The Bhutanese take great pride in wood works including carpentry (ཤིང་བཟོ་) woodturning (ཤག་བཟོ་) and carving (སྤར་བཟོ་). Among the wood products, the most precious and highly cherished are the utensils made from special burls called zachye (རྫ་ཕྱེ་), which is considered as the gem of wood.
Zachye burl is found on different species of trees such as maple, rhododendron and avocado in the forests of Bhutan. It is considered a special essence of wood, and believed to be a wealth of forest spirits. Thus, it is said to be difficult to find although there are many people who professionally hunt for burl. It is generally thought that people mostly chance upon special burl when they have good luck. Stories are also told about how a special burl would disappear or become invisible if one does not collect it immediately. Special burls are also said to glow at night. Due to its high value, there are many people who make a living by looking for burls in areas where burls are said to be found. Such areas include very dense forests, deep gorges, waterfalls and dangerous places. As the burl hunters undergo risks in collecting them, people also say prayers, perform rituals and consult astrologers before embarking on a search for burl.
Based on accounts shared by Lam Kesang Chophel, the Secretary General for Bhutan’s Agency for Promotion of Indigenous Crafts, the Bhutanese traditional elders classify zachye burl into different types. Beside judging the quality of the burl based on the host tree, they are also commonly rated according to the types of patterns. The ugza (འུག་རྫ་) or owl burl is a burl which, when carved into utensils, show small, fine layers of patterns like the feather of an owl. The burl called tasochen (རྟ་སོ་ཅན་) has broad square patterns like the teeth of a horse while the pemachen (པདྨ་ཅན་) has patterns like petals of lotus. The burl called nyugza (སྨྱུག་རྫ་) has slender swirling patterns like the leaves of a bamboo. All these patterns are further divided into the phoza (ཕོ་རྫ་) or male burl and moza (མོ་རྫ་) female burl depending on the intricacy and finesse of the patterns. Bold and larger patterns are considered male and fine subtle ones are considered female.
Burl is found in most parts of the country where there is deciduous forests. People also find burl from broad leaf trees such as maple which grow in high altitude amidst coniferous forests. While people do find burl in many parts of the country, the Tashi Yangtse district, and a particular a northern part of that district, has become the most well known area for the craft of burl production and woodturning. Burls are collected from the forest and cut into various sizes of bowls and cups by wood turners. Today, as there is a good market for burl and other wooden utensils, woodturning thrives in many parts of Bhutan. Traditional wooden utensils produced in Bhutan include dapa and dhem bowls dolom and phorb cups. Once the utensils are made, the craftsmen apply lacquer to them. Beside coating the burl cup with lac, shellac is also used to pain the bottom or certain parts of the cup. An inner part and the bottom stand are sometimes plated with silver.
The burl bowls and cups are believed to come with power to enhance people’s fortune, life, health, prestige and charisma. The composition of the wood in the burl is thought to have ingredients which can enhance such positive qualities. A cup made of a burl from artemisia is said have the power to even detect poison. If a poisoned drink is served in an exceptional burl cup, the liquid is said to effervesce.
Due to such belief associated with special burl, the bowls and cups made from burl are very expensive and used mostly by rich families, leading to the saying that ‘it is found by a poor man but used by a rich one’ (ཐོབ་ཚེ་བསོད་དེ་མེད་པའི་མི་གིས་ཐོབ། འཆང་ཚེ་བསོད་དེ་ཡོད་མི་མི་གིས་འ༷ཆང་།). Given its mystical power and value, burls bowls and cups traditionally were included among family’s assets and passed down as family heirloom. Bhutanese people who could afford would carry a burl cup in their pouch. The Bhutanese special burl cups are also well known and valued in other parts of the Himalayas.