In the globalized modern world, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is known for its unique policies to preserve its national culture, including traditional clothing. Textile specialist Karin Altmann introduces Bhutan’s textile traditions through a handwoven gho robe made for a royal official. While men’s clothing follows strict rules to mark Bhutanese identity, women’s textiles are celebrated for their creativity. Weaving remains a prestigious art in Bhutan today.
In weaving, the warp are the horizontal fibers that are held taught and stationary against the loom. The weft are the vertical fibers, which are woven into the weft to form a single sheet of fabric.
The gho is a traditional garment worn by Bhutanese laymen. It consists of three to four lengths of cloth that are sewn together to form a floor-length, left-crossing, loose robe with long sleeves. The robe overlaps in front, folds into two wide pleats at the back, and is held in place with a belt; it is then drawn up to achieve the desired length. The lengths of cloth are vertical; the gho is generally woven in silk or cotton in a variety of patterns.
This hand-woven gho is made of raw silk (bura) with supplementary-warp patterns, called aikapur, which originated in eastern Bhutan. Aikapur can entail a variety of color combinations (fig. 2). The combination in the gho featured here shows red and green supplementary-warp pattern bands on an orange-yellow ground (lungserma), with alternating rainbow stripes (jadrima). It belonged to Dasho Ugyen Dorji, a high-ranking official to whom the king of Bhutan awarded the title dasho (“excellent one”) in recognition of his services. Bhutanese etiquette requires such an officer to wear his gho with a scarf in dark red wild silk (bura map or kabne map) over his left shoulder and a sword on formal occasions.
National Dress as a Mark of Bhutanese Identity
The invention of the Bhutanese gho is attributed to the cleric Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594–1651), who unified Bhutan in the seventeenth century, forming a Buddhist kingdom. The Zhabdrung developed the gho as a mark of Bhutanese identity, to distinguish Bhutan from Tibet (fig. 3). Considering the small size of the country and the hostile and hegemonic attitude of the rulers of Tibet, the Zhabdrung felt it was necessary to promote a separate cultural identity for Bhutan, including different Bhutanese characteristics of dress. For this purpose, he altered the Tibetan costume (chuba) and adapted it to the somewhat warmer and more humid climate of Bhutan. Consequently, the Bhutanese gho is worn drawn up to the knees. The shorter the gho, the more voluminous is the front pouch resulting from the overhanging material, which offers space to carry all sorts of objects. Traditionally, it was used to hold wooden drinking cups for tea or home-brewed alcohol (ara), dried cheese (chugo) to chew on one’s travels, silver boxes (chaka/timi) containing the ingredients for chewing betel nuts (doma), or even babies. Nowadays, it is more likely to hold wallets, sunglasses, and car keys. In the Zhabdrung’s time, the gho was mandatory only for members of the elite, but over time, it was gradually adopted by the whole male population; since 1989 the gho has been the national dress for Bhutanese men.
The Bhutanese garment for women is called the kira and was also established as the official national dress in 1989 (fig. 4). It consists of a large square cloth that is wrapped tightly around the body, fixed at the shoulders with two brooches (koma) and held in place at the waist with a belt (kera). It is generally believed that the kira was already worn long before the Zhabdrung’s time, and that before that, Bhutanese women wore a tunic-style garment made of nettle, cotton, or wool (kushung or shingkha).
In addition to the introduction of the gho, the Zhabdrung codified a system of rules of etiquette in the form of driglam namzhag (“Code of Disciplined Behavior”). Before driglam namzhag became law in 1989, many Bhutanese people could be seen wearing Western clothes, mainly in the towns, and especially in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. With the opening-up of Bhutan, Western fashions became status symbols that were displayed, for instance, by wearing sneakers, which were adopted by court ladies and later by many other Bhutanese women, and by the fashion for denim jeans, which developed in Bhutan in the 1990s. The Royal Government of Bhutan tried to put a stop to the trend, strengthen Bhutan’s national identity, and prevent its culture from disappearing by establishing the traditional costume of the Drupka, the largest ethnic group in Bhutan, as its national dress (fig. 5).
Hand-Woven Treasures—Symbols of Prestige and Prosperity
Due to Bhutan’s remote mountainous location with its natural borders, a deliberate foreign policy, and the basic principles of Buddhist ethics, the Himalayan kingdom has been able to preserve a remarkable textile art, which is both a symbol of national identity and evidence of the regional diversity within the country.
Textiles are present in all aspects of Bhutanese life and have always functioned as indicators of prestige and prosperity. Cloth circulated as currency in society, and hand-woven fabrics were presented as gifts to neighboring states and for state distributions to officials and monasteries, or to pay family and community taxes to the monastic fortress (dzong), the district’s seat of secular and religious power.
