Endangered bamboo boxes

Text by Gerard Toffin

The traditional craft of the Newar village of Pyangoan, the making of pyaang, is gradually being revived after a threat of extinction.
The making of bamboo boxes for measuring grain (rice, wheat, etc.) and for storing food products (oil, spices) as well as some other items (lamp wicks, cotton, tobacco) is one of the crafts in Nepal that is threatened by extinction. Within the Kathmandu Valley, these containers were traditionally made in the small Newar village of Pyangaon, located in Lalitpur district, near Chapagaon. In bygone days, the inhabitants of this locality spent almost a month each winter (from the full moon of Magh till the full moon of Phagun, i.e. from mid-December to mid-February) further south in the forest covering the southern slopes of the Mahabharat range (Makwanpur and Chitwan districts). There, men cut wild and old bamboo and selected the inner layer of the bark (haapaa) for their craftwork. The knife, cupi, used for this job was worshipped as Bhimsen and was offered a roaster at the beginning and the end of this period. The layers of bamboo were flattened over a source of heat, and then soaked in water to tighten them. A split stick (katusi) was used to curve the bamboo sheets. During these forestry expeditions, men wore special shoes made of rice straw suitable for working in the jungle. Cutting bamboo was prohibited on Tuesdays and Sundays.

The name of Pyangaon village itself comes from the term used to refer to these boxes in Nepali, pyaang. This activity was central to the identity of the village. Local people used to make maanaa (half a litre capacity or 0.450 kg), 2, 4 and 6 maanaa as well as round paathi containers (to hold 8 maanaa, i.e. about 3.6 kg of rice), corresponding to the ancient legally recognized system of grain measures. Much bigger ones called dilpwan were also made for carrying lunch to the fields. Likewise, smaller boxes (1/2 and 1/4 of maanaa), round or oval, were also made to hold salt and spices. This production was bartered in winter throughout the Kathmandu Valley for grain and potatoes. Some were designed with lids and divided into several inner compartments. In Nepal Bhasa, these boxes and containers are known by various names: dyaancaa, pvancaa, haapaa. They are said to be insect-proof.

The craft has been declining since 1960, when government authorities prohibited the cutting of bamboo in the said forests. It has also suffered from the gradual shift from the old maanaa/paathi system to the Western metric system of measures and from the advent of plastic products. It is now on the verge of extinction. In 2010, only one man (Purna Bahadur) was still capable of making these measuring boxes and few other elders had the appropriate skills. In 2009, an agreement was signed with the Nepal Tourism Board to develop Pyangaon as a model craft village for ecotourism. And last year (2013 AD), VDC Chapagaon municipality decided to organise and fund a training course in Pyangaon for all craftsmen interested in renewing ancient skills. Twenty young aspirants, including women, were taught over a period of one month. Today the craft is slowly being revived, mainly to sell products in the Asian market, especially in Japan, which has a long tradition of bamboo work. But such an attempt at regenerating this craft is fragile due to economic uncertainties. The low price that craftsmen can ask when selling these products is disproportionate to the amount of handwork required and the continuously rising cost of living.

Pyaang boxes are still widely used in traditional Newar kitchens to measure rice before cooking. But they are allegedly not as strong as they used to be. Smaller bamboo containers are also necessary in some domestic rituals, especially those marking men and women’s entry into old age (janku). This craft clearly belongs to the cultural heritage of Nepal. It is a testimony to a lifestyle that was much more closely related to nature than the artificial one prevalent today.