisticated weaving cultures in the history of civilization.
“Our handlooms have evolved over centuries and reflect the country’s distinctive identity. Most of the designs and patterns of weave are unique to the country. Bhutanese weavers have been very innovative in their designs while maintaining the traditional character of the art.”
-Her Majesty Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, Queen of Bhutan
Tragically, a series of National Archive fires and a major earthquake in the late 19th century all but destroyed Bhutan’s written history. Despite the loss of such significant records, the unique and magnificent textile art of Druk Yul has survived as an important cultural legacy. Compared to other textile producing cultures, however, few of these historical artifacts remain; a 19th century textile in relatively undamaged condition is now considered extremely rare.
Diana Myers, co-author of the 1995 publication From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Art of Bhutan featuring the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection of Bhutanese textiles and masterpieces loaned from 22 sources around the world, aptly refers to the historic textiles of Bhutan as an “evolving art” and “national treasure.” Indeed, as the most highly regarded tangible records of Bhutan’s cultural heritage, these antique textiles deserve to be properly protected and cared for to maintain their legacy and ensure that the evolution of the art form will continue to flourish.
Bhutanese weaving continues to attract worldwide attention from scholars and collectors alike for the following reasons:
* Aesthetically speaking, Bhutanese designs represent the most intricate patterning of any textile art in the world.
* From a technical standpoint, the unique Timah brocade, supplementary-warp (kush), and supplimentary-weft (hor) of Bhutanese weaving baffle experts, displaying methods believed to be impossible to create with a simple backstrap loom. These techniques are unique in the history of textile art.
* Functionally, Bhutanese textiles serve as a cultural repository which, having developed over the centuries, still plays a critical role in all religious, official and social events.
* Bhutanese textiles possess great spiritual significance. Buddhist scholars believe that symbols and design elements found on Bhutanese textiles represent glyphs manifesting ancient wisdom. To teachers and students of Buddhism, these fabrics represent a profound source of knowledge that will be deepened as the textiles are made available to scholars. The textiles of Bhutan are truly world treasures, and we feel greatly honored to be able to present them here
Bhutan is a tiny landlocked country that has its earliest roots in mythology, religion, and isolationism. It is about the size and shape of Switzerland and measures 200 miles from east to west and 100 miles from north to south and has about 650,000 people. This mountainous kingdom is wedged between the vast territories of Tibet (China) to the north and India to the south and east.
Geographically and ethnically, Bhutan can be divided into three separate zones: northern, central, and southern. The northern and central section inhabitants are mostly Buddhists. The Himalayan Mountains run lengthwise across Bhutan and are highest in the northern section, which borders Tibet. The mountain ranges and steep valleys influence all aspects of the culture, economy, and living conditions. The northern region has altitudes of over 9,000 feet and is very sparsely populated. Most of the people are nomadic yak herdsmen who live on meager diets of milk, butter, cheese and yak meat with the addition of some barley, winter wheat, and a few root vegetables. These people tend their herds and live in black tents woven from yak hair in the summer and move to their permanent stone homes built lower in the valleys during the winter. They have a very rugged, difficult lifestyle. The extremely high peaks of theÂ imalayans bordering Tibet permit little to grow in this region, although there are some coniferous forests of pine and fir sprinkled on the landscape.
The majority of the population lives in central Bhutan where the capital, since the early 1950's, Thimphu, is located. This area lies at the foot of the majestic northern mountains and is marked with a few fertile valleys where the altitude ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 meters. This region is the home of the Drukpa people, who are of Mongoloid origin.Â Generally, the people are farmers and breed cattle or cultivate the land. Numerous crops of rice, wheat, maize, all the seven grains, and fruits are grown and lush forests abound. The valleys typically have extreme cold during the winter. Temperatures may drop to a minus ten Celsius or lower while strong winds intensify the cold. Only 18 percent of the country is arable, and over 70 percent of the country is forest, Bhutan is an an environmental hot-spot where many endangered plants and animals thrive.
The southern section, next to India, has low foothills covered with dense tropical forests. The climate is subtropical monsoonal and is marked with hot and humid days. Southern Bhutan is inhabited mainly by Nepalese farmers, who arrived in the country at the end of the 19th century. They brought the Hindu religion and Nepalese language, which is still predominant there even today. The rest of the country is Although this small isolated country has somewhat different typography in different sections, forty-four percent of the total population are sustenance farmers. Their days often consist of hard labor in the fields or tending animals without the help of what we call mechanical progress. Agricultural equipment is very simple, and electricity and running water are still unknown in most villages. Much of the travel is done by foot, horse, or with few vehicles that transverse the sparse road system.
Though known as Bhutan to the outside world, to the Bhutanese the country is known as Druk Yul, land of the thunder dragon. Often in the mountainous areas there are severe thunder storms, hence the name â€˜land of the thunder dragon. The people are known as the Drukpas, and the national language as Dzongkha. Although there are many different dialects and languages spoken in Bhutan, English is universally taught in their schools. Adding to the mystery of this unusual country are the numerous and varied animals found in different parts of the country. There are elephants, rhinos, tigers, musk deer, snow leopards, brown bears, red pandas, takins and blue sheep.