Neten Dorji

Trashiyangtse, renowned for Dapa (wooden bowls) and its role as the winter haven for endangered black-necked cranes and the cherished Choeten Kora, faces a pressing concern regarding the sustainability of its wood turning business.

For generations, master artisans, known as Shagzops, have earned their livelihood through wood turning in this region.

However, the growing number of locals entering the trade and the scarcity of raw materials are causing anxieties about the industry’s future.

Shagzops are concerned about the sustainability of resource in Trashiyangtse.

A Shagzop, with 73 years of experience, says that increasing demand and a better market have attracted more locals to join the wood turning business over the years.

Currently, over 40 artisans are engaged in similar enterprises around Choeten Kora town.

Dhapa and other household items displayed at a showroom in

In the past, raw materials were readily available in the region. However, with a growing number of people entering the business, artisans must now look beyond their dzongkhag.

Shagzo production has surged, and new Shazops emerge each year. This influx of woodworkers has strained the supply of quality raw materials for crafting dhapas and other wooden handicrafts, causing concern among all Shagzops.

The expense of wood products is often tied to the patterns, locally known as Dzab, that adorn the burr. Among these, Tasochenma (pattern of horse teeth) is considered the most expensive, followed by Woogthra (pattern of owl feathers). Merichenma (flame patterned), Phozab (Large stripes), and Mozab (Small Stripes) are regarded as common Dzab.

Local dialects refer to the burls found on certain maple species as Zab and Baws, and they have become a rare sight in the dzongkhag. With a dwindling source of wood burls, Shagzops have resorted to employing burr hunters in areas such as Wangdue, Chukha, Dagana, Trongsa, Punakha, and Haa.

It can take weeks and months to locate these precious raw materials.

Tenzin Jamtsho, a 72-year-old artisan, laments the depletion of burls in the forests of Trashiyangtse, stating that not a single burl remains. He attributes this decline to excessive and uncontrolled harvesting in the region. Burl hunters now venture into the jungles of western dzongkhags, such as Wangdue, Tsirang, Chhukha, Zhemgang, Dagana, and Haa, in search of these highly prized growths.

The process of obtaining permits to extract raw materials is not easy. It requires seeking permits from the forest offices of the particular districts from which the materials are sourced, a time-consuming endeavor. Even with a permit, an individual is allowed to cut only two trees with burls annually.

While harvesting burls may not negatively impact the environment, it helps generate income for the government through taxes. There is a strong demand for dhapa products, but the shortage of raw materials is hindering production, causing concerns that the industry might eventually be forced to shut down.

The shortage of raw materials raises concerns about whether younger generations will continue the profession. Many Shagzops observe that today’s youth are willing to make dhapas but are reluctant to venture into the forests to harvest raw materials. Gathering raw materials from the forest is challenging and less comfortable than crafting dhapas at home.

Additionally, the woodturning craft provides employment opportunities for burl collectors, lacquerers, and wood turners, indirectly benefiting the community.

Local forest officials acknowledge the exhaustion of timber available for dhapa production in Yangtse over time. They have imposed limits, permitting two timber trees annually to ensure the sustainability of the woodturning business and raw material supply.

Moreover, they have taken action against Shagzops who do not produce dhapas, do not create employment opportunities, and do not contribute taxes to the government.

The wood products crafted by Shagzops are not only popular among tourists and Bhutanese locals but are also exported to Nepal. Earnings vary depending on the size and quality of the wooden products, ranging from Nu 400,000 to 900,000 annually.

The local products available in Trashiyangtse’s showrooms encompass a wide range; from traditional bowls like Geylong Zheycha and Draphor (used by monks) to modern wine cups and beer mugs. This rich tradition of wood-turning faces challenges, but its cultural significance continues to be appreciated both locally and beyond.