Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 23

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Chinese and Indian influence. Metal-work in Sikhim. Method of casting. Sikhim knives. Aniline dyes. Weaving school in Lachung. Carpet factory in Gangtak. Apple orchards in Lachung and Chumbi. Cheese and butter making. Bhutan metal-work. A wonderful pan-box. Beaten copper and silver work. Bells. Swords and daggers. Weaving. Needlework pictures. Basket-work. Influence of the feudal system. Inferiority of Tibetan work. Wood-carving in Sikhim, Bhutan, and Nepal.

The arts and industries of Sikhim and Bhutan have an intimate connection with those of China, as from their earliest days these countries were in touch with China and its civilisation, long before the people had any intercourse with India. With the spread of Buddhism a certain amount of Indian influence was brought in, but it is not very apparent. It has, however, also crept in through Nepal, and wherever the Newar craftsmen have penetrated Indian designs are to be met with; and this is particularly the case in the eastern districts, in Sikhim, and along the Brahmaputra River, as far as Shigatsi and Gyantse, and to some extent also in Lhasa.

In Bhutan the effect of Indian influence is very much less marked, and that of Burmah and Siam, which has entered by way of Assam, is undoubtedly stronger.

In Sikhim the arts are now almost entirely carried on by Nepalese craftsmen, who excel in gold, silver, and brass work. Articles made in these metals are generally beaten into shape, backed with a lac got from the roots of the sal-tree, and the pattern hammered out with blunt tools. As the workman draws his own pattern as he works, his success depends on his ability, and he is able to express individuality in both design and execution; and I have seen, and have in my possession, some very good specimens in gold, silver, brass, and copper work. They also cast exceedingly well in brass and bronze. The method they follow is to first model in wax the object they wish to make; they next coat the model with successive layers of cow-dung, clay, and a little finely chopped straw; this is allowed to dry very slowly, and when thoroughly dry the wax is melted out, leaving an excellent mould, into which the molten metal is poured. The detail obtained in this way is marvellous; and as each model must be separately moulded it carries with it the great charm of all Oriental work—individuality.

Very good knives are manufactured in Sikhim. They used to be made from indigenous charcoal iron, but now that steel bars can be bought so cheaply the workmen—more is the pity—have entirely abandoned the old method of extracting the iron direct from the ore.

Cotton cloth is also manufactured for their own use, but the yarn is nearly all imported now, though a small portion is still made locally. The women weave at small looms set up in the different houses where the dyeing of the thread is also done; and until lately vegetable dyes, to be found in abundance in the forests and jungles of Sikhim, were always used. Unfortunately, aniline dyes were introduced into the bazaars; the people, finding they gave more brilliant results, were cheaper to buy and easier to use, took to them, and nearly spoilt the industry, until I was obliged to prohibit the sale of aniline dyes throughout Sikhim, and so force them to return to natural vegetable dyes, which produce such beautiful soft tints and last so much better. Carpets and woollen cloths are also made, and I started weaving schools in Lachung, and later on, under the control and supervision of the Maharani, who took great interest in the work, a carpet factory at Gangtak. The Lachung schools turned out most excellent tweeds, thanks to the assistance given by Miss Johanson, a Scandinavian missionary, under whose care the village girls came regularly to work, collected the requisite dyes from the jungle, and followed the patterns; but that supervision withdrawn, the girls would work or not as the spirit moved them, the yarn would be uneven in quality and carelessly woven, and the pattern neglected; but so long as Miss Johanson remains the output is excellent. It is the same with the carpet factory. When I was at headquarters and could occasionally look in, the carpets made were excellent—could not have been better—but if I were away for a few months on tour, and the Maharani otherwise occupied, the work immediately became careless and inferior—mistakes in the pattern, bad colouring, and inferior weaving. It shows the necessity in all these undertakings of having trained supervision at the head, if they are to be successful.

But the great difficulty was to place the output on a proper commercial footing. It is easy for a few years to sell cloth or carpets, but it does not answer in the long run unless the goods can be sold in the open market. Before I left an attempt to do this was being made, but whether it will be successful or not I cannot say.

I also tried to introduce fruit-cultivation, and planted English fruit-trees in both the Lachung and Chumbi Valleys. In the former the apple-trees have done extremely well, and a few years ago one tree alone bore 3200 apples, weighing 832 lb.; and I have gathered apples which weighed over a pound apiece. But here again the distance they had to be carried was a difficulty in placing them on the market. A very large trade is done in oranges during the winter months; but oranges are indigenous to the country, and the natives understand their cultivation; and, in addition, they grow in the hot valleys near the plains. The orchards in Chumbi had not come to maturity before the evacuation of the valley and the trees will probably be cut down for firewood.

I also tried to introduce amongst the people butter and cheese making, which should have been profitable to the gwallahs, or cowkeepers; but without Europeans to place in charge it was difficult to achieve any success. The cheese-making was never taken up, although for a whole winter I had milk brought to the Residency, the cheese made in my own dairy, and then sold amongst my friends in India, to demonstrate to them the practicability of the scheme. They thought the trouble and care required in keeping the utensils clean was much too great for their easy-going ways. Hence that scheme was a failure, and, beyond what I myself attempted, was never tried. It seems extraordinary that the neighbouring town of Darjeeling, not to speak of Calcutta and other stations in the plains of Bengal, should get their supply of butter from Aligarh, in the United Provinces, while at Gangtak day after day throughout the year we made the finest possible butter, equal, if not superior, to the best English butter, and that from the milk of cows not stall-fed or cared for in any but the ordinary way of the country, turned out each morning to graze on the hillsides. It shows what would be possible were the business taken up by any practical and energetic person.

