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Sacred Expression: Bhutan's Buddhist Arts

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Writer, Artist & Ceramicist Rachel Davey on the Buddhist arts or Bhutan.

On a table near the studio door, figures of dream multiply. Their clay bodies sprout extra limbs and heads; they clasp each other in fierce embraces. Some are garlanded with skulls or crowned with pigs’ heads, others winged and fanged.


They crowd together in vegetative abundance on every surface, astonishingly intricate, graceful, despite their ferocity.


I am in an art school in Bhutan, but these extraordinary works do not represent an outpouring of students’ creative imagination. Rather, they form part of a tradition of sacred Buddhist art that has remained unbroken since Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal unified this isolated Himalayan kingdom in the seventeenth century. From Tibet, he brought scriptures setting out exact descriptions of devotional icons. These texts, together with the dreams or visions of enlightened masters, form the blueprints from which students at Bhutan’s National Institute of Zorig Chusum (or Thirteen Traditional Arts) work today.

A Lharipa, or painter of sacred wall murals, working in a temple in Bumthang valley, Central Bhutan. © Bhutan Himalaya


Bhutan’s esoteric Vajrayana form of Buddhism permeates every aspect of life here, and all Bhutanese art occurs in a religious context. The throngs of hallucinatory figures in the studio are not art objects, but sacred images. They represent the Buddha in various wrathful manifestations, and symbolise a wish to cut through ignorance and mental defilements and help the viewer realise Buddhahood.


Students at the Zorig Chusum School undergo a rigorous six-year training to earn their place in a centuries-old lineage of statue-makers, whose work adorns altars in every temple and home. Fifty-six trainee sculptors at the institute’s two branches follow a tightly defined syllabus, and must perfect twelve icons over the six years of their study. These increase in complexity from the first piece students tackle, a simple seated Buddha, to the eleven-headed, thousand-armed Avalokitesvara on the final year syllabus.

Few of those who join the course have ever touched clay before, but their initial task involves working not with raw earth but with wood. New students must first learn to carve or turn the wooden tools they will use as sculptors. Then they learn how to dig and prepare their clay. The fine, freshly dug clay is mixed with paper made from the bark of the daphne plant. At the remote Trashiyangtse branch in eastern Bhutan, students also learn to gather daphne bark from the forest, and to boil, beat, and shred it before adding it to the clay. The mix is then pounded with a wooden mallet until it forms an even clay of surprising strength and holding qualities. The paper fibres support the clay and offer a remarkable freedom to create extensions from the main piece that reach out into the air: delicate drapes, long-stemmed flowers, tongues of flame.

A student sculptor in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu. © Rachel Davey

Only when students know how to prepare their materials can they begin to make their first statue. The sacred texts give precise instructions on how each deity should appear. Every detail is prescribed and the rules of iconography must be strictly adhered to. Art students in Bhutan are not setting out on a journey of creative self-expression and experiment. Rather, they are embarking on a practice of humility in a culture where the artist should remain subordinate to his work, almost invisible. An artist’s aim is to learn to flawlessly represent the divine, to re-create the sacred, not to express his own individuality.

Lopön Dawa Penjor, sculpture master at the institute in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, is himself a graduate of the Zorig Chusum School. He works side by side with his students on their first image, that of a seated Buddha. Together, master and student build a hollow form from thin coils of clay, the teacher working on one half of the image, the student on the other. The form is apparently simple, but the statue when consecrated is regarded as a manifestation of the Buddha and its proportions and attributes must therefore be perfectly re-created. Tashi, a third year student, explains that it’s a ‘very great sin’ to allow a flawed statue to survive. Imperfect pieces are destroyed and the clay reused. ‘If we keep a statue we’ve made with the wrong proportions we believe we will be born deformed in our next life,’ he tells me.


Finished statues in Bhutan are not fired. The fragility of unfired clay is a perfect metaphor for Buddhist beliefs about the transience of all phenomena, and the permanence of the ceramic state is not sought. Nevertheless, these statues can survive remarkably well. In Simtokha Dzong, a fortress monastery near Thimphu, there is a magnificent clay image of the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokitesvara, with 1000 arms and eleven heads, which was created in the 1630s. The paper or bark content in the clay allows it to be reworked even after centuries. Students in the Thimphu school have recently finished repairing a two-hundred-year-old statue. The damaged part is wrapped in pulped daphne bark or paper and allowed to gradually absorb moisture. New clay can then be added on top of old, or broken pieces can be rejoined.

On average, students at the Zorig Chusum School take two to three months to complete a single piece. Once their teacher has helped them to build their very first Buddha, they repeat the image by themselves, receiving corrections as needed. Statues are built hollow because they are intended as vessels for the divine. Those that meet the exacting criteria of the master will be finished by students of painting, another of the Thirteen Arts, and eventually consecrated. In the consecration ritual, the body of the statue is filled with printed prayers, jewelry, or precious stones, relics, and sacred objects. A lama, or Buddhist master, then invites enlightened beings to merge their minds with the object. As one student puts it, what the sculptor makes is simply ‘the empty body of a statue’, but on consecration it becomes a personification of the deity. ‘We can only make the body, but the lama gives it its spirit.’

This explains the students’ amusement when I ask why they don’t sign their work. Once an icon is consecrated it is not just an object to be viewed, but a representation of the divine. It belongs on an altar, and worshippers make offerings and prostrate themselves to it in order to invoke the blessings of the Buddha. ‘If my name was on the statue, they’d be prostrating to me,’ says Nima, laughing. ‘It would be very wrong, to put myself on an altar.’

Statue-makers do have signatures, however, although these are nothing as crude as a name, and are generally recognisable only to fellow makers. A particular master’s work might be identifiable by the almost gauzy delicacy of his statue’s garments, or the way its hands seem ready to flex. However, making in Bhutan is rarely about ego, and the Zorig Chusum students seem puzzled by my worrying over signatures. A statue is good enough, or it is not. That is all. It is the work, not the maker, that matters.

The apparent anonymity of Bhutanese sculptors and the prescribed nature of their work are in dramatic contrast to the striving for originality and experimentation seen in European ceramics. Yet there is no sense that what students are doing here is mere reproduction. Statue making in Bhutan is most definitely an act of creation, or rather re-creation. Students are not making mere images; they are learning to make receptacles for the divine, signposts on the way to enlightenment.


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