Photos by Lincoln Potter

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Art & Architecture

Bhutanese art and craft possesses three main interrelated characteristics: it is religious, it is anonymous and it corresponds to a certain uniformity of style. As such, items possess no intrinsic aesthetic function, and are instead interpreted as outward expressions of the holistic Buddhist religion. The distinction between more ornate (what one might consider artistic) forms and more practical applications is therefore somewhat blurred. All craftsmen would be considered artisans (scrupulously following tight traditional conventions) rather than artists (who might place greater emphasis on innovation). The Bhutanese style has over centuries been significantly influenced by Tibetan designs, whilst developing its own definite forms and themes.
Craftsmen maintain age-old techniques to perpetuate a rich artistic tradition. Unlike many places, in Bhutan the arts and crafts on sale are not made specifically for the tourist market, but are widely used by Bhutanese in both daily life and more direct religious practice.
With Bhutan’s entry into the modern world many traditional techniques are coming under threat. Particularly with regard to the more practical items used in daily life, cheaper foreign imports are gradually substituting for local handicrafts.

Arts and Crafts
Bhutan is known for handicraft items in bronze, silver and other metals. Sculpting of religious figures is widely practiced and every temple houses large brightly painted and gilded status of the Buddha and other saints.
The thirteen arts and crafts also known as Zorig Chusum, keeps the Bhutanese arts and architecture alive. The thirteen traditional arts and crafts comprises of painting, carpentry, carving, sculpture, casting, black smithy, bamboo work, weaving, embroidery, masonry, paper work, leather work and silver and gold smithy. There are two schools in Bhutan where these arts and crafts are taught. They are in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan and Trashiyangtse district.

Architecture
The architecture of Bhutan is one of the Kingdom’s most visible distinctive features. The massive Dzongs (fortresses) with its upward sloping walls, the ancient monasteries and the humble farm house stand out as an important part of the country’s landscape.
Each valley in Bhutan retains its own architectural character in terms of the type of building material used, ranging from mud to stone, and the special ambience of its most famous monasteries and Dzongs.

Dzongs (Fortresses)

Bhutan’s massive ancient fortresses, the Dzongs, are striking landmarks in every valley. Sitting atop the steepest ridges, or between fast flowing rivers, the Dzongs (which mean fortress) are a reflection of the ancient need for defense, but which have become a symbol of stability and security over the years. Today, Bhutan’s Dzongs continue to provide shelter for both the district administration and the clergy.
A distinctive feature of the architecture of the Dzongs is that many of them have been planned without any plans or drawings, and in the old days, they were even built without any nails. Although each dzong has its own design, they are based on the same layout. Dzongs follow a kind of mandala lay-out with the outer walls and buildings forming the periphery and a central temple representing the nucleus of the mandala.
The dzong system is said to have been introduced in Bhutan in the 12th century by Gyelwa Lhanangpa, a monk from Dresung in Tibet. Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the monk leader who introduced the concept of the Bhutanese nationhood, established the dual system of Bhutan with the dzongs housing the clergy, administrative offices as well as protective structures.
Monasteries

The more than 2,000 monasteries in Bhutan is a testimony of the spiritual nature of the country and its people. Everywhere you look, there is a monastery atop a rocky crag, or on remote hillsides and in the farthest horizon. Some of these are ancient monasteries now requiring restoration but which are, nonetheless, spiritually important for the communities that live around them. Almost every major monastery provides the spiritual centre for important festivals and ceremonies for village communities. They are also often the focal point of cultural, secular and administrative and religious events.
A monastery is distinguished by a maroon band near the top of the building and some of them have a golden pinnacle or “sertog” sitting atop the building. Some of these monasteries also house numerous monks who study in an educational institute built around the monastery. Hermitages are also built around or near monasteries.
Chortens (Stupas)

Thousands of chortens or stupas dot the countryside in Bhutan. These structures are symbolic of a receptacle for offering in Buddhism, and are an indication of the deep faith of the people, as many new chortens are being built even today.
There are eight different forms or styles of chortens in Bhutan including one in which there is an archway over a trail like one near the Wangduephodrang Dzong. It is believed that travelers gain merit when they pass through such a structure.
Another style is the mani dungkhor or a chorten which houses a large prayer wheel. This is usually built over a water channel or near a stream to enable the water to turn the wooden turbine of the prayer wheel.
An important chorten in the capital is the National Memorial Chorten dedicated to the memory of the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. The chorten contains magnificent examples of Vajrayana Buddhist art in the form of statues and wall paintings.
Traditional Houses

Bhutanese traditional houses are a delight to see as one travels throughout Bhutan. The materials used for house building range from mud blocks, rammed earth, stone, and now reinforced concrete in urban areas.
Traditional rural homes are generally large, with a distinctive roof which provides an attic area for drying crops. The most important room in the house is the altar room where guests are often hosted; otherwise most rooms are more functional.
The traditional slate and timber shingle roofs are also giving way to CGI steel roofing. But one dominant character remain, that of chillies drying on the roof of almost every traditional house in the chilli season.
The shingled roof, the white washed walls and painted wooden windows, farm houses blend harmoniously into the natural landscape of the country.
Traditional cantilever bridges

Bhutan’s traditional cantilever bridges are a graceful addition to local architecture and the natural landscape. These largely wooden bridges are built with a series of interlocking wooden structures to form a central bridge. These ancient bridges often span a river so wide that the bridge becomes an engineering marvel.
Many of these bridges are essential passageways for people, horses and other animals. There is a beautiful cantilever bridge in the capital, behind the Tashichhodzong. And to retain the grace of the past, a new cantilever bridge has been built across the Thimphu river right next to the town’s vegetable market. The Paro Dzong is also complemented by an old cantilever bridge that gives it an air of bygone days.