I wash a handful of popped rice down with warm, rich butter tea, and glance out of the gracefully carved windows. The only sounds are birds looping through the crisp air and the low murmur of my hosts preparing lunch in the next room. Below snowy peaks, the small village of Goenpaka is strung along a ridge which commands 360-degree views of the surrounding valleys. Houses are connected by narrow footpaths and the nearest road is half a day away. I have been seated on a bright carpet in the altar room of my host’s humble wooden house to rest after the three hour uphill climb from the valley floor.
After a suitable interval of time has passed, my hosts gently ask if I would like to see some of their work. I have come to Goenpaka to see the weaving that is famous across Bhutan for its quality and sought by the royal family. Several women with dark bobbed hair and ruddy cheeks smile from the doorway and I beckon them in.
The room is dimly lit, and as length after length of intricately woven brocade is unfolded and spread before me, I gasp as the rich hues of the silk threads catch the light like jewels. For not only am I spellbound by the beauty of the colors and designs in the cloth before me, but I have been learning to weave it and so I comprehend the enormously intricate and time-consuming work that has produced each piece.
These pieces are kushutara, the single-faced twined-weft brocade that is unique to the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, and woven from the heart to be worn by Bhutanese women to tsechu and weddings. Tsechu are the sacred festivals attended by locals for the purpose of receiving blessings from the viewing of sacred dances and a huge appliquéd Buddhist mural. Not to mention the pleasure of displaying their artistry through the wearing of their finest handiwork.
Bhutanese men also don their finest to attend tsechu, wearing ghos made of aikapur, a supplementary warp patterned cloth, often incorporating bands of rainbow stripes or shinglo, supplementary weft motifs depicting plants.
I came to Bhutan on invitation to teach music for a year, and although I had planned to explore the local textiles in my spare time, I could not have dreamed that I would also have the opportunity to learn to weave kushutara. When I asked a master weaver if it were possible to spend a few hours learning the basics, I was invited to come “any day, any time” to his weaving center. Over the following eight months I was given a loom to work on and taught all stages of the weaving process. I saw for myself that even a highly skilled weaver needed 10-30 minutes to complete one row of kushutara patterning and that an entire kira (woman’s dress) took nine months of painstakingly detailed work.
It was a privilege to sit among the weavers each day, not only to learn, but also being warmly welcomed into their lives, sharing meals and jokes as I squeezed in weaving time both before and after school. I gained insight into their lives, and as my respect for their weaving skills grew, so did my dismay at the lack of status these skills afforded them in the capital.
In some villages in Lhuentse in eastern Bhutan, where the standard of kushutara weaving is very high, the women’s skills are so highly valued that they are exempt from farming duties in order to weave full-time. In one village, young girls of the ages of six or eight had left school in order to contribute to the family income with their fine weaving.
Yet in the capital of Thimphu, equally skilled weavers were accorded far less respect, viewed as uneducated villagers and paid less than the minimum wage of $3 a day, barely enough to subsist on in the city. One city weaver’s daughter told me that she wanted to learn to weave, but that her mother would not teach her until she was 16 and had completed her schooling, hoping that she would find more highly-paid work.
Living in Thimphu, I observed the social and economic impact of villagers migrating to the city, leaving their farming lives in search of jobs paid in cash, and seeking to be part of the action. I wondered what the long-term impact would be on the astoundingly beautiful weaving traditions that are still alive in Bhutan.
For me, the dancing of the many colors and combination of designs in kushutara weaving is like a party on cloth, a priceless celebration of the heart and soul of the Bhutanese culture.
Wendy Garrity is a traveler exploring the sustainability of Asian textile traditions. She shares her passion for traditional textiles along with details of their production methods at www.textiletrails.wordpress.com.