Patra – Bhutanese Art Of Wood Carving


Patra carvings can be found in the production of books, images, architectural designs, furniture and many other wooden artefacts.

(Source: Bhutan Natural)


By Karma Phuntsho | Kuensel

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.

Bhutan has a vibrant culture of making Patra (པ་ཏྲ་) or wood carving. Professional Patra carvers, known as parps (སྤརཔ་) usually practice the trade of carving on wood for various purposes.

Patra carvings can be found in the production of books, images, architectural designs, furniture and many other wooden artefacts.

This form of wood carving has been designated as one of the 13 traditional arts and crafts promoted by Bhutan since the 17th century.

These 13 arts and crafts include (1) calligraphy or yigzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་), (2) painting or lhazo (ལྷ་བཟོ་), (3) carving or parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་ ), (4) clay sculpture or jinzo (འཇིམ་ བཟོ་), (5) metal casting or lugzo (བླུག་ བཟོ་), (6) silver and gold smithery or troezo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་), (7) needle work or tshemzo (ཚེམ་བཟོ་), (8) carpentry or shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་), (9) textile production or thagzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་), (10) paper making or delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་), (11) bamboo craft or tsharzo (ཚར་བཟོ་), (12) black smithery or garzo (མགར་ བཟོ་), and (13) masonry or dozo (རྡོ་ བཟོ་).

Various types of wood are used for carving such as: blue pine, walnut, cypress, maple and champ. Soft wood such as blue pine is preferred by carvers for easy carving but hard woods such as champ and walnut are more durable.

First, the wood is prepared by sawing and planing and a wide range of knives and chisels are used by the carver. The desired design or drawing is then imposed on the wood and the lines are imprinted using ink.

In the first effort, the part which has to be removed is dug out using large chisels and then finer chisels are used to give the finesse and to make nuanced carvings.


Source: Youtube/WildFilmsIndia

Today, artisans also use electrical router machines to do some of the carvings. Once the carving is done, the wood is often painted with different colours.

Examples of wood carvings found in Bhutan

Wood carvings are an important part of traditional Bhutanese architectural designs. Pillars in the temples and dzongs (monasteries) and railings of balconies often have such intricate carvings, showing many auspicious symbols and designs.

Moreover, texts in Lantsha scripts are often carved on temple structures and many motifs as well as symbols are carved onto the pillars and beams.

Even for a fairly simple building, the traditional window structures will always contain pema (པདྨ་) and chotse (ཆོས་བརྩེགས་) designs. The zhu (གཞུ་) and tshegye (ཚེ་རྒྱས་) structures are manually carved by the carpenters.


Source: Youtube/WildFilmsIndia


Besides buildings, Bhutanese carvers also carve designs and motifs on furniture. Traditional tables known as chogdrom (ཅོག་སྒྲོམ་) have carved decorative designs on three sides. High thrones and seats are also adorned with intricate carvings.

The altar piece, which is kept in the family shrine in the shape and design of a miniature temple and called choesham (མཆོད་་གཤམ་), is often made with many detailed and intricate carvings.

Religious instruments such as stupas, phurpa (ཕུར་པ་) dagger and damaru (ཌ་མ་རུ་) handheld drums are also carved from wood, as well as some other common musical instruments such as large drums and dramnyen (སྒྲ་སྙན་) lute.

How wood carving was used for printing books

Before mass industrial printing, wood carving was the main technology used for printing books in the past.

First of all, blocks of wood are prepared from birch or other kinds of wood. The wood is then dried in the shade to avoid cracking and bending which happens when wood is exposed to extreme heat or cold.

Subsequently, the surface is smoothened and the text for which the xylographic block is being made is laid on the flat piece of wood face down. A flour paste is then used to hold the paper onto the wood and the text will appear in mirror image.

Space around the text which need not be printed are carved out, starting with the space around straight lines, margins and frames. This is followed by the carving around the curves and in between the letters.

Once the xylographic block is ready, ink is applied to the block and paper will be pressed on it to produce printed books. Special letters are also carved on the wood-covers for the books.

Today, carving is used also for producing many wooden souvenirs. The main subjects of the carvings include cultural symbols such as the eight auspicious signs, the four friends, four animals of power and floral motifs. Sometimes, human and celestial figures are also carved but not profusely.


This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.


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