The traditional boot, though deemed sacred, is seeing some modern design changes
COVER SORY: Inside the Traditional Boot House in Chubachu, Thimphu, eight bootmakers are busy on their machines. The noise is deafening and the mid-day sun is searing.
The boot house was founded by Jangchu, 39, and his father-in-law in 2002. From Korphu in Trongsa, Jangchu was a student at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, and his father-in-law, an ADM at the institute.
This unseasonably hot spring day, the bootmakers at Jangchu’s boot house have a special project. They are making tshoglham (traditional boots) for someone very important. And they don’t want to mess up.
Tshoglham is going through a quiet revolution in the Traditional Boot House here in Thimphu. Traditionally made of mostly gechen (silk), today tshoglhams are made of leather. Of course, these new leather-made tshoglhams are not made in Bhutan.
On display the boot house are tshoglham of different sizes and colours. There are also shoes that look like tshoglham but are not quite. They are black and do not have shafts.
Tshoglham came to Bhutan with Zhabdrung in 1616. That is the belief. It wasn’t until the time of the fourth Druk Desi Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, however, that zorig chusum, or the thirteen arts and crafts, were formally categorised and taught to pass the traditions on. But tshoglham-making, which was categorised under Tshem Zo (appliqué and embroidery), had almost died out in the country.
In 1953, during the first tshogdu (national assembly), it was made mandatory for the members of the assembly to wear tshoglham. There were no bootmakers in the country. So tshoglham had to be bought from Kalimpong in India.
In 2001, when Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was the director of the former National Technical Training Authority, a teacher and six students from National Institute for Zorig Chusum were sent to one Lopen Tenzin Wangdi in Jangsa in Paro to learn the art of making tshoglham. Lopen Tenzin Wangdi was the last person who knew how to make tshoglhams. He had learnt the art from Tibet and was the only person who made tshoglham for the members of the royal family and senior civil servants.
Although the main design of tshoglham has not changed, the materials have changed by much, said Jangchu. In the olden days, jachen was the material used for yugpa or the front and back shaft of the boot. Today, it is gechen (silk) from Hong Kong. “Customers come with their designs and we make for them.” Pointing at the “half tsoglhams” on display, Jangchu said that a young boy brought the design to the boot house. Today this particular design is popular among archers.
As I stand looking at the designs of tshoglham at Jangchu’s, an archer walks in and orders seven pairs of these sneaker-like half tsoglhams. They have a major tournament next week and they want to look as traditional and Bhutanese as they can.
Khandu Wangchuk is a final year political science student at Royal Thimphu College. He is an aficionado of tshogalam. Khandu is the designer of what Jangchu calls half tshoglham. He has cut the shaft of the boots and wears them like sneakers and has a pair with laces too.
Khandu owns no less then 10 pairs of half tshoglhams. He wears them everyday, in town or school, wherever he goes.
“Although we want to preserve the traditional and original style of tshoglham, what matters most to us is money. If customers come with designs of their own, we have to make shoes as they want,” said Jangchu. Some customers prefer zippers on their shoes, some buttons and loop fasteners.
Changing demands prompted Jangchu to undergo a yearlong training in Bangkok, Thailand.
“I’m currently trying a design with subdued chew or lowered head part of the tshoglham to make the boot look modern,” said Jangchu. “I don’t like making changes to tshoglham, but we have to offer alternative as customers demand.”
The reason why Jangchu doesn’t want any kind of change of tshoglham is because he thinks traditional boots are blessed and have special significance.
“If you’re wearing tshoglham, you can visit any lhakhang with them. You don’t have to take them out. Tshoglhams are sacred and believed to be the king of shoes,” said Jangchu.
Khandu Wangchuk doesn’t think that way. For him, it is important that Bhutanese products like tshoglham become popular among the people in the country and abroad. It was 2010 when Khandu first thought of an idea to add something to the design of tshoglham. He removed the shafts of the boots and added a provision for lace.
“I was the first person to do this. Now I have orders from countries like the Netherlands, Austria, Nepal and the USA. With some creativity, we can make our products really marketable,” said Khandu.
Khandu has a keen sense of fashion. In college, he is known as Mr Unique. “I like to be unique. After graduation, I’d like to start a shoe and clothing line of my own.”
Khandu uses superior quality materials for his shoes. He gets them from Bangkok and gives them to Jangchu with design specifications.
Lopen Kungzang Thinley, researcher and editor-in-chief with KMT printing and publishing in Thimphu, said changes will come with modernity, but people should also respect their culture and tradition.
“Culturally, tshoglhams are worn by people according to their social status. I hope the designers and boot-makers don’t disturb certain important elements of the boot and their significance,” said Lopen Kunzang Thinley.
By Jigme Wangchuk