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by Claire Burkert and Tony Gleason

August 01, 2008

Tibet has been strongly affected by events in Lhasa of March, 2008. With the drop in tourism, Tibetan artisans have not been able to sell their products. is publishing this article to help support the Dropenling center and the artists and craftsmen and women of Dropenling.

In the heart of the old Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, just a ten minute walk from the Jokhang temple, is the Dropenling Handicraft Center. The Tibetan word “Dropenling” means “giving back for the betterment of all sentient beings, ” and Dropenling has achieved its purpose by giving back to hundreds of Tibetan craftspeople all over the Tibet Autonomous Region. Because it sells crafts made only by Tibetans, Dropenling has been popular with tourists who want to purchase authentic Tibetan crafts such as textiles, painted wood boxes and trays, stone carving, leather bags, jewelry, carpets and dolls and toys. In 2007, Dropenling became a self-sustaining business whose profits are re-invested into further support of the Tibetan artisan community.

Although many products in Lhasa and internationally are marketed as Tibetan, most are actually manufactured outside the TAR by non-Tibetan peoples. Moreover, Chinese artisans and business people are settling within Tibet to produce and sell jewelry, statues, prayer wheels and other traditional Tibetan Buddhist items for which there is a steady local demand. Less familiar with enterprise development and marketing, Tibetan artisans are facing difficulty earning income from their crafts skills. The Dropenling store is the brainchild of the Tibet Artisan Initiative (TAI), a p a project of the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund (TPAF), a U.S.-based 501(c) 3 non-profit NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) founded in 1997. In addition to providing a steady market to Tibetan artisans through the Dropenling store, TAI has developed a number of programs that address problems and issues faced by the artisans today.

Product design

TAI’s offices and workshop are located directly above the Dropenling store. Its staff members, Tengyal, Passang and Tennor comprise TAI’s Product Development Staff. They meet together regularly to develop designs in special design sessions. They then teach the designs to the artisans. Tengyal’s sense of fun has led him to specialize in designing toys: he has designed a hat with the fur and ears of a yak, a two-headed toy yak that serves as a pillow, and a small bank in the form of a Tibetan house. He also has befriended a stonecarver who appreciates extending his range of carvings beyond traditional mani stones—with Tengyal’s help he now makes Buddha-shaped incense holders, coasters with auspicious symbols, and dishes for soap. Meanwhile, Tennor who also takes care of all raw material purchases, has an interest in working with leather. He works with three brothers from Chusu, nearby Lhasa, to bulk purchase yak leather from a local factory. He also designs leather products, such as a suede shoulder bag with an appliquéd Tibetan motif.

Passang is in charge of artisan relations, and spends much of her time listening to artisans about their needs and explaining orders. She also has a natural design sense and recently has worked with a cooperative in Shigatse to produce a range of new silver products that include dessert dishes and a milk pitcher with auspicious symbols.

Even though the Product Development staff look at catalogues and internet sites for inspiration, it is not easy to understand international market tastes. This summer Passang will travel to America to attend a major trade fair and see the range of products produced all over the world and sold in the US. Meanwhile, the Dropenling store test markets products and when there is a positive response from tourists, the new products are put into full production.

Skills training
TAI receives assistance from the Best Sellers Fund, Netherlands embassy, and USAID to conduct training in both traditional and new skills and design. Important training in 2007 included:

Doll and Toy making by Susie Vickery, a professional costume designer who lives in London and Bombay. Susie worked with a group of seven tailors to develop dolls who wear the clothing from different areas of Tibet. There is also an amusing baby doll named “Olo” who wears a brocade jacket, pants with the typical split in the back, and his hair tied up in bunches. In addition the group created a most unique and lovable snow lion.

Shawl and scarf weaving by Australian weaver Liz Williamson. In this training women who traditionally weave aprons and belts learned to make naturally dyed shawls and scarves. Not only did they learn new weaving and finishing techniques, but they discovered ways to incorporate Tibetan motifs into their new products.

Natural dyeing. One of TAI’s main activities has been to reintroduce natural dyeing into contemporary textile production. Two trainings held thus far have focused on improving dyeing skills of Wangden carpet weavers. Originally a lama taught men of the Wangden valley to weave meditation carpets, and only men were allowed to weave them. TAI supports continuation of this unique tradition and is working to improve the quality of the carpets through use of high-quality wool and natural dyes that include madder, rhubarb, indigo and walnut.

Lost wax casting. Sadly, the art of lost wax casting has died out in Tibet. TAI hired a Newar master statue maker from Kathmandu to train a group of Tibetan metal workers. The training was held in the compound of the Ancient Art Restoration Company where the Dropenling store and TAI offices are located. TAI continues to work with AARC metalworkers to produce Buddha statues that are cast through the lost wax method.

Business development training

Through TAI’s effort to empower Tibetan artisans, many artisans have gained the knowledge and confidence required to run and expand their own small enterprises. In particular, women master weavers are now hiring other weavers so that they can increase production. TAI has helped the weavers to calculate income and expenses, develop employment policies, plan production, cost products and improve management. For instance, Sonam Drolma who weaves belts that are then sewn together to make placemats, had never calculated how long it might take to produce Dropenling’s winter order of 100 pieces. Dropenling’s business training team worked with her to plan how many weavers she needed to employ to produce the order in time for the tourist season.

How you can support the artisans of Tibet:

Tibet has been strongly affected by events in Lhasa of March, 2008. With the drop in tourism, Tibetan artisans have not been able to sell their products. You can support Tibetan artisans by purchasing their products in the following ways:

  • Visit our trunk shows in October, November and December 2008
  • October 3-5 Nomad, Cambridge, MA
    October 9-12 Tesoros Trading Company, Austin, TX
    October 17-19 Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM
    October 24-26 Folk Art Gallery, San Rafael, CA
    November 7-9 Silk Moon Gallery, Sebastopol, CA
    December 6, 10am - 5pm, Northern Berkshire Creative Arts, at the American Legion, Williamstown MA
    December 6-7, 10 am - 6 pm, with Cultural Survival, The Hynes Convention Center, Boston, MA
    December 13-14, 10 am - 6 pm, with Cultural Survival, The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
    December 10, 9 am -7 pm, Pangea Artisans Market and Cafe of IFC, 2121 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC
    December 11, 3-7 pm, The Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW, Washington DC

  • Host a trunk show: For information on ordering products and host agreements, please contact Claire Burkert at
  • Make direct purchases from our e-commerce site
  • Contact Passang Choedon at for placing an export order

Other inquiries may be made to:
Dropenling Handicraft Center, #11 Chak Tasal Gang Road, Lhasa, Tibet, 850000, China
Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund, 663 Green Street, Cambridge, MA 02139 Tel: 617 491 8689 | articles