Meet Bhutan's cerebral palsy 'foot' artist Pema Tshering

He was abandoned after his parents found out he had cerebral palsy. But a chance meeting with the Queen Mother turned his life around.

Pema Tshering uses only his feet to create artwork. (Source: Bhutan Times)

By Kinley Yangden | Bhutan Times

He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a child, but that has not stopped artist Pema Tshering from being one of the most recognised painters and wood-carvers in Bhutan.

Using only his feet, Pema holds a chisel and hammer, nimbly carving his way through a piece of wood as he tells us his story about being abandoned at birth, encountering the Queen Mother who subsequently adopted him, and how he eventually became an artist.

Paralysed from the hip up, the 31-year-old artist has lived almost his entire life using his feet as his hands. Despite his handicap, Pema has managed to eke out a living selling his creations at a small shop set up inside the compounds of Simply Bhutan museum in Thimphu.

During our visit there, someone jokingly told us that Pema is a celebrity in Bhutan. And indeed so, for the artist has not only managed to create beautiful artwork – mostly religious art – but also once represented Bhutan in the 2005 Paralympics as a national archer.

His endurance and strength despite his physical and emotional challenges is a testament to the human spirit, and his story deserves to be told to the world.

Abandoned by his parents when he was 6

Except that he was born in Mongar district to farmer parents, Pema does not reveal much about his early childhood. The one thing he has to tell was that he was abandoned at the tender age of six when his parents found out that he had cerebral palsy.

But it wasn’t just this impairment that they had to deal with – Pema also had congenital deformities in his spinal column, resulting in limited use of his legs. 

Left to his grandparents’ care, Pema started learning how to use his feet as his hands. For 20 years, he lived in the village making bows and arrows out of bamboo. Education was out of the question.

Then, came a visitor who’d change his life forever.

Meeting the Queen Mother

When Pema was 18, Her Majesty the Queen Mother Tshering Pem Wangchuk paid a visit to his village, where she chanced upon him.

When asked how he felt meeting the Queen Mother, Pema told Bhutan Times that he was “very happy and excited” to see her.

“She asked if there was anything that I wanted. I told her I wanted to go to school. I didn’t want money or anything else,” said Pema.

The Queen Mother then sponsored his education at Bhutan’s renowned art school Institute of Zorig Chusum in Thimphu. It was here where Pema learnt how to carve and paint. The decision to pursue arts was a practical one.

“I didn’t mind doing any job but I didn’t think I was fit to do some jobs, as I didn’t go to school and didn’t have knowledge. So I decided to choose to learn carving and painting,” said Pema, who now sells his works at a small craft workshop, which was set up by the Queen Mother at Simply Bhutan.

 Cost of Pema’s works range from 600 Nu for a small wooden craftwork to 25,000 Nu for a thangka painting. By selling his works, he is able to make at least US$100 a month.

When asked if he’s happy with what he’s doing, Pema says he usually is, but sometimes felt like there was a lot of work to do, as it takes about three days for him to create a small piece of wooden artwork to one week for bigger ones. Thangka paintings take around two to three weeks to create.

Looking at his creations and paintings, one would not know they were done by a person who lacked the capability to use his hands. Pema’s works are intricate and challenging: Ranging from dragons to floral patterns and to the Eight Auspicious Signs, Pema has sold a number of his creations. And on one occasion, also exhibited his works in New Delhi in 2010.

Supporting his parents

He’s done well in his line of work that he now supports his parents financially – a responsibility he feels he has to take on despite their decision to abandon him when he was a child.

Pema shared his philosophy behind this: “I want to help my parents because if you don’t help your parents, it’s like disrespecting them. If you don’t respect your parents, whatever work you do, you’ll be unsuccessful in life.” 

He is in the midst of building a two-storey house for them in Mongar, which he says is almost completed.

“I’m not angry with them (my parents). I’m just sad. I’ll be happier if they had put me in school, rather than abandoning me,” said Pema, when asked if he bears any anger or resentment towards his parents.

He also said that his parents are now “very proud” of him.

Participated in 2005 Bhutanese Paralympics 

Besides establishing a career in art, Pema also participated in the 2005 Bhutanese Paralympic as an archer.

“I didn’t get a medal but I received a certificate of participation,” laughed Pema, who pointed at the framed certificates hanging in his workshop.

He added that he still plays archery for fun and hopes to participate in an upcoming Paralympic game again.

Big dreams

Despite his predicament, Pema has big dreams he hopes to achieve.