To this day, hand-woven textiles are present on an everyday basis in the form of garments, bags, and covers, and although they no longer function as taxes and currency, they still play an important part in the local economy as commercial wares, prestige items, and gifts for marking important events in the course of a life.
Arranging cloth gifts requires a precise knowledge of etiquette, particularly with regard to gifts to members of the royal family or other high-ranking persons (figs. 6 and 7). For instance, if the set includes a fabric made with supplementary-warp patterns (aikapur), attention should be focused on the bands of supplementary-warp patterns, which are distinguished by the number of “legs” (kang/be), cross-hatched bars that run at right angles between the individual patterns (fig. 8). The legs always occur as odd numbers, which are considered auspicious in the Buddhist context. The more legs a supplementary-warp pattern band presents, the greater its value, as wider patterns are more complicated to weave. Consequently, a person of higher rank is presented with an aikapur with a significant number of legs.
The value of a Bhutanese hand-woven cloth depends on many factors: the selection and quality of the materials, the type and quality of the dyes, the quality of the weaving—which requires that the ground and patterns are even and tightly woven—the complexity and number of patterns, and the creativity of the pattern and color combinations. A distinction is made between textiles that the weavers make for themselves and their loved ones, which are called “heart weaving” (hingtham), and those for commercial purposes, called “commercial weaving” (tshongtham). Heart weaving is characterized by its very fine quality and careful work with elaborate patterns and harmonious colors (fig. 9).
Weaving and Creativity: The Domain of Women
Weaving (thagzo) is the preserve of women, and involves many different stages, from obtaining the fibers, to producing and dyeing the yarn, right up to the finished woven textiles. The entire weaving process can require any length of time, from a week to a whole year, depending on the materials, the dyeing methods, and the type of textile woven. Bhutanese textiles are woven from nettle fibers, cotton, silk, sheep’s wool, yak hair, and yak wool, using three kinds of looms: the backstrap loom (pangthag), the card loom (shogu thagshing), and the horizontal frame loom (thrithag), all of which made their way from Tibet to Bhutan.
Eastern and central Bhutan in particular can look back on a long tradition of weaving. In the old days, local nobles employed several weavers within their own establishments; currently, many households in these regions still have their own looms. While Bumthang in central Bhutan is well known for its patterned woolen cloths (yathra) made of yak and sheep’s wool on horizontal frame looms, women in eastern Bhutan specialize in silk fabrics with elaborate patterns (kushu), woven on backstrap looms (fig. 10).
Today, women all over Bhutan compete to produce the finest fabrics and to develop new patterns and color combinations. While many traditional patterns continue to be produced, at the same time new ones are being created—some inspired by foreign designs—so the number of patterns is constantly growing. The patterns reflect the diversity of Bhutan’s landscape by presenting its mountains, valleys, rivers, and rich flora in a simplified way. They are further characterized by the country’s Buddhist and pre-Buddhist traditions, and may refer to religious objects and symbols in stylized forms.
While men, insofar as they produce textiles for the sacred sphere, adhere strictly to Buddhist iconography and are honored for their exact observance of the rules and for their precision, women are praised above all for individual creativity in the art of weaving. Since weaving has been established as an elevated art form in Bhutan, while also making an important contribution to the culture and economy of the country, weavers of Bhutan enjoy their freedom of artistic expression and a well-regarded position in society to this day.
See Michael Aris, The Raven Crown: The Origins of Buddhist Monarchy in Bhutan (London: Serindia, 1994).
On Tibetan dress, see Gina Corrigan, Tibetan Dress in Amdo & Kham: Nomads and Farmers of Amdo and Kham (London: Hali Publications, 2017).
On driglam namzhag, see Karma Wangchuk et al., Driglam Namzhag (Bhutanese Etiquette): A Manual (Thimphu: National Library of Bhutan, 1999)
Besides the Drukpa, there are several ethnic groups in Bhutan with local languages and distinct cultural features, among them the Ngalong, Sharchopa, and Lhotshampa, as well as small communities such as the Layap and Brokpa, who are yak herders, and the Monpa, who are considered an indigenous ethnic group.
Diana K. Myers and Françoise Pommaret, “The Fabric of Life in Bhutan,” in From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan, Exhibition Catalog, ed. Diana K. Myers and Susan S. Bean (London: Serindia, 1994), 71–80.
While weaving is the preserve of women, fabric processing, such as sewing garments, making traditional boots, and creating elaborate embroidery and appliqué work, is primarily done by men.
Altmann, Karin. 2016. Fabric of Life: Textile Arts in Bhutan—Culture, Tradition and Transformation. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Aris, Michael. 1994. The Raven Crown: The Origins of Buddhist Monarchy in Bhutan. London: Serindia.
Myers, Diana K., and Susan S. Bean. 1994. From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan. Exhibition catalog. London: Serindia.