Sanukaji Maharjan, 75, still remembers the heydays of straw mats (‘sukul’) in the early 1950’s, when demand was soaring and many of his neighbors made twenty to twenty-five rupees a month (equivalent to Rs.10, 000 or US$ 150.00 at present rates).
“It was big money at that time, when you could buy a two storied house and paddy land for Rs.250 (today’s equivalent of three US$),” said Sanukaji, a resident of Sanugaun village. The village is the main bazaar of the ancient city of Patan, four kilometers east of Mangal Bazaar, and eleven kilometers south-east of downtown Kathmandu.
Before Kathmandu Valley was invaded by new settlers and the construction of concrete buildings began in the 1960’s, most of the houses, whether a durbar (palace) or chhapro (hut), had straw mats as standard flooring material. The only visible difference was that the straw mats were covered by woolen blankets or smooth cotton blankets in durbars, while poor farmers used plain bare mats. For jyapus (farmers), and many others living on the outskirts of the main cities, making the mats remains a lifeline even today. During harvest time in October, streets, yards and roof terraces are covered with straw mats for drying rice.
Whether being used for bhoya (festivals), drying grains, or protecting one’s body from the damp, sukul are gradually being replaced by synthetic floor coverings, woolen carpets, and other mats in durbars, as well as in modern buildings. Although they don’t match up to straw mats in utility, even old houses with earthen floors are now resorting to using synthetic carpets.
Maharjan remembers the hectic days when he had to weave straw mats of diverse sizes as demanded by the market. “We used to have certain standard sizes for mats, depending upon the sizes of rooms of urban and rural houses. We used to make 5x3, 5x5, 2x2, and 5x7 hat (a measure of length, from elbow to finger tips, equivalent to eighteen inches) sized mats,” Maharjan says, recounting his old days. Since straw was available in nearby villages, the mats were exchanged on a barter basis there and delivered to the more distant households of Kathmandu and Lalitpur for cash.
The bamboo vessels of Pyang, mustard oil of Khokana, and parched rice of Tigani are connected to these specific places, but almost all villages weave straw mats. Of course, some villages produce more and some less, but the quality and materials remain about the same from place to place. Most of the people of older generations living in towns and villages still know the techniques of weaving these mats.
The straw mat mirrored the self-reliant pattern of Newar villages. “All Newar villages were self-reliant and self-sustained. They produced almost everything they required and they did not have to depend on outside products for their survival,” says Dr. Safely Amatya, an archeologist and former senior civil servant who worked with the Department of Archeology for more than three decades. “The farmer class were mostly responsible for producing straw mats and the skill of weaving straw mats is still preserved in rural parts of Kathmandu.”
From palaces to the house of commoners, straw mats had a certain demand. Until the 1970’s, many private schools also used straw mats for their primary level classes. Since the palaces required high quality and dependable straw mats, the weavers had to spend more time on them. “The quality of a straw mat depends upon the skill of the weaver and his material. If straw is well stored in kunyu (stacks of hay), the life of the mat will be longer. If the straw has had as much water as it can, the mat will be of better quality,” said Astaman Tandukar, 78, of Bandegaon, 7 kilometers south of Patan. The durability of the straw mat also depends on how strongly the ropes are twisted and tied.
Pointing to newly constructed houses near his older home, Maharjan argued that the cement wall and floor affect the health of people in the long run. He defended his straw mat as a reliable cover against the effects of damp. “Although our straw mats have certain disadvantages, including a short life and being dusty, they are still better than modern mats,” said Maharjan.
The straw mat is still in demand, as many old houses still use them to cover the floor, from the living room to the bedroom. To keep up the tradition, many urban house owners order straw mats in accordance to the size of their rooms, and the weavers produce them accordingly. From small cushions to large room sized mats, one can yet find straw mats in certain shops in Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu.
Along with Sanaguan, other surrounding villages like Sunakothi, Thecho, Luvu and Harisiddhi still have many people who weave straw mats. “We weave straw mats and sell them in Patan city. Most of the remaining old houses [owners] still prefer straw mat,” said Sanukaji Dangol of Luvu Village, seven kilometers east of the main Patan Bazaar. “If we receive orders, we are ready to supply our product in a timely fashion.”
With the mounting pressures of modernization and construction of concrete buildings, the demand for straw mats has drastically declined. Farmers also face a scarcity of straw. From making mats to boiling aila (alcohol distilled from fermented rice) to roasting buffalo meat, (choyala), straw has many uses in the life of Newars of Kathmandu Valley, but there are fewer farmers producing it. The urban city dwellers have begun to use expensive mats of different materials, including woolen carpets, since they are easy to clean, durable, and dust free. “Even if the demand goes up, there is little possibility of reviving the tradition of producing mats since most of the younger generation do not know the technique of [making them],” says Maharjan. The method of producing straw mats is complicated, and some experience is required.
The residents of Kathmandu valley have their own peculiar, self-reliant ways of living, from specially prepared foods, to containers and measurements, to clothes and mats. As modernization is penetrating the city, many of these unique patterns of living are vanishing. What next?
It dawned upon me after completing a Patan heritage walk recently that there is so much more to this area...