“I want to be an art teacher. I don’t have any students now but I plan to teach,” said Pema.

He added that he hopes to work in New York for a few years before returning to Bhutan to teach art and start his own carving business.

While it has been challenging and tiring for him, Pema said that the most difficult time of his life was when he did not receive any education. He said would have liked to study to become a teacher or a minister.

“Why a minister?” we asked, to which Pema laughed and responded: “So that I can help the needy.”

Pema Tshering’s “Foot Craft” workshop is located at Simply Bhutan, Thimphu.

 


Related Posts

Handicraft Shops Do Lucrative Business

Handicraft business in Paro is lucrative. The profit margin was very high. Although the same remains true now,...

Aug 21, 2017 15:17

A Japanese GNH Factory Employs the Intellectually Disabled

Yasuhiro Ohyama, former CEO of NRI, advocates a society where everyone could work. It is the society where everyone...

Nov 28, 2017 10:29

Weavers Recognised for Promoting Arts and Crafts

The 16th National Design and Art competition was organised in five different categories – gho (weaving), kira (weaving),...

Nov 04, 2017 07:29

In Commemoration Of World Elephant Day, Bhutan Records 678...

There are 678 elephants in Bhutan, according to the second edition of the National Elephant Survey Report.

Aug 15, 2018 12:54

Discover Raju’s Passion For Making The Traditional Bhutanese Bow...

The class VI drop-out earns at least Nu 8,000 a month by making bows and arrows.

Aug 08, 2018 16:09

Bhutan Marks World Ranger Day To Honour Women Rangers In The...

The day, themed ‘Stand with the World’s Rangers’, was aimed at recognising women rangers in the country. Today, the...

Aug 02, 2018 17:53

Latest

News

Bhutan’s Satellite Deployed From ISS Along With Limited Edition Stamps Launched To Laud Event

Live-streamed on YouTube, representatives from various countries and institutes gathered at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in...

Aug 11, 2018 16:08

Daily Professional Fee Proposed For Tour Guides To Boost Tourism In Bhutan

Such an initiative is also thought to help boost the image of the profession in Bhutan and retain senior tour guides.

Aug 10, 2018 12:09

Features

In Commemoration Of World Elephant Day, Bhutan Records 678 Elephants, Up From 513 In 2011

There are 678 elephants in Bhutan, according to the second edition of the National Elephant Survey Report.

Aug 15, 2018 12:54

Discover Raju’s Passion For Making The Traditional Bhutanese Bow And Arrow

The class VI drop-out earns at least Nu 8,000 a month by making bows and arrows.

Aug 08, 2018 16:09

Sports

The Myriad Of Sporting Facilities Constructed In Bhutan To Promote Healthy Living

The government in its 11th FYP report stated that it undertook the development of various infrastructure and institutions to promote sports...

Jul 29, 2018 08:33

Adolescent Girls In Bhutan Learn About Health And Sanitation Through Weeklong District Cricket Championship

The national nutrition survey 2015 conducted by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF Bhutan found anaemia in adolescent girls to be a critical...

Jul 21, 2018 16:29

Business

Start-up Centre In Bhutan Held Session To Provide Advice On Doing Business For Entrepreneurs

Guidance was provided during the first session on starting a business held at the newly established start-up centre at Changzamtog, Thimphu.

Aug 14, 2018 12:06

SDF To Develop E-Commerce Platform And Support Start-Ups In The South Asian Region

The SDF has already achieved and disbursed US$ 47mn for 12 cross-border projects.

Jul 24, 2018 09:03

Travel

About 91 % Of International Visitors Intend To Revisit Bhutan And 85 % Want To Recommend Nation Of Happiness To Others

The majority (80.4 %) of the international visitors expressed that the culture and traditional charm attracted them to Bhutan.

Aug 13, 2018 12:11

DrukAir To Fly Between Bhutan And Singapore Via Guwahati Starting Sept 1

The new flight will connect Paro to Singapore via Guwahati.

Aug 09, 2018 10:37

Lifestyle

Gokab – The First Dance Studio To Be Registered In Bhutan For Dancing Enthusiasts

Gokab, a youth group comprising of mostly dance enthusiasts, has seen a healthy growth of membership numbers since its inception in 2015.

Aug 12, 2018 15:44

Red Rice Is Bhutan's Staple Food And This Brewery Has Turned It Into Its Flagship Beer

Namgay Artisanal Brewery is the new kid on the block and it’s got everyone talking about its red rice lager.

Aug 03, 2018 14:04

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!