The Quiet Life of Bhutanese Belts

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Walking through the Eastern Bhutanese countryside, one can hear the tak tak of backstrap weavers pounding wefts into place. A faster tak tak rhythm indicates that a woman is weaving a belt, which, thanks to the innovation of tablet weaving, is a relatively quick endeavor. I am visiting Am Kezang’s house to learn about the quiet work of tablet weaving: the warping and, by chance, a few of the dying superstitions associated with Bhutanese belts. Am Kezang’s house is located at the bottom of a steep dirt trail and, by the time I reach her door, I’ve accumulated an entourage of curious kids who follow me into her house and sit around wide-eyed and silent. I greet them in Tshangla, the principal language of Eastern Bhutan, which elicits shy giggles and a few barely-audible replies.

In the next room, Am Kezang’s mother is weaving a belt from thread-thin cotton string that the Bhutanese have been importing from India since the 1960s. The weft, wound around a thin bamboo stick, is periodically dipped in water, which compacts the thread and results in a tighter weave and a stiffer belt. Am Kezang hurries around her house collecting the materials needed for
warping: warping posts (renang bang), a thin bamboo stick (broom), a stack of tablets cut from used x-ray film (lokpar) and a few balls of brightly colored thread (kutpang). Neon colors are a popular choice in the region, probably because they are new and different compared with textiles from generations past. The bright colors hurt their viability in tourist markets, which is why some organizations in Bhutan are working with weavers to tone down their color choices and even re-introduce the fading tradition of natural dyeing.

Kezang is Buddhist, but her household adornments represent a confusing assortment of different world religions: a Virgin Mary with baby Jesus clock, a statue of Lord Shiva eating butter and various photographs of Tibetan Buddhist lamas (masters). On the television sits a photograph of Kezang’s frowning family, inscribed with the subtext: “Happy Family.” They are happy, and
Kezang cheerily begins threading the tablets, two threads in one hole and out the adjacent hole on both sides of the tablet so that four threads total are pushed through eleven tablets. The cotton threads are so fine that tabletwoven belts are typically double-threaded. The thread, which is purchased in long skeins, is usually boiled with wheat flour to add stiffness and strength. Then Kezang
would have dried and hand-coiled the threads into single or double threaded balls.

Kezang sets a pair of L-shaped warping posts about five feet apart, with a bamboo stick wedged between them to maintain their distance. A thin bamboo stick set upright is tied to the horizontal stick divider as a holding stick to enable a false continuous warp. Kezang plucks the threads where they pass between the two tablet holes, and slides them around the holding stick so that each hole is given a set of two threads. Leaving the tablets there at the holding stick, she brings the thread around the warping posts and, pushing the remaining tablets ahead of her as she goes,
brings the thread back to the holding stick from the other side. She brings the threads around the holding stick again, then back around the other way to the holding stick from the other side, where she deposits another tablet. She keeps the tablets in alternating s/z position.

Kezang is making a false continuous warp, split by the presence of a holding stick. It is a clumsy and slow warping process compared with other techniques in which each tablet hole is given its own threads from the start. The benefit of this technique is that one needs fewer separate balls of thread, and it is easier to adjust the tablets in their proper position while warping. Threading just eleven tablets at a time also enables her to easily change colors, as most Bhutanese belts have vertical stripes of varying colors. The two-colored threading will allow Kezang to weave a belt of repeating diamonds, a common local pattern. If Kezang were weaving a rigpa chudang, an elaborate belt with silk supplemental weft patterning, the threads would all be the same color and would likely be warped continuously with separate thread pairs in each hole. Kezang’s young daughter nears the warp and she warns her affectionately not to touch. “Madam gi kongme!” she says: adam (meaning me) will hit you. Her daughter likes me, perhaps because I have assured her that I will not hit her, so Kezang takes a brief break to suggest to her daughter that she go home to the US
with me. This is a common custom for teasing kids that feels like a test of their devotion. This kid is one of the few who nods her head excitedly in agreement, to which her mother feigns offense.

