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  • 02 December, 2019

Supporting Artisans on a Handicraft Tour of Tibet

Supporting Artisans on a Handicraft Tour of Tibet
Photo: Becky Carruthers

For years in Lhasa, Dropenling Artisan Shop has been providing locally made handicrafts for eco and socio-conscious travellers. The shop works in collaboration with small village-based artisans to produce beautiful, high-quality souvenirs out of sustainable materials, with almost all of the profits being returned to the villagers who make them.

Although the most well-known souvenir shopping destination in Lhasa is the Barkhor Supermarket on Beijing Road (where all the market stalls that previously occupied the Barkhor pilgrim circuit around the Jokhang were moved to), Dropenling is a worthwhile destination for tourists looking for something more unique.

In contrast to the market stalls selling souvenirs of dubious origin, Dropenling pride themselves on the connections they form with their artisans and workers, even selling photos of some of their local workers with items they have made.

To further demonstrate their commitment to working with local people and giving back, Dropenling offers a short afternoon walking tour of Lhasa’s Barkhor area, which takes in several of their workshops. For many tourists, this is a side of Lhasa that they would never see on their own, or even with a tour group. On the tour you’re led down small alleys, across private courtyards and into forgotten old buildings, places that a visitor would normally not have a chance to see.

Supporting Artisans on a Handicraft Tour of Tibet
Photo: Becky Carruthers

The walking tour starts and ends at the Dropenling shop in the Muslim Quarter of the Barkhor. The refreshing thing about this tour is that – unlike other shop-run tours that you might take around the world – there is no pressure to purchase anything at the end. Of course it is encouraged, but there is no hard sell, as the shop is happy enough to be able to show off its community to tourists.

The tour’s first stop is near Tengyeling Monastery, just a short walk down some alleys from the front of the Jokhang Square, with a visit to a wool-weaving factory. In the building’s courtyard is a small teahouse that’s lively with the shouts of local men playing sho, a traditional Tibetan dice game.

As you weave your way through the groups of men playing sho on the ground, peek over their shoulders to see the game in action – coins are moved around a circle, over small white shells, with each roll of the dice. A hallmark of the game is the shouted prayers and chants that “encourage” a specific number to appear on the dice. This is a boisterous and energetic game, and great entertainment to watch.

Upstairs the shouting fades into the background as you enter the darkened workshop room that is used for processing wool. From spinning to dying to weaving, it’s all done here.

The next stop is in the courtyard complex of Tsemonling Monastery, down an alley off Beijing Road. Once, all of the rooms around this courtyard would have been monks’ quarters, but now they are used as apartments and for workshops, like this one.

Supporting Artisans on a Handicraft Tour of Tibet
Photo: Becky Carruthers

This workshop’s main focus is traditional Tibetan fabric tents, along with other large cotton and canvas items. Here, as in each workshop you’ll visit, the guide will provide a brief introduction to what’s being made, and a little background on the workers, before letting you wander and explore on your own.

The final stop of the tour is back at the Heritage Hotel’s courtyard in the Muslim Quarter, where Dropenling’s shop is located. One entire floor of the hotel is dedicated to thangka painting, the ancient Tibetan religious art.

On the ground floor paints are created in a myriad of colours from natural sources. On the day of our visit, women were grinding turquoise rocks with giant mortars and pestles, and blending the stone dust with water to create smooth batches of fresh blue-green paint.

Upstairs is where the masters work, their focussed faces hovering close to the canvas as they trace the outline of a new work or add detail with tiny brush strokes to an existing one. It’s a labour of patience and care, as it can take a single artist up to three months to complete one thangka, and that’s only the smaller sizes.

The artists seemed ready for a break when we arrived, happily laying down their paintbrushes to explain their process and the symbolism of their subjects, before asking a bombardment of questions of their own about how these foreigners were enjoying Tibet and which temples we’d visited.

Finally, the tour returns to the Dropenling shop to see the finished products on display. After seeing each piece in progress around the Barkhor’s back streets, you’ll be left with a new appreciation for the work that goes into creating these souvenirs, and an understanding of what it really means to support local artisans.

Article by Becky Carruthers

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