Bhutan is a small mountainous country with dense forest regions amidst which a culturally rich civilization thrives. It is landlocked between India, China, and Tibet (now an autonomous region of China). Defended by the tall Himalayan ranges, Bhutan has secured itself from the surrounding nations in its political autonomy. Known to be the happiest country in the world, Bhutan has the highest Gross National Happiness (GNH) index due to several factors, such as environmental sustainability, cultural and spiritual values amongst all individuals, and peace and harmony, which results in a holistic approach to an ideal way of living. 

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Masked dance of Bhutan_©Taste of Bhutan

Vibrancy in the Bhutanese culture:

Over the centuries, the Himalayan regions, such as Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet, and Leh, have been majorly concentrated with the Vajrayana practice of Buddhism. Vajrayana practices teach one to reach the stage of enlightenment in a single lifetime, using spiritual tools and techniques such as mantras, visualization, breathing, and other exercises. 

Bhutanese artists and preachers represented their ideals through visual arts, literature (scriptures), and performing arts such as the masked dance (Cham dance). Bhutanese arts and crafts were never designed as decor items; instead, they are considered a religious experience, each having an embedded meaning rooted in spirituality and life values. Saint and artist Pema Ligpa institutionalized 13 identified arts and crafts as part of academics in the 15th century, such as metalwork, art of weaving, wood carving, painting, sculpting in stone or clay, gold smithing, masonry, leather work, and embroidery. The intricately detailed art being created is always kept anonymous by the creator’s name since they believe that the significance of the craft lies in itself. Amongst these, Lha-zo, the art of painting, is most commonly seen in all the built forms through murals, paintings, patterns, or a storytelling visual on Dzongs (fortress) walls.

‘Thunder Dragon’ is the most prevalent in Bhutan. White Dragons (Druk), also part of the Bhutanese flag representing peace and prosperity, can be found on the walls as murals or sculptures. The five colors that one often sees in the art and architecture of Bhutan represent five elements of our existence—space (blue), wind (white), fire (red), green (water), and yellow (Earth). 

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White dragon mural ©Taste of Bhutan

The art of ‘Lha-zo’

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Artists developing paintings ©Handicraft Association of Bhutan

Lha-so is an ancient painting art form found on walls, flags, canvas, wood, decor items, fabrics, Chubbars, and prayer wheels. All the vernacular houses in Bhutan are ornate with murals depicting white dragons, lotus, and lucky signs, such as the phallic symbol. This meditative Bhutanese art is also considered a path of transcendence and connection with the higher self. In ancient times, even to be an artist and indulge in this artistry, one had to go through a meditative and spiritual purification. However, now the artists pass down the techniques to their students or disciples.

‘Lha-rips’, also known to be the master painter, carry the legacies of painting these intricate pieces of Lha-zo. Due to capitalization, many master artists have started to work commission based, nationally and internally, which has also helped in the overall economic development. 

Forms of Lhazo

Manuscripts: Complementing the written scriptures, one can find Lha-zo miniature paintings in ancient Bhutanese manuscripts, which were written in the local language ‘Dzonpka’ or ‘Tibetian.’ A few of these texts have ink made of gold dust, and a few illuminate, with all the pages bound between a pair of wooden boards. These manuscripts also displayed the art of woodcarving.

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Manuscripts covered with carved wooden boards_©National Museums Liverpool

Murals: The Dzongs (fortress), monasteries and local houses proudly display cultural and religious murals to the context. In the local houses, the major themes of the murals are lucky signs, for the well-being and prosperity of the families. Sometimes, they also represent the beautiful landscape of the place to which they belong. The houses, with huge wooden beams and wooden windows, are too ornamented with motifs and patterns with the symbols in Buddhism and flowers and plants found in nature. 

Thangkas: ‘Thangka paintings’ commonly found on the walls of the monasteries and fabric scrolls used to be made by Buddhist monks; however, now they have started to train the locals or other monks, cultivate these skills, and develop these paintings as an offering to their god. These scrolls are believed to get the devotee one step closer to the stage of enlightenment (Nirvana). The monasteries often hang Chubbars (a cylindrical fabric) near the altar on the sides as a victory banner. 

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Thangka painting on a fabric ©Daily Bhutan

Materials & Techniques: 

Technique: The wall is first damped with multiple layers of gum or lime to obtain a smoother finish. Then, a basic outline is sketched using Indian ink called charcoal, starting with the foreground main character or deity or icon), then proceeding with the supporting characters or motifs. This outline is now filled with layers of coats of colors, as mentioned in their texts, and is later finished with a coat (varnish) made of glue lime with the respective color to preserve it for a long period of time. 

These paintings use organic and inorganic colors or pigments, known as Sa-Tshoen, that are either naturally available or can be made from the country’s pigmented soil. They can be obtained in black, red, or yellow. They are very strict about following the guidelines provided for depicting the iconography of their gods or deities. Their rules have been passed to them in their ancient scriptures. 

Considering many factors, these wall paintings have been fading or scraped over from the walls, and with modernization, houses built do not justify the use of vernacular and traditional attributes in their designs. Hence, to continue the legacy of this traditional art, the country established the National Institute for Zorig Chosum, where the country’s young people are encouraged to develop and hone skills that support these 13 local arts and crafts. However, the monks in the monasteries still indulged in this religious act of painting, such as mandalas and temple murals, as a part of their spiritual practice. 

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Zorig Chosum workshop ©Medium


(2022) The traditional arts and Crafts of Bhutan, Taste of Bhutan. Available at: (Accessed: 05 April 2024). 

Shekede, L. and Rickerby, S. (2013) Buddhist wall paintings of Bhutan: material traditions and conservation realities [Preprint]. Available at: 



Vedanshi Sarda is a recent graduate in the field of interior architecture from CEPT University. Along with being a designer, she is also a professional classical dancer. As an individual with deep spiritual inclination, her interests are directed towards exploring phenomenological facets of art, crafts and culture as space making tools. She eagerly looks forward to sharing some engaging narratives.