One of the highlights of Ranjita Biswas’s visit to Thimphu was a tour of the Textile Museum. The museum was established in 2001 under the royal patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck. Ranjita describes what she saw
The Textile Museum aims at furthering the understanding of Bhutan’s achievements in the textile arts through its permanent collection of over 2000 textiles. Furthermore, it collects, documents, preserves, interprets and displays the country’s textile heritage through exhibitions and by conducting outreach programmes. The museum also extends storage services to significant royal, monastic and private collections of historical and cultural significance textiles.
Thagzo, as weaving is called, is regarded as one of the thirteen traditional crafts, a part of the collective Zorig-chu-sum of Bhutan. Like in many societies at the Himalayan foothills, including India, weaving is integral to the Bhutanese traditional life. It plays a significant role in the country’s socio-cultural, economic, political as well as ceremonial and religious life.
Bhutanese weavers living within a wide range of agro-ecological conditions use fibres and dyes, all locally produced, to create a variety of fabrics. A necessity to obtain own clothes in the land-locked country eventually evolved into a living art form. Spread across three floors the museum introduces the visitor to an astonishing variety of weaving styles considering the country’s small area. It is indeed a reflection of a living cultural heritage.
The exhibits at the Textile Museum are displayed in six sections theme-wise. Like: ‘The Royal collection’, ‘Regional costumes’, ‘Masterpieces from the Loom’ and ‘Religious and Sacred Arts’. Also on view are prize-winning pieces from the National Design Competition. The Royal Collection showcases rare and breathtaking royal artifacts which had remained private until recently. Among the notable high-profile royal collections on display is the first Bhutanese raven uzhams or crown.
While there are commonalities in the techniques and patterns across the country, the regional and ethic differences enhance the richness of Bhutan’s textiles. The Brokpas and Layaps, nomadic yak herders, inhabit the high altitude pastures in the north-east and northernmost regions of Bhutan, bordering Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. They use the coarse outer hair and the soft undercoats of yaks to create various fabrics to suit their nomadic lifestyles. Their costumes and utilitarian textiles such as tents, bags, and sacks have a distinctive design. In the lower subtropical altitudes bura (raw silk), cotton and nettle fibres are used to produce textiles of gorgeous artistry and durability.
The Kushuthara textile is world-renowned for its intricate design. The Kira skirt Bhutanese women wear sees a variation in this technique of weaving where, on a background of white warp, an intricate pattern is woven with colourful yarns in a discontinuous supplementary weft brocade design. The style originated in Lhuentse Dzongkhagin north-central Bhutan, the ancestral home of the royal family of the Wangchuks and is patronised by the royal ladies.
Bhutan is also famous for its gigantic thongdrels that are hung in front of monasteries. They are examples of beautiful applique work. Interestingly, though men usually do not take part in weaving of clothes, in this case only the men, monks mostly, produce these colourful hangings with religious motifs. Saddle covers, traditional boots worn by men while dancing during the festivals, tents, and hats with applique work are also the handiwork of monk tailors and laymen who have some monastic training.
In one corner of the museum one can watch weavers at work – one for pangtha (spinning) and another for thuetha (colouring).