Old Ways in a New World: The Valley's Cottage Industries

Features Issue 68 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

While the younger generation jumps at anything new that comes up, be it fashion, gadgets, jobs or business, some old timers refuse to give up the trade that has been handed down to them for many generations. While it’s true that they may not be able to adjust to the new technological age, they seem to go for simplicity and the old, familiar ways. Taking into consideration the location of some of these enterprises, it is hard to understand why in this 21st century, some folks would like to carry on as if it were still 1940. However, certain outdated enterprises seem to be thriving.

The Old Handloom

The handloom (or taan in Nepali) may have disappeared from many cities around the world, but in Bhaktapur,  it still enjoys a special place among all the other income generators. “Once, almost every household had a handloom, but today most have disappeared. However, the business generated by handlooms is quite significant as the products are exported to numerous countries around the world,” remarks Hari Prasad Kiju, who supervises work at one such weaving factory. At first glance, the process of weaving cloth appears complex. Even the simple task of transferring the yarn from the spools to the loom seems complicated.

The first task is to transfer the yarn from the bales to the spools, which is quite simple but there are two types: one for the warp and the other for the wooden peg. The yarn for the warp is bundled up together in the large wooden wheel (see page 48). Three people are needed for this operation. One watches with a keen eye to see if any thread is broken. If she detects any, she calls out to the others to check and repair the break. One sits in the middle and adjusts the thread where it collects. She also does the repairing. The third person sits and turns the wheel round and round. The thread wraps around this large wheel from where it is then transferred to a giant spool which is attached to the bottom of the loom and gives the warp. Nyuche Laxmi Silpakar who handles the thread says, “I’ve been working here for twenty-two years. We come early in the morning and work for about twelve hours. We have a meal around 9 am and then lunch at around 2 pm.”

The threads are either cotton or woolen. The warp sits vertically while the other thread that is held inside a wooden peg goes across at right angles. It is flicked from left to right and then right to left at great speed. The faster one can do this, the greater the weaving speed. That makes quite a difference as the weavers are paid according to their output. Hence, the faster weavers earn more in the same amount of time.

The weaver uses both feet and both hands as the feet control the movement of the warp while the hands are used to flick the wooden peg and to tighten the yarn against each other. All the weavers at this factory are women. A weaver stops only if a thread breaks or when the yarn in the peg is used up. Then she puts in a new one and continues until the next meal time, stopping from time to time to change the yarn.

Although using the handloom is an ancient technique, it is widely used in Nepal to make cloth. It gives employment to a large section of the population and preserves our own brand of textiles.

The Kols
Shesh Narayan Manandhar who is now 61 years old, started working  in an oil mill while he was still a kid. Located in the heart of Kathmandu city at Layaku, behind Freak Street, the mill churns out mustard oil using methods that are more than a hundred years old. First made in Nepal during the time of King Prakash Malla, the contraption consists of two giant beams of wood with metal plates attached, that come together to squeeze the crushed mustard seeds to extract the oil. Mustard oil used to be the most favored cooking oil until the invasion of foreign products like soybean and sunflower oil. But, considering the fact that a majority of Nepalis are poor, mustard oil is still the most widely used cooking oil in the country.

Although a new machine was installed some years ago at Shesh Narayan’s mill (it was introduced in the country about 35 years ago), the old work horse is still in use. When enough oil has been squeezed out, the mustard powder (now in chunks) is moved to the newer machine, which being more efficient, extracts even more oil out of it. These old mills are known as Kol in Nepali.

Mustard seeds arrive in gunnysacks from Narayanghat and a few other places around the country. Each weighs about 85-90 kg. The seeds must first be run through sieves to remove unwanted parts of the mustard plant. A round hand-held sieve is also used before the seeds are turned into powder.  The powder is then poured onto a roaster which is heated by wood fire. The roasting lasts for about 25 minutes after which the roasted powder is poured into a metal basket (called Pu in Newari) that resembles a flattened bamboo basket. Eventually, the Pu is placed between the two giant crushers, which then squeeze out the oil. The oil is collected at the bottom in square tin containers. “A 100 kg of mustard seeds gives roughly 36 kg of oil,” informs Shesh Narayan, “And there was a time when these tins were not available, so we had to use leather pouches to collect the oil. Even the by products bring in much needed cash as they are sold off as fodder for cattle. In the beginning this business was shared by 24 families which meant we had to take turns to use the facility. Two families at a time would work here to produce oil. There were no jobs available so many families were engaged in producing mustard oil. Today, most have left this trade in Layaku, so only two families including ours in still involved in this business in our tole (locality).”

According to Shesh Narayan, there used to be eleven such Kols in Layaku. “Now there are only two such big enterprises,” he says. There are however, little nuclear family businesses producing oil that are still in operation near by. But the major ones closed one after the other as family members sought greener pastures. With the modernization of Kathmandu, these enterprises look less appealing. Given their prime location, they could earn a lot more if the property was used for running other lucrative businesses.

In nepal, religion is found in every nook and cranny. Here too, religion plays a major role as there beside the machines, are two idols of ‘vishwakarma’, the deity that is revered by workers. Six big pujas are held here during the course of a year, and in each, a buffalo is sacrificed. Each year, two of the families take on the entire responsibility of organizing the pujas. Since the enterprise was started by 24 families, even though most of them quit the business, the responsibility of holding these pujas is still shared by all of them.

Hari Prasad Kiju: Ph. 9841514159
Shesh Narayan : Ph. 9841216969