The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The cultural heritage | The 13 traditional crafts | Clay crafts

Jinzo: Clay crafts - statues, masks and pottery

In Bhutan clay statues are considered to have a greater significance than those of bronze or other metals as the entire production process involves great ceremony. The earth and water of which they consist come from many parts of the country and have received the blessings of many high lamas past and present.

In ancient times the frames of the statues were built from bamboo and thick-stemmed grass. Nowadays copper or iron wire and rods are used. The centre of a statue contains a carved column of wood (sogshing) which represents the »life force« of the statue. It is usually made of juniper wood. The top of the wooden column is carved in the shape of a stupa, and the bottom is carved to resemble a vajra. The column is divided into several sections. The first is the head, the second the neck, the third the heart, and the fourth the navel. On each section holy scriptures (zung) are written in gold paint. At the third section, near the heart, an ancient statue, that has been blessed by many great lamas, is placed. Once the sogshing has been completed, it is blessed by a lama in a special ceremony. Only now the structure is ready for the first layer of clay, which is a sticky mass that has been produced by mixing it with Daphne bark.



The master in charge of the construction prepares a special mixture of clay which contains blessed clay. Powdered gold, silver, copper and iron are mixed into the clay together with ground zee (etched agates highly valued in Tibet and Bhutan), turquoise, pearls and other precious stones. Finally, blessed water is poured into the clay to keep it moist both during and after the preparation. While the figures are slowly being built, the lopön adds small portions of the clay to various parts of the body. The head is completed last, which is the lopön's task. Then animal glue is applied to the statue and, once that has dried, it can be painted. This is usually carried out by painting masters, who use natural colours.

Masks play an important role in the religious and cultural life of Bhutanese communities. They are produced from wood or cloth, clay and glue are also used. The first step in the long process of making a cloth mask is to carve the clay mould, for which any clay will do. The Jinzop Lopön builds the face by cutting and moulding. Then he prepares the squares of cloth and the glue. In earlier times, the skins of animals were used instead of cloth, but this did not permit the kind of detail and finish that has developed with the use of cloth. The glue is produced by boiling animal skins for many hours. This way a thick mass is produced which, in the shape of solid blocks, can be stored for many years. When needed, a piece of the glue is cut off and soaked in water for several hours. The squares of cloth are then soaked in the glue, taken out and placed over the clay mould. This process is repeated until all the details of the mask have been transferred to the cloth covering. After the cloth has dried, the clay mould is broken and the cloth mask removed. Details are then added using a mixture of glue and sawdust. This process assists in developing prominent features such as cheeks, chin, eyebrows and nose. The final finish is a coating of slip-clay. Once dry, the mask is painted.

In former times, next to religious objects, a lot of objects for home use were also produced. Nowadays, however, this branch is dying out as cheap plastic and aluminium goods are imported mainly from India. These are usually cheaper, and also more durable.

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Bhutanese craftsmen are renowned for their skill in making large clay statues.
Photo by Jon Warren

Mask, cotton cloths with painting; size: 45 cm x 25 cm; loan from a private collection
Masks for religious dances are produced out of wood or glued textiles. With this mask the dancing monk represents a guard at a place of cremation.

Clay containers for daily use are only seldom produced nowadays.
Photo by Jon Warren