Besides being the winter home to the endangered black-necked cranes and the popular Choeten Kora, Trashiyangtse dzongkhag is well known for its traditional wooden bowl, dappa.
Considered to be the birthplace of one of the 13 arts and crafts (zorig chusum), shagzo (woodturning), the dzongkhag has witnessed a surge in dappa business in recent years.
This, according to locals, is because of a large number of graduates from the institutes of zorig chusum taking up the business after completion of their training.
They also attribute it to the advent of technology, which has mechanised the dappa making process and requires less effort.
However, with increasing Shazops, craftsmen who engage in the practice of making wooden bowls, pressure is building on the raw materials.
Although the raw materials are a wide range of maple and rhododendron species, it requires special burls on trees to make durable products.
Known as boows, the burls on some of the maple species have become a rare sight in the dzongkhag today.
Choeten Dendup who started working as a shagzop has become a burl hunter today.
The 45-year-old former village tshogpa from Bayling said there is not a single burl left in the forests of Trashiyangtse today.
“As a kid, we were told that burls were available in abundance in the nearby forests. However, excessive and uncontrolled harvesting has resulted in complete depletion of the raw material in the dzongkhag today,” he said.
Today burl-hunters are seen exploring the virgin jungles of Lhuntse, Wangdue, Tsirang, Chhukha, Zhemgang and distant parts of Haa to find the rare outgrowth that is highly priced.
“The burls are not restricted to a particular group of trees. It can be found in any trees but it is a tedious job to get one even if you are looking for it the whole day,” said Choeten Dendup. “The labour involved in finding these burls makes it more expensive.”
A small crude burl made in a rough cup sells for around Nu 550. A finished boow-dappa of standard size costs a minimum of Nu 3,500. A decade ago the same size of dappa was sold at Nu 1,500.
Choeten Dendup said the price of the products escalated after regulations to collect the burls were made strict.
Those like Choeten Dendup who engage in collecting burls have to seek a forest permit.
“Even with the permit, an individual is allowed to cut only two trees with burls annually. This is why we have to look for larger burls because irrespective of the sizes, you are allowed to cut only two trees a year,” he said.
He added that a tree, depending on the size of the burl is subject to royalty. “On an average, a single tree would cost between Nu 20,000 to Nu 22,000.”
Karma Wangchuk, a local businessman who deals in the wholesale of dappas is one of the main buyers of burls in Trashiyangtse today.
“Compared to the past, the amount of raw materials has decreased. But if you can pay a good price for what you want, there are people who can deliver it to you.”
On an average, he makes around Nu 0.2M in profit from selling his products. He said that after witnessing a large demand for imported crockeries, he has now started to improvise on the shapes of traditional dappas by giving it a more modern look.
“Although the new designs are gaining popularity, it is the dappas and phobs that are mostly bought in the market,” he said.
Besides tourists and few Bhutanese, the wooden products from Trashiyangtse are sold in Nepal. Meanwhile, there is a higher quality of burl known as Zhab-chi, which is almost impossible to get. According to some of the shazops, the Zhab-chi products are priced according to the pattern they carry.
A phob (small cup) made of the Zhab-chi costs around Nu 0.4 million (M). A standard dappa made of the same material is sold at Nu 1.5M. One of the noticeable patterns of a Zhab-chi product is a wook-thra chem, the eagle pattern.
Younten Tshedup | Trashiyangtse