Today, as I write this, the streets of Kathmandu are witnessing traffic slowdown in many places because of the hasty last-minute panic-filled attempts to beautify the Capital, which will be playing host to heads of state of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka from Nov 26-27 for the 18th SAARC Summit. Those in responsible positions are no doubt cursing themselves—why, oh why, didn’t we start earlier? Well, now all one can hope is that at least the paint on the roadside railings is dry by the time the limousines start to roll down the new-looking streets!
There’s another set of folks who’re also having a merry runaround this week; they are the officials of the Federation of Handicrafts Associations of Nepal, which is holding the 12th Handicraft Trade Fair 2014 from Nov 27-Dec 01 in the Capital. Let’s hope they are having an easier time organizing their event than those desperate folks putting giant flower pots with newly planted saplings all along the sidewalks, and hoping to the high heavens that the saplings at least stand up straight till the big-do is over!
Anyway, having got that out of the way, what’s the situation with Nepali handicrafts? Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, the country witnessed such a demand for pashmina (cashmere) that businessmen of all hues and colors began leaving what they had been doing and started getting into pashmina. By 1998, orders were coming thick and fast from all corners of the globe for pashmina products, especially shawls. As a result of this tremendous demand, the pashmina industry made up more than 80% of all handicraft exports, with sales figures going through the roof from Rs.3 million in 1997 to Rs.5.6 billion in 2000! But, as usually happens, this boom, too, didn’t last. By 2010, exports had plummeted to just Rs.473.60 million.
Actually, the story of Nepali pashmina reflects the overall scenario of the handicraft sector of the country. There has been nothing much to shout about after those heydays when Nepali handicrafts were taking the world by storm. That is not to say that everything’s bad; it’s just that the graph refuses to show peaks anymore, and it’s, more or less, a straight line through the years. Now, here’s what constitutes Nepal’s handicrafts: pashmina, hand knotted carpet, handloom and dhaka products, woolen goods, silver jewelry, metal craft, wood craft, stone craft, handmade paper products (lokta), hemp/allo goods, leather products, paubha (thangka), bone and horn items, ceramics, incense, beads, bamboo products, etc.
The softest natural fiber in the world, pashmina is derived from inner coats of mountain goats (chyangras), which live at altitudes of 3,000 meters and higher in the high Himalayas. After its drastic fall in fortune, blamed primarily on unethical manufacturers (here and in neighboring countries) tarnishing its reputation by passing off non-pashmina as genuine pashmina, the Nepali authorities decided to establish a collective trademark logo for all pashmina made in Nepal as “Chyangra Pashmina”, and this trade mark has now been registered in many countries around the globe. It guarantees the purity of Nepali pashmina products, and the hope is that it will give a boost to the industry.
Among the top handicraft exports of the country are also hand knotted carpets, once the biggest foreign currency earner for the country. But this industry, too, suffered a similar fate as pashmina, and for similar reasons. Its introduction in Nepal was only in the 1960s, when Tibetan refugees fleeing the upheaval in their country, arrived in Kathmandu, bringing with them the fine art of carpet weaving. Their carpets were made of Tibetan wool, which supposedly made them better with age, and the designs, too, were eye catching to the extreme, with strong colors like red, yellow, blue, and gold being predominant. In short time, the valley saw a profusion of Nepali Tibetan carpet manufacturers, with hundreds of thousands involved in weaving as many carpets as possible in the shortest time possible to cater to the ever-growing demand from Europe. Sadly, like in the case of pashmina, quality took a hit, and hard-earned reputations went on the line due to the unethical behavior of some. Currently, the carpet business is a far cry from what it once was. From a high export figure of 25, 09,452 sq m in 1999/2000, it has come down to just 461,065 sq m in 2013/1014.
