Koseli - With love, from Nepal

Features Issue 128 Jul, 2012
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

One of the more popular t-shirts on sale in the ubiquitous, hippyish clothing stores in Thamel says ‘My friend went to to Nepal and all I got was this t-shirt’. It’s always struck a chord with tourists, the shopkeepers say, and it’s easy to see why. Buying souvenirs when traveling for your loved ones is a global phenomenon and so is buying a souvenir that your loved ones don’t really appreciate!

Thankfully, that t-shirt does not do justice to what Nepal has to offer to whoever is on the look out for authentic ‘Made in Nepal’ products, commodities that not only look good and last a life time but are also representative of Nepal’s culture, history and of how these factors have been integrated into modern Nepal.

Even though most people will call Kathmandu the cultural hotspot of the country, fact is that in a country with 102 different ethnic groups and 92 languages, one place can hardly do justice to what the rest of the country has to offer. What Kathmandu does a good job at however is at advertising the rest of the country and it’s traditions and cultures. So wherever you go in the country, the region will most likely speak its own language, practice it’s own unique culture and traditions and as a result of this, have their own art and crafts scene. Owing to the varied topography across Nepal, and the region’s sociocultural and historical influences, different regions also have their own cuisines and unique food items.

What does this mean? Two things - Firstly, that even though you might not find the ‘Made in Nepal’ tag on everything that is authentically Nepali, the country has a staggering number of things that you can choose from as souvenirs when you’re traveling, not just abroad but also domestically. Secondly, this means there really is no excuse for that t-shirt.

The history of Koseli
There is no recorded history of the tradition of Koseli as such. It describes the practice of presenting loved ones with a souvenir after one has come back from a trip. The souvenir in this case has to be something that is unique to the area. For instance, if someone were to be coming back from Bhojpur, a great Koseli item would be a khukuri, a short knife-like weapon used in battle by the legendary Gurkhas.

How the term got its origin and who started this tradition and why is open to discussion but one idea seems more plausible than others. Whenever people had reason (read: work, festivals) to hike up to the hills or move down into the Terai, they would take with them products that they could trade. These products would range from food items - local produce such as fruits, vegetables and pulses to items such as fabric, tools, jewelry and the like. What grows in the Nepali terai - a variety of fruits and vegetables does not grow well or not at all in the colder climes of the hills and mountains. Similarly, the produce of the hills such as tea, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon are better than that grown down south. Such trade would take place in the village bazaars, make shift markets where everyone would set up shop and sell their wares and produce. The tradition of also taking along a gift for people you knew in that area - something symbolic of your village or town or a small reminder of home for a relative who married and moved there perhaps - could have started in this way.

The tradition of taking along a koseli is still alive. A kilo of the very popular apples from Jumla, a small packet of local hand rolled tea from Ilam, even a small brass statue from the numerous craft shops in Patan - all great souvenirs I have taken along when traveling within the country and abroad.

There was a time when friends studying in the U.S. would take along packets of sukuti (buff jerky), chewra (beaten rice) and Surya brand cigarettes for other Nepalese students who missed the local flavor. I don’t know about the Surya cigarettes but I hear the sukuti and beaten rice are available at Indian stores in bigger American cities now!

A Nepali catalogue
Before you head out the door excitedly to go souvenir shopping, a good idea would be to first sit down and plan out what you want and what your options are. Planning in terms of the following would be a good idea:

Price - if you want something unique for a special someone, be prepared to shell out a little more than the usual. Smaller gift items are of course abundantly available. Size - souvenirs can come in all shapes and sizes, from small trinkets to large paintings; pick the most practical option keeping in mind how you’re traveling. Type of souvenir - some souvenir items might be a bit tricky to carry on board a plane, for instance food items and even the khukuri. Make sure you know how to take care of this. Food items can be marked and carried in your luggage and khukuris need to have a bill of purchase to present to security personnel.

Let’s start with clothing items. A Yak and Yeti t-shirt is standard fare but also available are authentic Nepali clothing items such as pashmina products and Nepal’s traditional dhaka fabric. Made from the wool sheared from the underbelly of high altitude mountain goats indigenous to the high mountains of countries like Nepal and Pakistan, many pashmina producers still employ time-tested, traditional methods. Most of the work is done by hand by locals, making your souvenir a truly Nepali one. This attention to detail also means that pashmina is expensive so don’t hurry up and buy a cheap one; chances are it’s a fake.

