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Wood Carving

The Tibetan tradition of woodcarving dates back to the seventh century, commonly appearing in the crossbeams of houses, door and window frames, as well as in furniture. Like other Tibetan arts, the motifs used are often iconic, following a standard representation. Various types of flowers, mountains, clouds, and other elements in nature, as well as religious symbols, all have a style in which they must be drawn, and so becoming an expert carver means mastering a vast repertoire of motifs and designs.

Although woodcarving is not a religious art, because Tibetan culture is so linked with Buddhism, many of the popular motifs do have a religious significance. Among the most common symbols to be carved are the Tashi Targye, or Eight Auspicious Symbols. These are also the first designs that any beginning student learns to make.

In old Tibet, woodcarvers also served as carpenters, architects, and engineers. They were responsible for constructing the posts and beams of a building, carefully analyzing each piece of wood to determine which could bear weight, and from what direction. The beams were fitted together, and still are in many areas, without the use of hardware, and so woodcarvers had to be masters at fashioning complex joints which could bear the weight of a structure. Even furniture is usually created without the use of any hardware but as carved panels that are ingeniously assembled to form the whole piece. Our wooden furniture at Norbulingka is created using these same techniques, with expertly and precisely fitting joints constructed without any hinges or nails.

When carving, first an image of the design is transferred onto the flat surface of the wood. Then a Tibetan bamboo fret saw is used to cut out holes in the image. Finally, chisels are used to carve the design from both the front and back, creating depth. The initial training for woodcarving students is three years. For the first few months students do not practice on wood, but only focus on learning to draw the traditional designs. Then they are taught how to make their own set of chisels, which will remain with them for a lifetime, and how to use them. Students first begin with carving pinewood because it is much softer and forgiving, and eventually move on to teakwood. Apprentices also have to master fundamental carpentry techniques for cutting and joining pieces of wood. After their apprenticeship is completed, most carving students join the Norbulingka workshop, and while they have mastered the basic designs, to create the elaborately carved thrones and cabinets that adorn the shrine-rooms and altars of great homes and monasteries will take many more years of practice. We offer a range of products in our collection, and also welcome special commissions, where the talent of our carvers can be seen in its full glory.


For those who wish to learn the art of woodcarving, Norbulingka offers workshops ranging from one day to several months. Courses are designed based on the time and interest of individuals and groups. They are a great way to learn more about the sophistication of Tibetan culture and students will leave with a beautiful piece of their own.


Our Masters

Choe Phuntsok, Late Master

Gyaltsen, Woodcarving Master