The craft of making wooden bowls like Dhapa and Dza, called Shazo, is booming today in Trashiyangtse unlike other traditional crafts.
Trashiyangtse is not just known for being the winter home to the endangered black-necked cranes and the popular Choeten Kora, but it is also well known for its traditional wooden bowl, dhapa.
Shazops say that they are selling more dhapas today and have even increased the production to meet both local and international demand.
With the increasing demand and better market, the number of locals taking up the business has increased over the years.
Locals also attribute it to the advent of technology, which has mechanized the dhapa making process and requires less effort.
However, with the increasing number of shazops, things are not getting better. There are not enough raw materials in the locality. They look beyond their dzongkhag.
Shazops are facing shortage of quality raw materials to produce traditional dhapas and other wooden handicrafts.
Although the raw materials are a wide range of maple and rhododendron species, it requires special burls on tress to make durable products.
Known as Boows and Zha, the burls on some of the maple species have become a rare sight in the dzongkhag today.
Their supply of raw materials now come from western part of the country. It takes them weeks and months to find the raw materials. Previously, they used to get it from their own dzongkhag.
Fifty-year-old Dorji from Bumdeling Gewog said there is not a single burl left in the forests of Trashiyangtse today. “The excessive and uncontrolled harvesting has resulted in complete depletion of the raw materials in the dzongkhag today,” said Dorji. “When we were a kid, the burls were available in abundance in the nearby forests.”
Today burl-hunters are seen exploring the jungles of Wangdue, Tsiring, Chhukha, Zhemgang and Haa to find the rare outgrowth that is highly priced.
The reason why shazops hunt for raw materials especially boows and zha is because of its high price. Depending on the pattern of the boow and the quality of the tree it comes from, a dhapa can fetch more than Nu. 10,000.
Dorji said that the price of the products escalated after regulations to collect burls were made strict.
Another shazop, Pema said that people who are engaged in collecting burls have to seek a forest permit. “Even with the permit, an individual is allowed to cut only two trees with burls annually.”
He added that a tree, depending on the size of the burl is subject to royalty. “On an average, a single tree would cost between Nu. 20,000 to Nu. 22,000.”
Some shazops are forced to depend on locally available raw materials. The wooden handicrafts produced from these materials other than boow and zha earn them less money.
Shazops are also worried as the work of shazo might disappear in the future.
According to forest officials in Yangtse, many shazops ask permit for raw materials from other dzongkhags like Wangduephodrang and Chukha.
“There are very few people who ask for permit in Yangtse. Therefore, it is evident that timber available for dhapa production in Yangtse has exhausted,” said one of the official.
With increasing number of craftsman now, most have started exploring other dzongkhags, some as far as Haa.
According to the shazops, getting permit to extract raw materials is not easy. “If we are to bring the raw materials from other districts, we have to get the permit from that particular district forest office,” said Ugyen Penjor, another shazop. “It takes more time to get the permit.”
The craft of making dhapa is a profession that has been passed from generation to generation. Due to shortage of raw materials, shazops like Ugyen Penjor said they fear whether the younger generations would take up the profession.
“Youths of today can make dhapa but then they refuse to go to the forest. It is easy and comfortable while making dhapa at home but to get the raw materials from the forest is very difficult.”
“We have to sleep in open air without proper blankets and with limited rations because we can’t carry much,” said Ugyen. “So, it is very difficult while entering the forests to get the raw materials, everyone refuses to go due to this kind of hardship.”
He said that the labor involved in finding these burls makes it more expensive.
Besides tourists and few Bhutanese, the wooden products from Trashiyangtse are sold in Nepal.
There is a higher quality of burl known as Zhab-chi, which is almost impossible to get. According to the shazops, the Zhab-chi products are priced according to the pattern they carry.
A phob (small cup) made of the Zhab-chi costs around Nu 400,000 and a standard dhapa made of the same material is sold at Nu 1.5mn.
Meanwhile, dhapa making is believed to have been practiced since the early nineties. Until 1997, the artisans followed the age-old practice of paddling for carving the wood. After 1997, with the arrival of electricity, wooden paddles were replaced with electric motor, enhancing productions and reducing labor requirement. Shazo is one of the 13 traditional crafts (Zorig) of the country.
Jigme Wangchen from Tashiyangtse