Younten Tshedup | Zhemgang
One of the star attractions during the recent bird festival in Tingtibi, Zhemgang was the exhibition of various locally-produced cane and bamboo products.
From crockeries to hats, bags, purses, baskets, decoration items and bangchungs (traditional Bhutanese dishware) among others, the best of Zhemgang’s tshazo (bamboo-craft) culture, were for display during the three-day festival.
However, a new item on display during the festival that garnered much attention was the bamboo furniture.
Tshering from Goshing gewog spent about 10 days to produce a bamboo couch. Along with the couch, a pair of stool, a table and a chair made of bamboo was up for sale at the festival.
“It’s harder than it looks and without a machine everything has to be done manually,” he said. “The time taken is more and the cost of production also increases.”
Lately, men and women in Zhemgang are venturing into furniture-making business from bamboo.
This has been made possible with support from Tarayana Foundation who supported eight men from the dzongkhag to undergo a month-long training in India last month.
With focus on furniture-building using bamboo and cane, Tshering said, the training was mostly done using machines. “It was easy with the machines but here we have to use hands,” he said. “The work would be much easier if we could get the machines.”
He said that given the intensive labour involved and the time consumed, the cost of construction was currently high. “Many were interested to buy these furniture but the price was comparatively higher for them.”
He added that he could not come down on the prices because it was a quality product and he didn’t want to dilute the market for the products that would soon reach the commercial centres of the country.
The bamboo furniture, according to Tshering, are more durable and convenient while transporting given its weight.
The bamboo tradition
Tshazo is one of the chief sources of income for communities in Zhemgang.
In the past, a majority of the bamboo products were produced only in Bjoka gewog. Today, however, most parts of the dzongkhag practice the craft.
Karma from Bjoka said that it was what enabled families to send their children to schools.
Mewongang tshogpa in Goshing, Drakpa, said that traditionally the community’s source of livelihood was purely agri-based. “We have around six different species of bamboo in our area but we didn’t know how to use it in the past.”
He said that when officials from Tarayana Foundation came to the village to provide awareness on the financial prospects involved in tshazo, the villagers invited the initiative with open arms.
With financial support from the SAARC Development Fund (SDF), the foundation has been providing hands-on training on bamboo harvesting and post harvesting practices, seasoning, storage, grading and sorting in Goshing, Bjoka and Ngangla gewogs.
Tarayana also provides technical assistance and helps in the marketing of products.
With most of the villages producing similar products, marketing remains a major challenge.
During festivals and exhibitions, villagers said that business did not do well.
“Not many Bhutanese buy our products. It is only the tourists who take a few,” said a villager.
Although bamboo items like baskets and bags have the potential to replace plastic usage, many don’t opt for the alternative.
“Many have expressed that bamboo products are only for decorations,” said a Phangkhar gewog resident.
She said that the baskets were heavy-duty, woven using the best quality cane and bamboo.
Transportation is another challenge.
Drakpa said that since most of the weaving communities were located in far-flung villages, it was difficult to ferry the products to urban centres where most of the customers are.
He said that it costs more than Nu 18,000 to reach the products from Goshing gewog centre to Thimphu. “Since there are no roads connecting some of the villages, people ferry the products on their back.”