Authentic Organic Textiles From the Himalayas: A Revival Art

Features Issue 21 Aug, 2010
Text by Bijay Shrestha

Pasang Tsering Maharjan has dedicated his life to preserv ing, developing, and promot
ing Himalayan textile arts.  For the past decade, he has designed carpets, wall hangings, cushion covers and boxes. What makes his art and his workshop, ‘The Revival of the Authentic Organic Textile of the Himalayan Range’, unique is that they use only organic and antique textiles. Pieces that are therwise destined to become waste are the basic material Pasang uses to create his masterpieces. His passion is using pieces of antique clothing in a unique style. His inspiration is the mighty Himalayas and their rich culture. His mission is to make everyone who is linked with his art know their roots, to sustain the lives of poor mountain people, and to achieve his own dreams.

The Himalayan region is vast and diverse, stretching from Kashmir to Bhutan and Tibet to Sikkim. This expanse and cultural richness has given rise to an amazing variety of textile designs.  Pasang collects old (90 years or more) patterned clothes from the villages of the Himalayan range.  When these mountain people come to Boudha for pilgrimage, Pasang approaches them and explains his interest. Some travelers then come and visit Pasang’s workshop at

Boudha to sell ancient kera (belts), carpets, chubas (robe/jackets), pangden (aprons), leo (tents), caravan salt bags, yak and sheepskins, and naga shawls. Pasang takes all these various textile pieces and reworks them into unique pieces of art: wall hangings, carpets, and even Tibetan boxes in the shape of zong (shape of the Potala Palace in Lhasa). The artwork is based on the Nambue panel style of weaving which originated some 3000 years back with the Tibetan nomads. The pieces of cloth created are of a standard width of approximately 15 centimeters. The panels can be stitched together to create a shawl, a tent, in fact anything the maker wants.

The Himalayan textiles Pasang collects are usually special individually woven items. ‘Individual weaving’ is a term that refers to the material created for the weaver’s personal use. To explain this we should go into the cultural traditions involving the making of chubas and pangden. As a girl from a village in certain areas of the Himalayas grows up, one of her primary duties is watching over the family herds of yak and sheep. This gives her plenty of time to pick the finest quality wool from shedding animals. She saves this wool until she is able to weave a nice chuba or pangden. In their traditional ways of marriage, the girl is visited by the family members of her potential groom.  All the items made by the bride-to-be are displayed to the boy’s family members. The quality of the woven piece she has made is thought to reflect her own quality and skills; thus she herself is judged on the basis of her creation! For a traditional Tibetan girl, learning and mastering the art of weaving is a very important part of her upbringing and her future success in life.

With advances in chemistry, polymerization and mass production, synthetic fibers have come to the Himalayas. While synthetics have their uses, for personal wear nothing compares to natural material.  One reason is that the amount of heat retained by a jacket made out of wool is much higher than the heat retained by a nylon jacket. Non-organic textiles sometimes build heat more quickly, but they just reflect the heat on our body. Wool builds heat more slowly but the heat penetrates the body down to the bone. That explains why Yak wool sweaters and jackets are  favored during the winter. The Tibetan nomads roamed the plateau with nothing but Yak wool and Yak skins to help stave off the cold climate.

When we asked about the specialty of the material of his artworks, Pasang said, “If we could go even 40 years back in time, we would find a very different world in the Himalayan range. This was a world less polluted with all manner of chemicals. There were no pesticides, fertilizers or atmospheric pollutants. It was a purer world and gave us purer materials. The wool was clean and the dyes are herbal simply because there was nothing else available. This was organic, out of necessity!”

Pasang prefers his work to be simple, “All I do is just give a new look to the already present beauty of these textiles!” He thinks that his creations should go back to their places of origin and that the original weavers’ communities should return to the practice of their traditional art and thus expand the base of the work. “I call it revival art. I do make money but my main motive is to create new designs from old and thrown [away] pieces of cloth, and give them a totally new and attractive form. By doing so successfully, I want everyone to think about conserving the beauty that is within us,” shared Pasang.

In a single piece of his art Pasang combines different symbolic aspects of a particular area.  For example, in a box that he has made out of an old Newari sari, he has made fish shaped locks, which symbolize the increasing use of fish in one specific era in a particular Newari village. Similarly when he takes orders from some Tibetan families, he creates wall hangings that have the patterns from the villages of both the husband and the wife so that his art is the combination of these two villages. Thus it becomes a very special gift for the family. Another beauty of Pasang’s work is his ability to use cloth.  If we give him an old piece of our grandfather’s jacket that has been eaten by insects or rats, Pasang can use that piece of cloth to make a jewelry box that becomes a reminder of our grandfather, which will be present for a long time. Pasang remarks, “Going back to the damaged pieces of cloth left by older generations, I give them a new form to preserve them so that we can learn about our origins.”

One of Pasang’s most beloved creations is a 3x6 meter checkerboard carpet. It took eight women two years to take the broken woolen strings out from the chubas to create this carpet. “The method of weaving is difficult and the knots are strong,” said Pasang. The colors used in the carpet are indigo blue and Afghan red from herbal dyes that have not been used since the 15th century.

The Cultural Preservation Prospects

The direct foreseeable affect of these creations is the preservation of the old patterns themselves. These beautiful arts have been the victims of modernization and are on the verge of disappearing. For now, traditional weaving is done only in a few mountain areas, and in Pasang’s workshop, but he believes that the art will come back into popularity soon.  With the preservation and the revival of these woven items, Pasang believes that these patterns will be woven again into the culture of the people of their origin.

The popularity of these patterns might encourage the indigenous people to go back to weaving them again, thus fulfilling Pasang’s mission of reviving this culture. Pasang has twelve workers in his workshop, following his designs. His art has been very appreciated not only by foreigners but also by Nepalese and Tibetans. “This is their village that I am showcasing here. Obviously everyone feels the attachment and that is what my whole intention is: to generate that consciousness from within. I believe patriotism cannot be forced..., it has to come from a person’s own consciousness. And that is what I am working on, to show all their rich culture, art and tradition and to sustain this beautiful art.”