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Bhutan – The Craft of Tsho Lham Bootmaking

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingSomething which I really wanted from Bhutan were their traditional boots – it was love at first sight when I first saw them on the feet of a Bhutanese gentleman some time ago. To me, it felt like wearing like an amalgamation of Bhutan’s rich cultural heritage on my feet. Plus they made me look five inches taller LOL.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingI asked my guide at least six times when we were going to buy my boots from the moment I arrived. At last we came to a traditional boot-making shop in the capital city of Thimphu.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingApart from boots, the shop makes ceremonial face masks that are used at tshechus (festivals).

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham Bootmaking

These traditional knee-length boots known as tshoglham, came to Bhutan with Zhabdrung (great Tibetan lamas) in 1616. They were worn by Bhutanese men (usually noblemen) during formal and festive occasions, and they were padded with aromatic pine needles for warmth and comfort. The present King of Bhutan attended his coronation wearing a pair of traditional Bhutanese boots designed by Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo.
(Images from Kuensel and Italy Magazine)

As the craft of boot-making (tsho lham) involves needlework on leather and silk, it is categorized under the art of appliqué and embroidery (tshem zo) in Zorig Chusum, the Thirteen Traditional Crafts of Bhutan. Craftsmen in the villages also make simple boots from uncured leather.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingOne interesting fact that I discovered – culturally, tshoglhams are worn by people according to their social status. The colour of the middle part of the boot (tshoglham kor) designates the rank of the wearer – yellow is reserved for the King and Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot), orange for ministers, red for high-ranking officials, blue for members of the Parliament or National Council, and green for normal citizens. And that, I only knew after an excruciating 20 minutes of trying to decide which colour to choose. Looks like it was a no-brainer from the start afterall lol.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingBy the end of the 20th century, only ministers (lyonpo or lyonchhen) and Dasho (royal government officials awarded the honorary title by the King) were the only people left wearing these boots, and the craft of boot-making faced the threat of dying out. Traditional boot-making involves very time-consuming and difficult work, and the demand for such boots is undeniably small, being limited to dancers, high-ranking monks and officials who need no more than two pairs in a lifetime, as well as the occasional tourist.

The relatively high price of these boots also make them unaffordable for most Bhutanese – an ordinary pair cost about 1,800 Bhutanese Ngultrums (USD30), and can go up to over 6,000 Bhutanese Ngultrums (USD150) for a more elaborately embroided and quality pair. (The average monthly disposable income of a Bhutanese is about USD235.24) Hence, the craftsmen also face the threat of much cheaper tsholghams from Kalimpong and Jaigon, West Bengal.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham Bootmaking

As people gradually preferred more comfortable and practical styles of footwear – there was only one Royal Bootmaker Shabgye Tshoglam Wangdi left in the whole of Bhutan and he was unable to find any apprentices to pass on his craftsmanship to. Ap Wangdi had learnt the craft from a master in Tibet and was the only person who could make tshoglhams for the members of the royal family and senior civil servants.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingThe revival of this craft finally caught the attention of the Bhutanese government, who in 1999 invited Ap Wangdi, through the Nationel Technical Training Authority (NTTA) to teach the art of bootmaking at the Zorig Chusum Institute. By 2002, five masters and 16 apprentices were produced at the Institute.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingTo create work for the new craftsmen, the Royal Civil Service Commission then established a code of etiquette where civil servants were required to wear tshoglhams during official events, thus creating demand for these young bootmakers.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingHAPPINESS! Simply elated I finally got my boots. Each pair is tailor-made to your measurements, and take from 4 days to 2 weeks on average to make depending on the complexity of the design and availability of the craftsmen.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham Bootmaking

Although the main design of tshoglham has not changed, the materials have changed – thin leather soles have been replaced with thick rubber soles to make them more comfortable, and customers can bring their own design for the shaft of the boot or request to add zippers. Lham, the female version of tshoglhams, are being designed and recently, half-tshoglhams have also surfaced. While it is inevitable that footwear needs to evolve with the modern times, we need to be mindful that an item with that much cultural heritage and tradition is not drastically altered.

Bhutan - The Craft of Tsho Lham BootmakingFor me, I will stick to the traditional tshoglham. This original tall shaft design is typically worn by men, while the modern ones with high heels or platforms are for women (so they can look taller!). I would have bought every colour available if not for the fact that I was only allowed to buy the civilian green colour (yes culture does come before money for the Bhutanese). So looking forward to strutting down the street with a representation of Bhutan at my feet :)
More of my travel adventures in Bhutan

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