The clay statue maker of Ramtogtok

The artist plans to make statues affordable for every Bhutanese 

Sculpture: Six years ago when Kuenga had accompanied his uncle for a pilgrimage to Kathmandu, Nepal, he had little idea that the trip would make such an impact on his life.

His uncle took him to Patan, the place famous for making statues. He was fascinated with the art of sculpturing and his 21-years of life as a monk proved advantageous as he learnt to sculpture clay statues within three months.

The 37-year-old is today making the most of his skills at home.

When Kuensel met him few days ago, he had just returned to Ramtogtok after meeting a client who had placed an order for 70 statues to be taken to Trongsa. This was high first major order and all statues are to be ready in another two days.

But Kuenga is confident to meet the deadline.

The tattered red van he drives is filled with containers of paints.  Accompanied by his four employees, he works from a small make shift hut adjacent to Ramtogtok lhakhang.

Kuenga is perhaps among the first private individuals in the country to make clay statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and also provides services such as filling ‘zung’(relic) and conducting rabneys.

“My statue can go to the alters directly without having to put relic and conduct rabney,” he said. He buys the zung from Dharma project.

To test his competency, Kuenga made 21 statues in 2010 after he returned from Nepal. “When offered at a cheap price, it sold like hot cakes,”  he said. “That was when I realized I should strive to set up a statue making business.”

But financially unable to make a move, he waited for six long years before he approached Business Opportunity and Information Centre (BOiC) early this year.

With a loan of Nu1.38M from the centre, he was able to operationalize Kuenphen Kuzutuenkhang four months ago.

Like many Bhutanese, he said, he too desired to buy a statue years ago but could never afford to. “I’ll make sure that every Bhutanese will be able to afford a statue now,” he said.

A Shakyamuni Buddha statue made out of clay costs around Nu 14,000 in Nepal but Kuenga sells at Nu 5,500. He charges an additional Nu 500 for home delivery across the country.

In the last four months, he sculptured and sold over 200 statues. Soon he will begin sculpturing Guru Rinpochoe and Zhabdrung statues as well. “I’ll also strive to reduce import of statues.”

Although import figures were not available, most of the statues in the alters of Bhutanese homes today are imported from Nepal and India.

Meanwhile, during his free time, Kuenga goes to collect clay from Khotarinchen near Khotakha in Wangdue. He also collects drupchhu (holy water) from across the country.

“To purify the statue, I consider mixing at least few drops of drupchhu while baking the clay,” he said.

A bit of alpha gypsum plaster brought from Kolkata is added while baking the clay. The gypsum plaster helps maintain good strength and low porosity. He has about 80 statues at his workplace in Ramtogtok to be painted.

From his sculpturing seat at Ramtogtok, Kuenga dreams of pursuing further studies few years later. “May be I will want to become a minister some day,” he said, as he returns to his work.

Nirmala Pokhrel

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