Dhaka on the other hand is inexpensive but owed to its own history, makes for a gift that is as authentically Nepali. Dhaka has been worn by Nepali men and women for centuries, by the men as a topi (cap) and by women as a cholo (blouse). It’s also a fabric that is associated with formality as it forms a part of the national dress. If there is any fabric that is as much about the fabric as it is about Nepali culture, Dhaka is it. Besides dhaka, people have also woven fabrics like Allo made out of stinging nettle, bamboo cloth and hemp here.

Jewelry follows naturally and this is where the women folk and perhaps even the men might go a little bonkers. In addition to the jewelry that is a part of Hindu culture such as the tilahari - a necklace that signifies marital status, different ethnic groups have their own unique jewelry. Based on what appeals to you, choose from a range of ornaments and their significance, from large pieces made up of beads and precious stones common in the Sherpa community to traditional Newar jewelry, usually of gold and silver, most often with precious stones and specific to occasions. Go hunting for Newar pieces in the older, brick paved alleys of Patan and for Sherpa pieces in and around Bouddhanath and Thamel. Pote shops abound in Patan’s Durbar Square and also in Kathmandu’s Ason chowk. Interestingly, the former are owned by Newari speaking Muslims; a cultural rarity that adds to the experience.

The most popular souvenirs from Nepal are of course Nepalese handicrafts. Ranging from stone and paper to clay and precious metals, Nepal and specially its hilly enclaves have a rich history that is well recorded in books and museums. More importantly and to the delight of many a visitor, this history is a part of the present culture of the country. The great thing about Nepali handicrafts is that most if not all of these items are in daily use in Nepal from the stone and metal idols worshipped in temples to utensils used at home.

For stone and metal work, visit Patan, one of Kathmandu valley’s three districts and the home of native Newars who have preserved and worked to promote art and craft that is a part of their heritage. For wood work and clay craft however, Bhaktapur is more popular, also home to Newars but increasingly a melting pot of cultures. Depending on size, detail of work and the time spent on the product - some pieces can take up to years to finish - prices can vary from a few thousand rupees to a few lakhs. (One hundred thousand equals one lakh)

Most of the artwork has a religious theme to them, a result and proof of the impact of religion on Nepali culture and lifestyles. From Hindu deities such as the Ganesha, ubiquitously seen around the capital’s streets and the Shiva lingam to numerous avatars of the Buddha, the gods are a dominating theme. Walk down from Patan Durbar Square to Sundhara (golden spouts) and take a right for wholesale shops owned by manufacturers. You can even request to see the artists working on it, hands chiseling out shapes from slabs of stone and metal, using techniques and tools that have not seen much change. While the artists freely step on the metal and stone while sculpting, after the sthapana puja - a ceremony that breathes life into the rock or metal and transforms it into a deity, doing so would be considered sacrilegious.

For great wood work items as gifts, travel back in time to the city of Bhaktapur, 25 km east of Kathmandu. The place is teeming with artists who come from a long line of woodworkers. Although also consisting of many religious figurines, artists have branched out into more contemporary works too. Decorative pieces are also available, such as small decorative tiki-jhyas - traditional carved windows, but the most authentic work remains idols and imagery of gods and goddesses.

Amongst the woodcarving community in Bhaktapur, the Shilpakar community can be traced back to the Indian states of Uttarakhand, formerly Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradhesh. Previously considered untouchable, the Indian leader-freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai found them to be highly skilled craftsmen and considered their exploitation by high caste Hindus as extremely unjust. He worked towards having them officially recognized as Shilpkar in 1925 by the British government. The area borders Mahakali zone of Nepal’s far western region to the east, possibly the entry point of modern day Shilpakars into Nepal. Amongst them, seek out if you can the work of master woodworker Indra Kaji Shilpakar, who comes from a family of artists and whose work has been exhibited abroad. His home-workshop premises houses a small museum, to preserve skills passed down on him through generations.

