Bhutan has a vibrant culture of patra (པ་ཏྲ་) or wood carving. The patra carving is seen the production of books, images, artchitectual designs, furniture and many other wooden artefacts. Professional carvers known as parps (སྤརཔ་) usually practice the trade of carving on wood for various purposes. It is one of the 13 arts and crafts, which were promoted by the state since the 17th century. The 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་).
The wood which are used for carving include blue pine, walnut, cypress, maple and champ and a wide range of knives and chisels are used by the carver. Soft wood such as blue pine is preferred by carvers for easy carving but the hard woods such as champ and walnut are more durable. First, the wood is prepared by sawing and planing. The design or drawing is then imposed on it and the lines 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 make nuanced carvings. Today, artisans also use electrical router machines to do some of the carving. Once the carving is done, the carvings are often painted with different colours by a painter.
Wood carvings are an important part of a traditional Bhutanese architectural designs. Pillars in the temples and dzongs and railings for a balcony often have intricate carvings either made in them or attached to them. Texts in Lantsha script are often carved on temple structures and many motifs and symbols are carved on the pillars and beams. The main pillars in the temples and dzongs are heavily laden with carvings showing many auspicious symbols and designs. Even for a fairly simple building, the traditional window structures always contain pema (པདྨ་) and chotse (ཆོས་བརྩེགས་) designs, and the zhu (གཞུ་) and tshegye (ཚེ་རྒྱས་) structures, which are manually carved by the carpentars.
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 (མཆོག་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. Musical instruments such as large drums and dramnyen (སྒྲ་སྙན་) lute are also carved out of wood.
Woodcarving was the main techonology used for printing books in the past. First, blocks of wood are prepared from birch or ther kinds of wood. The wood is dried in shade to avoid cracking and bending which happens when wood is exposed extreme heat or cold. Then, the surface is smoothed 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 used to hold the paper on the wood and the text appears in mirror image. Firstly, the 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 around and in between the letters. Once the xylographic block is ready, ink is applied to the block and the paper pressed on in it to produce printed books. Special letters are also carved on the woodcovers 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. Human and celestial figures are also carved but not profusely. The gold and silversmith also carve on precious metals, particularly for ornaments but this art falls under gold and silver smithery.
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.