Into Bhutan, Nepalese influence has hardly penetrated at all. The craftsmen are all Bhutanese, and the designs follow more closely the Chinese model. They excel in bronze castings and fine metal-work of all kinds. In practice they follow the same methods as in Sikhim, backing the metal on which they are employed with lac, and hammering out the patterns with blunt chisels after the manner of old alto-relievo work. One of the most exquisite specimens of workmanship in silver and silver-gilt I have ever seen was produced in Bhutan—a pan-box about 8 inches in diameter and 2½ inches deep, of a purely Chinese dragon pattern, in relief quite a quarter of an inch, or more deep.

I have also seen exceedingly fine specimens of copper and brass work, chiefly articles for the decoration of their altars, such as trumpets, candlesticks, rice-boxes, tables, &c., and they also cover many of their temple pillars with copper or silver beaten into most beautiful patterns, and the altar tables are examples of beaten work with bold designs.

The Bhutanese excel in casting bells, and I have seen some excellent specimens with very fine tones. The composition used for the best bells contains a good deal of silver, but they never make them of any great size, the largest I have seen being probably twenty-four inches in diameter and of about an equal height.

In iron-work they are also good artificers, and many of their sword-blades are of excellent manufacture and finish, and are still made from the charcoal iron. The polish they put on them is wonderful, and the blades almost look as though they had been silvered.

Their swords are very handsome weapons, with finely finished blades, elaborately wrought silver handles inlaid with turquoise and coral, and silver scabbards with gold-washed patterns, attached to handsome leather belts with brightly coloured silk cords and tassels. Their daggers are also very fine, many of them with triangular blades and fluted sides, with sheaths of exquisite open silver and gold work set with turquoise.

Every house of any importance has large workrooms attached in which weaving is carried on, and the stuffs produced, consisting of silks for the chiefs’ dress, woollen, and cotton goods, are excellent; and a good deal of embroidery is also done.

The monasteries possess an art which, as far as I know, is peculiar to Bhutan. They make most beautiful needle-work pictures of the saints on hanging banners. Innumerable pieces of coloured silks and brocades are applied in a most artistic manner with elaborate stitches of all kinds. Many of them are veritable works of art.

Another industry in which the Bhutanese excel is basket-work and fine matting made from split cane. The baskets are beautifully woven of very finely split cane, and some of the lengths are coloured to form a pattern. They are made in two circular pieces, rounded top and bottom, and the two pieces fit so closely and well that they can be used to carry water. They are from six to fifteen inches in diameter, and the Bhutanese use them principally to carry cooked rice and food. They also make much larger and stronger baskets, very much in the shape of a mule-pannier, and these are used in a similar way for pack-animals.

The mats are also very finely woven of the same material, with a certain amount of the split cane dyed to form patterns. They are delightfully fine and soft, so flexible that they can be rolled up into quite a small space, and very durable, and can be got in almost any size up to about sixteen feet square, and even larger if they are required.

Possibly the excellence of the work produced in Bhutan owes much to the feudal system which still prevails there. Each Penlop and Jongpen has his own workmen amongst his retainers, men who are not paid by the piece, and are not obliged either to work up to time or to work if the spirit is not in them, and consequently they put their souls into what they do, with the result that some pieces of splendid individuality and excellent finish are still made. No two pieces are ever quite alike, and each workman leaves his impress on his work.

The same ought to apply to Tibet, but I have seen no work from Tibet which can compare in any way with that from Bhutan. Possibly the environments of Tibet are not conducive to such excellence; the people are more servile and less independent, a condition always detrimental to good work of any kind. Metal-work in Tibet is of the same description as that in Sikhim and Bhutan, and is all made in the same way, but any specimens I have seen are inferior in workmanship. From Nepal, on the other hand, I have had some excellent work, with marked signs of individuality, especially in their brass castings. Some of the “singhis,” or brass demon dogs, are very characteristic.

I have omitted to mention wood-carving, in which Nepal, Sikhim, and Bhutan all excel. In the former especially the wood-carving is of a very high order, and the houses in Khatmandu, and especially in the older city of Pathan, are exquisitely ornamented with carved doors, windows, balconies, eaves; and some of them even have carvings on the ridges of the tiled roofs.

In Sikhim and Bhutan, in nearly every monastery and Jong, and also in the better houses, many good carvings are to be found, and the work is bold and effective.

I am giving some photographs showing a few specimens of the various arts and crafts, but they hardly do justice to the best workmanship. Unfortunately, the greater part of my collection is still packed away, and I am unable to illustrate all I could wish. But I think I have said enough to show that the hill people on this frontier possess an artistic temperament, and can turn out most excellent work which compares favourably with that of other Oriental craftsmen.

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The descriptions of the articles to which reference numbers are attached will be found on page 325

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The descriptions of the articles to which reference numbers are attached will be found on page 326