Kathleen’s Blog—Western to Eastern Bhutan April 2012
The Weaver’s World
April 30 This morning we left Mongar and headed north by road toward Lhuntse, the birthplace of Bhutan’s royal family and home to some of the finest weavers in the kingdom. Along the way, our bus inched slowly around Indian road crews repairing the damage of a landslide. At 11 AM we left the coach at a suspension bridge and began a leisurely walk on a dirt road that followed the Kuri Chu, passing a cremation taking place alongside a new chorten festooned with prayer flags. We were heading to Khoma, a village famous for its weaving. Arriving at the village, marked by a water prayer wheel (chukor), we hiked up a steep path and immediately heard the rhythmic thumping sounds of weavers using wooden swords to pound weft threads into traditional backstrap looms.
Khoma has a long history of textile art; every woman and young girl is involved in weaving the supplementary weft-patterned kiras (traditional women’s dresses) like kushuthara, the most prized textile in Bhutan. Using her fingers or a pick, the weaver introduces an additional thread alongside a warp or a weft to make a design that seems to float on the surface of the fabric. To the untrained eye, the additional thread appears to be embroidered, but it is actually woven into the textile.
A kira is woven of three panels, sewn together to form a large rectangular textile that is wrapped about the body and fastened at the shoulders with a brooch (kera) and cinched at the waist with a narrow handwoven belt, called a kera. Because of the complexity of weave, pattern, and color combinations, a fine textile can take up to a year to make.
Renowned master weaver Norbu Lhaden welcomed us into her traditional two-story wooden-frame house, which peaks in an open-flying roof under which food is stored. Leaving our shoes outside (a Bhutanese custom also practiced in many countries of Asia), we climbed a near-vertical ladder fashioned from a tree trunk up to her dark reception room, where weavers were gathering from the village to show the gorgeous silk and cotton kiras that they had completed this season. Norbu offered us a cup of butter tea while she talked about the weavers. “Our business is getting better, but we must depend on the traders who come from Thimphu to collect our textiles for sale in the capital. We sell our kiras for less money this way, as in Thimphu and Bumthang the shopkeepers sell them for much more than they pay us. We don’t make as much money this way, but we are doing well with our special orders.” (I’ve heard shopkeepers in Bumthang warn tourists not to buy textiles from the weavers in the east, saying their shop prices were better. Actually, I find prices in Khoma are well below what they are in Bumthang and Thimphu.)
In western Bhutan especially, fashion trends change from year to year, with the wealthier Bhutanese women demanding the newest color combinations or weaving designs, which keep the Khoma weavers busy during the winter when the demands of harvest are over. A weaver using the finest silk threads can ask up to $1500 for a textile that takes up to a year to make. If they work through an agent or middle man, they get paid when the textile is sold and then only a small fraction of what they would make if they sold the textile in the village or direct. Often, they must send family members to the capital to collect money owed to them if an agent is not honest.
As eastern Bhutan receives more tourists and the infrastructure improves, the weavers in villages like Khoma will undoubtedly derive more income from their exquisite textiles. However, one weaver lamented, “Sadly, we now make pieces for the tourist market. Instead of a three-paneled kira, we make one panel so they can use them as table runners, or use them as narrow wall hangings.” Fortunately, three members of our group purchased the most expensive textiles on display that day: three-paneled silk-on-silk kiras that had up to 24 different designs woven into the weft and warp. The weavers beamed when they knew that their extraordinary pieces were appreciated and that they would receive just compensation for their artisanship.
The Fourth Queen has launched annual competitions for the most innovative designs and complex weaves as a way to preserve Bhutan’s eastern textile art. But, as our group witnessed, weavers are guarded about their new designs and patterns. One of the senior weavers grabbed Norbu Lhaden’s latest kira, woven with innovative designs and complex colors, to study her work. A tug of war and lots of laughs ensued as Norbu tried to wrestle the piece back, joking, “She’s always trying to copy my designs!”
Loaded with textiles, we made our way back to the main road, but looking up at the ridge we saw Aum Norbu and the weavers waving a huge yellow flag of thanks and appreciation to us for visiting Khoma village.