Well, so much for two of the prima donnas of Nepali handicrafts—their fall from grace has been dramatic, to say the least! The going has been more or less a more stable one for other handicrafts, which is not a happy state of affairs, as without growth, the whole sector is getting stunted. Talking about handlooms, dhaka is a popular fabric that’s used to make a host of apparels and furnishings. In fact, you’ll notice it everywhere in places like Kathmandu, where people wear the typical Nepali caps made of dhaka (dhaka topi). At weddings, too, it’s a pretty strong fashion statement for the groom to be attired in a daura suruwal (the national dress) made of dhaka. Dhaka is also used to make a large variety of furnishings for the home. While dhaka’s origins lie in Tansen of western Nepal, one will find Rai and Limbu women of the eastern hills weaving out fine traditional patterns, as well, on wood and bamboo treadle looms. Another fabric gaining quite a name for itself is allo, a natural fabric extracted from the bark of the giant nettle (Girardinia diversifolia). A pretty intricate process is involved in its making, consisting of first boiling the bark in wood-ash-mixed water; and then after it is dried, the fibers are beaten and coated with white micaceous clay soil. An open back strap loom is traditionally used for the weaving.
Away from pashmina, carpets, and handlooms, Kathmandu Valley has always been more famous for its high standard of craftsmanship in metal, wood, and stone, examples of which are so very evident in numerous temples, monasteries, houses, hotels, etc. all over the valley. Lalitpur, the “City of the Arts”, particularly, abounds in highly skilled craftspeople, and there are different localities that specialize in certain types of craft. For instance, Okubahal, inhabited mostly by Shakyas and Bajracharyas, is considered to be the mecca of metal craftsmanship. For the most part, deity statues are the norm (made using the lost wax method), along with ritual objects used for worship. There is also a particular Newar community of Tamrakars (tama: bronze) whose trade since time immemorial has been to manufacture various items in bronze and copper for household and decorative use, as also for ritual purposes. Outside the valley, there’s a place called Bhojpur in eastern Nepal that is renowned for making khukuris, the deadly weapon of the valiant Gurkhas.
Wood carving is another of the fabled skills of the Newari artisans of Kathmandu Valley, and perhaps this is the most in show everywhere you go, including in most good hotels. You cannot fail to notice the elaborately carved wooden windows adorning many houses, hotels, temples, and so on. These huge windows have earned fame throughout the world, and among these, the ‘Peacock Window’ is a favored souvenir, as also a gift highly appreciated by everybody, be it statesman, head of state, or royalty. The high level of skills displayed by Newari woodcarvers has been acknowledged by all throughout the centuries, and, in fact, they were much in demand in China even during the time of the great Emperor Kublai Khan for doing the woodcraft work in shrines. Today, many woodcarving establishments in the valley are busy making huge carved wooden windows meant for installment in high-end hotels in Tibet and China. So, the legacy continues!
If the Newari artisans are so adept in metal and woodcraft, can they be any less in stone craft? Of course not, and a walk around the durbar squares of the valley will give you the opportunity to appreciate the talent of the valley’s stone carvers. In fact, in Patan Durbar Square, you’ll see two temples done in the shikara style, and dedicated to Lord Krishna, that are made entirely of stone. They are both wonderfully constructed, as you’ll see for yourself.
Other noticeable works of art in stone are the beautiful dhunge dharas (stone spouts) at the hitis (public watering places) that you’ll come across in many places around the valley, two of the more exemplary ones being Sundhara in Kathmandu and Tusha Hiti in Patan. Recent years has seen a trend towards the commissioning of really massive statues of various gods, and such projects can keep teams of stone carvers busy for years and years. A case in point is the ongoing project to sculpt a 32-ft tall statue of Sakyamuni Buddha out of solid stone at Arnico Stone Carving in Patan.
Well, all said and done, even if today the growth is not as hoped for, and not at all as promising as it was one-and-a-half decades ago, the talented craftspeople of Kathmandu Valley continue to chip, chisel, carve, and weave with dedication and commitment, knowing that it is but a question of time before the world’s craving for Nepal’s fantastic handicrafts reaches new heights once again.