Amazing Grass: Do It with Bamboo

Features Issue 65 Jul, 2010

Working with bamboo can be fascinating as there are innumerable ways in which it can be used. Since ancient times, man has found varied uses for this amazing grass; making weapons, utensils, tools and even eating it as a delicacy.

The name Badikhel sounded vaguely familiar as Sanu Kancha Pahadi gave us directions by phone, and Taukhel was definitely a place we had been to before.  It turns out Taukhel is where Ama Ghar is and Badikhel is the place we had visited in search of orchids. Ama Ghar was featured in ECS long ago, and we had done a cover story on orchids in February 2005. So, there we were, driving past the Godavari Resort in Taukhel and heading down the hill towards the river. We crossed the bridge and climbed up to find a little boy awaiting our arrival at the Badikhel bus stop. “Are you looking for Sanu Kancha?” he asked. When we said “Yes,” he pointed down to an old brick house where the man himself stood waving at us.

“I don’t know how far back it goes, but many generations of Pahadis have been involved in making bamboo products like nanglo and daalo,” says Sanu Kancha. Nanglo is used for winnowing rice and daalo for storing it. “My two brothers are also in this trade and my wife helps out too,” he adds.  His father is still actively involved in making dokos (extensively used by porters to carry goods). This generation has diversified and today they also make handbags on order. These handbags are exported to Japan where they fit in the inner linings, etc. “We make what the client orders,” he informs.

According to Sanu Kancha, there are nine families actively making bamboo products, mostly nanglos and we did see three little girls from a house nearby, sitting out in the sun deftly threading the bamboo strands into place. The girls were highly skilled as their products looked perfect although they seemed to do the work effortlessly. “My boys don’t help out because they go to school,” says Sanu Kancha. The Pahadi family’s house lies in a small but beautiful valley with a forest above and groves of bamboo scattered around the surrounding area.  Surprisingly, they do not use the local bamboo that is so accessible. “We buy bamboo from Banepa, Lamatar and other regions as we don’t have enough here,” informs Sanu Kancha adding, “If we cut down these groves, they’d soon be gone.” They also don’t eat the shoots, as that would put an end to the plant’s

The Pahadi family sends their special products to a Japanese businessman living in Nepal, who then exports them to Japan. Some products are sold by Asta Bahadur Nagarkoti at his small outlet next to Kalash in Kupondol while the rest are sent to wholesalers in the cities. “A nanglo takes about three hours to make but baskets/dustbins take about five-six hours,” explains Sanu Kancha. As we watch, his wife Ramita takes over the task of binding the rings around the basket, which alone takes her two hours.

Not many people know that bamboo belongs to the grass family. Talk about tall grass. Bamboos are a group of woody perennial evergreen plants in the true grass family Poaceae, subfamily Bambusoideae, tribe Bambuseae. Some of its members grow to enormous heights, forming by far the largest members of the grass family. There are 91 genera and more than 700 species of bamboo. They are found in diverse climates, from cold mountains to hot tropical regions. They occur from Northeast Asia, south throughout East Asia, west to the Himalaya, and south to northern Australia. They also occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the Americas from the southeast of the USA, south to Chile, there reaching their furthest south anywhere, at 47°S latitude. No native bamboos are found in  Europe, north Africa, western Asia, northern North America, most of Australia, and Antarctica. Although bamboo is a grass, many of the larger bamboos are more tree-like in appearance and are sometimes called “bamboo trees”. A single culm (stem) of bamboo from an established rhizome (root) system reaches full height in one growing season, but then persists for several years, gradually increasing the number of side branches and branchlets. However, it neither grows broader nor taller.

Some species of bamboo rarely flower, some of them only once every 28–120 years. In some of these species, the plant dies after the seed matures. Furthermore, all the individuals of the species flower at the same time in a large geographical region. It is believed that this trait evolved because it reduces the effect of predators of the seed, since they are less likely to be able to wipe out the seed production, and cannot depend on bamboo as a food supply between flowerings. Established bamboo grow to their full height in a single season after shoots come up, making it the fastest growing woody plant. Some subtropical bamboo species are known to grow 30 cm (1 foot) per day, with some species having been documented as growing over 100 cm in a single day. However, among the most widely cultivated species growing in gardens, 3–5 cm per day is more typical. A newly transplanted bamboo plant can take 1–2 years before it sends up new shoots (culms) and will have many seasons of “sizing up” before new shoots achieve the maximum potential height for that species. Scientists rank bamboo as one of the most primitive of grasses.