Looking for something lighter than statues, perhaps a use-everyday item? Try products made our of lhokta paper, made from the lhokta bush (botanically known as Daphne bhoula or Daphne papyracea). Growing in the mountains of the country at altitudes as high as 3000m, it’s paper is handmade using the inner bark of the bush. There’s a list of reasons why lhokta products make for great gifts. Firstly, variety: notebooks (in all sizes and with creative, colorful hardcovers), wrapping paper, greeting cards, stationery packs (writing paper and envelopes) and even small boxes to stow away letters and cards are available. You can even get personalized business cards made for yourself or a friend - an eco friendly idea that’s sure to be a hit in the boardroom. Secondly lhokta does not tear easily and insects are repelled by it so it lasts longer than commercial quality paper. Lhokta is also the official paper, still used for numerous official purposes.

An adopted koseli idea is the Tibetan carpet. In fact, the art form was brought into Nepal by Tibetan refugees. The art form has since then found a ready home here in Kathmandu, where it is still made using the same techniques. Tibetan highland sheep wool is knotted in characteristically Tibetan methods to achieve a distinctly Tibetan carpet, with depictions of dragons, phoenix and floral motifs. Checkerboard and amulet patterns are also common. The rugs were typically limited in color palette because of the availability of a few dyes, although the same is not true anymore. Another interesting thing about the Tibetan carpet is that while most carpets are produced for the purpose of floor seating, these are equally popular as wall hangings and saddle covers. The Ekantakuna area in Lalitpur, south of the Jawalakhel roundabout is home to the Tibetan camps, where one can find and converse with a lot of carpet makers. Buying carpets from these guys is also a good idea although, taking along a knowledgeable someone is a good idea.

Nepali art
Moving out of the city, most notable and popular in the Terai is the Mithila art form. The word Mithila comes from the region in which this art form is practiced, predominantly by the women folk of the village. Mithila was divided between Nepal and India in 1815 when the British East India Company and the Nepali government signed the Sugauli treaty, ending the second British invasion of Nepal during the Anglo Indian war (1814-1816). The art work itself, due to its historical and cultural influences is distinctly different from art found elsewhere in Nepal. Painted using fingers, twigs, and even matchsticks, the artists use a wide range of bright colors mainly derived from plants to scenes from the courtroom to daily lives in the region. The art work is characterized by geometric patterns and there are distinct paintings to mark important occasions such as birth, marriage and important Hindu festivals such as Holi. Typically, no space is left empty on a Mithila painting, artists will rather fill up this space with images of birds, the sun, the moon and plants such as the Tulsi.

Mithila art has traditionally been confined to the mud walls and floors of huts, one of the reasons why it failed to get as popular as other more mobile art forms. Today, they are also done on cloth, hand-made paper and canvas - allowing them mobility and increased popularity and commercial value. Items such as bags, notebooks and fabric, all with Mithila art, all hand painted and thus unique, make for great ideas for a koseli.
Paubha and Thangka paintings, although also having to do with religious figures, are markedly different from Mithila paintings. For one, the cultural influences are Buddhist as opposed to the Hindu influences in Mithila work. Second, paubha paintings are done on canvas, using stone colors. Thangkas however, although confused many times with paubhas, are silk paintings with a strong Tibetan influence which unlike the flat paubhas have embroidery work on them. Thangka is a Nepali art form, exported to Tibet after Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, daughter of King Lichchavi, married Sron Tsan Gampo, the ruler of Tibet who then imported the images of Aryawalokirteshwar and other Nepalese deities to Tibet. Both thangkas and paubhas depict religious images: the paubha usually has avatars of the Buddha depicting scenes from holy texts while thangkas have high lamas and retelling of historical events and myths. Both have a quality that is pleasing to the eye and meditational to the mind. Both also require immense dedication to make, in terms of learning the skills and also devoting a large amount of time to the art form. Although there is room to experiment, strict guidelines have to be followed without which the painting would be rid of any significant value. Both thangkas and paubhas can be very expensive and asking for expert help is advised.

A history of the art and the artists
The fact that traditional art and craft are very much ingrained into the lifestyles of the people here is apparent when you realize that in many cases, their second names are a derivation of the kind of craft they are involved in. Take for instance the word Nakarmi, a surname that is common amongst the Newar population in Bhaktapur and which means blacksmith in the local language. The word is derived from two words Na meaning iron and Karma meaning work, or someone who does iron work. Similarly, Sikarmis were traditionally a caste of people who did wood work (Sni is the Newar word for wood) and Dakarmis did masonry.