Kezang’s mother enters the room and sits down to watch us, then begins spinning a handheld prayer wheel. She begins muttering mantras, then accommodates my questions about belts and their role in Bhutanese superstitions and sets down the prayer wheel. She tells me of a belief I had heard before, which is that one should never leave a man’s belt, or any other man’s textile, on the ground, as men are considered higher than women and leaving their textiles on the ground is a desecration. Textiles woven by men are considered sacred.

Men’s belts are believed to be almost magical, comparable to a sunkey, the protection and blessing strings distributed by Buddhist lamas to practitioners. The strings, like men’s belts, are said to detect harmful influences and endow men with a long life. To maintain this power, men’s belts should not be washed and, like other sacred objects, should never be placed on the ground. If a belt falls on the ground and becomes knotted, the knot should not be removed until three days have passed, during which time the belt’s owner should wear the knotted belt. Due to the discomfort of wearing a knotted belt, the duration of this tradition has allegedly been modified to one or two days. A man’s belt is also supposed to protect against bad dreams, sleepwalking and evil spirits, the protection against which can be achieved by folding a belt three times and placing it under the owner’s pillow or beside his head at night. The belt can also be stretched out along the owner’s
body, or over his body, to achieve the same. Women should never step over a man’s belt, nor over a man who is wearing one.

These sound suspiciously like superstitions invented by men. Like most world religions, Tibetan Buddhism is not known for its promotion of gender equality. But women must also have come up with superstitious beliefs, such as that which says that if an unmarried child is hit by the weaving sword while a woman is weaving, then she or he is destined to marry an old man or woman. One can assume this convenient belief was invented to keep kids out of the way of the weaving sword. Some Bhutanese also believe that if a cat steps over a warp, the textile will not be finished. This belief can be quickly disproved, which is perhaps why few seem to believe this anymore.

Some Bhutanese believe in a female spirit called Abinamshey (abi meaning grandmother, namshey meaning spirit, or soul), who determines the life or death of a newborn. When a woman is struggling in labor, a tradition is held that if the belt of a woman known for easy births is tied around, or laid over, the waist of the struggling woman, the labor will proceed smoothly (if no
belt is available, then a string or any other thing that the healthy woman ties around her loins will work). Then, Abinamshey should be asked to “open the door.” During extreme labor complications, Abinamshey is said to borrow the vagina of a cow for the woman. If a cow is struggling in labor, she will borrow the vagina of an elephant for the cow. Abinamshey is also responsible for crafting the parts of a boy or girl, to which this grandmother offered the earnest explanation that men are much more complicated for Abinamshey to make than women because women require a mere flat piece and a hole, whereas male “parts” require much more complex crafting. Some Bhutanese believe that wearing a wide belt after labor keeps the abdomen warm and thus facilitates healing. Generally, though, I find the stiff and tightly-cinched Bhutanese belts to cause more aches and pains than comfort.

Our conversation is interrupted by one of Am Kezang’s young daughters entering with a bucket of home-brewed corn beer, called bangchang, which is served warm and filtered through a bamboo basket. The child ensures that my cup is perpetually filled while I sip the sour beer. Kezang’s mother resumes her mantras and I turn my attention to the TV. The Phakpa (pig) Cable Network is
airing non-stop school recitals of understated Bhutanese dancing. I watch to observe the elaborately woven traditional dresses they wear for these events and, when their arms are raised, an occasional glimpse of an equally complex, but usually hidden, tablet-woven belt.

Taylor worked establishing new weaving techniques and cooperatives in southeast Bhutan while serving as a program manager for the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative from 2012-2016. Her website www.livedebris.org includes some of those techniques. Disclaimer: This story is an amalgam of several interviews and encounters with weavers in SE Bhutan, thus names and some circumstances have been slightly modified.

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Some information about men’s belts was gleaned from the book Fabric of Life by Karin Altmann. De Gruyter, Vienna, 2015, pages 306-307.

Copyright © Taylor Cass Stevenson, www.livedebris.org

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