Bamboo can be put to an amazing number of uses. As I was walking down New Road, I noticed they’ve fenced in the Bhugol Park with bamboo. It’s the most convenient material for doing anything. Bamboo is light, it’s already round in shape and the sides are smooth and easy to cut into the size you want. Imagine using wood for the same purpose; sawing through a mass of wood, smoothening the sides and to think of the weight! Metal fencing would be worse and much more expensive. Man has found an incredible number of uses for bamboo from the time they were hunter-gatherers. Long before guns were invented, people hunted wild animals with bows and arrows in most continents. Where bamboo could be found, it was used to make both the bow and the arrows. In Nepal, the Kiranti people are known for using this wonderful material for making everything from utensils, tools and manuscript holders, besides bows and arrows. The tradition is kept alive in eastern Nepal and many bamboo products are produced in Dharan and Dhankuta. In some countries they make peashooters out of bamboo and if poisoned, they can be quite effective in killing birds and animals.

General use
So what else can you make out of bamboo? It is used to make hookah pipes, toothpicks, furniture, bookshelves, brooms, combs, bridges, flutes, momo vessels to keep the momos warm, cages for rearing animals, curtains, buttons, ladders, ladles to stir rice, ghoom to protect from rain, fencing, lampshades, cradles, drain pipes, scaffolding, garden stakes and fishing poles. Bamboo rafts, sails and towropes are also extensively used in some countries. Bamboo probably has more uses than any other substance in tropical countries. The fine-grained silica produced in the joints of bamboo stems has been used as medicine in the east for centuries under the name ‘tabasheer’. Moreover, closely matted roots help control soil erosion. So even nature benefits from having bamboo around.

Since early times the fiber of bamboo has been used to make paper in China. A high quality hand-made paper is still produced in small quantities. The wood is used for knitting needles and the fiber can be used for yarn and fabrics. Clothing made from bamboo fiber is popular for activities such as yoga. Sharpened bamboo is also traditionally used for the purpose of tattooing in Japan, Hawaii and other places. In some countries, farmers live in bamboo houses, sit on bamboo chairs or bamboo mats and they may even sleep on bamboo beds. It is not unusual to see sandals fashioned out of bamboo strips. And they raise pigs in bamboo pens or cages too.

Recently, a host of new bamboo handicrafts have hit the capital city. Take a walk along Kupondole and you can’t possibly miss the large bamboo baskets/dustbins lined up by the sidewalk. Step inside some of the handicraft shops and you will find tablemats, jugs, flower vases, lamps, and trays that are made locally. From Dhankuta in the east, come some fine decorative items that have been made very skillfully.

Bamboo as food
Bamboo shoots are widely eaten especially by the Chinese and rank quite high among the delicacies valued by Nepalis. Some people are also known to make bamboo pickles. Few may know it, but bamboo seeds are also eaten as grain while the raw leaves are excellent fodder for livestock.

Decorative uses
Buttenali are popular as decorative items. Butte means decorated or patterned and nali is a pipe in Nepali. Buttenali is a bamboo pipe that has carved patterns on it. The art thrives in Baglung where it started as a tradition to carve designs on hookah and tobacco pipes. The local people have turned it into an art form and are doing quite well too. The materials used for coloring are simply turmeric powder (yellow) and coal (black). So, there you have yellow and black. One piece requires three days of labor and the people of Baglung are taking the art to greater heights.

Bamboo as ‘bonsai’ is beautiful and makes for great decoration pieces to enhance the interiors, while full- grown bamboo adds to the splendor of a landscaped garden, such as the Garden of Dreams (see pg. 38). And there are many varieties to choose from. If you use your imagination, there is no limit to what you can do with this amazing grass called bamboo.