Traditional artists and their families too have second names that correspond to the kind of craft they do. Chitrakar comes from two Nepali words chitra meaning an image or a picture and akaar, meaning shape. Chitrakars therefore, are people who belong to a caste that has traditionally engaged in painting and mask making. This art may mean painting a paubha, a religious Newari art form whose senior most artist in Nepal is Lok Chitrakar or other paintings and even photographs as shown by Bhaju Macha Chitrakar, an artist and court painter who traveled extensively in Europe with Rana era Prime Minister Jung Bahadur and Dirgha Man Chitrakar, one of the country’s first photographers who used large format cameras and wet plates. Today the caste system can no longer be trusted upon to be an exact indicator of a person’s occupation; it remains an important reminder of Nepal’s rich heritage of art and craft.

The way to a Nepali’s heart is through Nepali food
Locally speaking, the most common koseli ideas are food items. With eighty percent of the country still engaged in agriculture, it’s no wonder that Nepal is home to a staggering variety of food items. The east of the country, Ilam specifically, is the country’s tea district, producing unique varieties that are popular around the world. From machine made brands to hand rolled tea made by locals, don’t leave Nepal without some samples. A visit to the rolling hills of Ilam, with tea plantations stretching out as far as the eyes can see is a real treat for the taste buds and also for the soul. Midway between the capital and Ilam is Hile, a sleepy town popular for tongba, a strong variety of liquor sipped warm out of a wooden flask, and which is made by soaking and fermenting millet.

In the central capital city, it’s Newar cuisine that is most popular. Natives of the valley, the Newars have a spicy palate with a variety of buff dishes, vegetable curries, lots of pickles, beaten rice and salty pancakes made out of pulses. If you’re visiting, a koseli idea might be to learn a few of their recipes, easily shared by locals, and to buy the unique spices that are mostly home-made. The best way to wash down a good Newari feast is a salincha (small clay saucer) full of aaila, local liquor made out of fermented rice. A Newar specialty (that has been commercially produced and marketed abroad by Himalayan Distillery now), aaila’s potent qualities have earned it the description of ‘fire water’. Strong, home brewed Aaila has also been used traditionally used as ointment to cure muscle pains. All of which makes it a great koseli item, to drink and to nurse any muscle pains the next day!

Moving westwards, the Thakali cuisine of the Thakali clan (originating in the Thak Khola regions of the mid hills) is popular with locals as a sumptuous, full meal cooked over a wood fire for authentic taste. A spoon of ghee (home made vegetable oil) adds to the taste and the unmistakable aroma of this cuisine. The best way to have a Thakali set is to get yourself invited to dinner at a Thakali friend’s place; Tulachan, Hirachan, Sherchan and Gauchan are surnames of some of the Thakali community. No friends with those surnames? Not a problem, the capital has some great places to try Thakali cuisine.
The west of the country, considered most remote and also equally idyllic is home to arguably the best apples in the world. Apples from areas such as Jumla and Humla are unlike apples from anywhere else with great potential. Bite into one and you’ll immediately realize how the high mountain air and terrain figure into the flavor of this fruit. So what do you do when you have apple trees all around but not too many people to enjoy it? Make marpha, nicknamed apple whiskey, out of it ofcourse. Enjoyed warm and cold, it serves the locals well with battling the mountain cold, reaons why its made in most mountain areas where there are apples. Buy some or better still learn how to make it, although it’ll probably never taste the same or as good as when you’re enjoying it at the end of a tiring day on the trail, in front of a wood fire drying your soaked self!

Giving a Nepali gift
When chosen with care, knowledge and respect and for the right reasons, a koseli becomes not just a hastily picked souvenir, but a symbol of the country’s rich culture, of its traditions, its mountains, hills, rivers and plains, its rich history and heritage of art, craft and architecture and of its people and a hospitality that is tied to Nepali values.

Buy what you will, and where, there are some common traits that your gift will have. Made by hand, using methods passed down over generations and traditoinal tools that stand out in a modern day workshop, defying the odds of finance, modern day techniques and machinery and shortcuts that save time, money and energy and most importanlty, symbolising the best of Nepal – a koseli defies even time.

So go on, choose and pick, and present it to a friend, a lover or a parent but make sure to tell them about it, its history and its stories. And that this is not just a souvenir, but a gift of and from Nepal, with love. ■