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Trashiyangtse's dappa industry

Two decades ago, Dechenla of Trashiyangste, was another subsistence farmer living off his small plot of land.

He often worked as a hired hand for neighbours and, in the winters, as a seasonal labourer to sustain his large family of nine. Today, at 53 he is quite content. Life has never been better. Seven children attend school and his 'business' is flourishing. Dechenla is an established dappa (traditional wooden bowl) maker and is one of the few in the dzongkhag to use an electrically operated motor to craft and mass produce.
Dechenla at work
Traditionally, Dechenla is not a dappa maker; he apparently picked up the skill from a close friend and joined the cottage industry in early 70s. Today his seasonal gross income (eight months in all) average around Nu 150,000 selling about hundred pieces of dappas and other woodworks. "Earnings and production has increased," says Dechenla.
The motor produces three times as much as the manual pedal lathe still used by a majority of the dzongkhag's 25 registered dappa makers.

For Jangchu, 47, the art of dappa making is a hereditary profession inherited from his father. In the trade for over 25 years his annual gross income is about Nu 300,000. "The market is very good," he says.

Students of the zorig chusum institute lacquer their work
Traditionally, Dechenla is not a dappa maker; he apparently picked up the skill from a close friend and joined the cottage industry in early 70s. Today his seasonal gross income (eight months in all) average around Nu 150,000 selling about hundred pieces of dappas and other woodworks. "Earnings and production has increased," says Dechenla. The motor produces three times as much as the manual pedal lathe still used by a majority of the dzongkhag's 25 registered dappa makers. For Jangchu, 47, the art of dappa making is a hereditary profession inherited from his father.

In the trade for over 25 years his annual gross income is about Nu 300,000. "The market is very good," he says.

The road connection to the dzongkhag has been vital in expanding their market. While most of the goods are bought on wholesale by the local businessmen who in turn sell it in Thimphu, often businessmen from Thimphu, Paro drive up to these producing units and place advance orders before the season starts.

Apart from the traditional varieties like the daapa, gophu (small multi purpose bowl), lhapu (bowls used by monks), ema tshiku (pickle bowl), japhop (bowl for tea or curry) the dappa makers also produce tiffins, jugs, plates, cups, spoons, soup bowls, gift pieces, and dinner sets as demanded by the wholesale buyers. Many of the new products have become popular among households in urban areas for the unique look it gives to the dining table. Right now the dappa makers of Trashiyangtse are at their busiest ; the carving, smooth-ening, polishing and finishing work is on.

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A Dappa Makers'y Year
February and March

Collection of the raw material - the hardwood trees belonging to the Acer species or Rhododendron - begins in February and March. Local craftsmen cut the trees into crude shapes, and bring them to the village. The pieces are roughly carved and soaked in cold water for three months to rid the (wood) smell and strengthen the wood after which it is dried over wood fires and left in the sun for about one month. After two weeks, it is boiled in water as it makes it "easier to straighten the awkward curves and grains".

June

By June the actual carving begins. The rough shapes are spun on the pedal lathe or the electricity operated motors and smoothened with the leaves of the sog sog pas shrub (Trema poitoria) which is similar to sandpaper. Colour is then added with imported dyes from India.

August and September

For the finishing touch, the most important part of the work, the craftsmen use tsi, a plant sap available only in August and September from the Rhus Succedanea tree to polish the wood and fix the colour. The tsi is considered the soul of the product and cannot be preserved or stored.

October

By October the products are ready for sale. The best and most invaluable items are those carved from abnormal outgrowths along the trunk that resemble nodes known as bou and zha in the craft. Both fetch very high prices compared with those made from other parts of the trunk. On an average, the makers invest about Nu 50,000 each season, for raw materials, transportation and labour. They pay a royalty of Nu 480 for a small tree and Nu 1000 for bigger trees. A dappa can cost anything between Nu 300 to several thousand ngultrums. The quality is measured in terms of wood, marks, colour, finish, and uniqueness. Specially crafted work are saved as family heirlooms.

The dappa makers admit that the market has never been better. In fact it is near impossible to buy a dappa in Trashiyangtse in October because the products have already been shipped out to be sold in the urban market and to tourists. But they also admit that the raw materials are getting scarce although there is no data to measure the extent.

According to Dechenla, they have been collecting hardwood from Lhuentse, Trongsa, Wangduephodrang and even Dagana for almost for years now. What was nearby exhausted many years ago. The mass production of wood crafts, driven by market forces, has also affected the quality of the products says the principal of Trashiyangtse zorig chusum institute, Lam Kezang.

"Wood items require at least seven coats of lacquering but local producers use just three coats which soon wane away, and gave way to damage by insects and the elements," points out Lam Kezang who teaches the craft of dappa making at the institute. Prices of the woodcrafts have, however, steeply increased.

A local businessmen estimates that it has tripled in the last ten years. A dappa which cost Nu 250 in 1990, now commands about Nu 800.

And when it reaches Thimphu showrooms it is twice the price. The dappa makers of Trashiyangtse are not complaining.


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