The gifts of nature

Features Issue 145 Dec, 2013

Here are four of the many reasons why we should disregard the notion that Nepal is a poor country. We have homegrown but globally sought after products – gifts of resources that nature gave and the Nepali man capitalized to earn some name and game in the global market.

Nepal made hand-knotted Tibetan carpets are no less than works of art and a valuable keepsake for any visitor to the country

Attractive, long-lasting and versatile, Nepal’s Lokta paper is widely used and highly sought after both in the country and abroad. From official government documents to lamp shades, Lokta is a paper for all seasons.

The consumption of honey is growing worldwide and Nepali honey is steadily capturing a portion in the local market

Despite facing stiff competition from far inferior (and cheaper) reproductions, Nepali pashmina has stood the test of time and persevered.

For connoisseurs only


Nepal made hand-knotted Tibetan carpets are no less than works of art and a valuable keepsake for any visitor to the country

It was in 1962 when Nepal exported the first shipment of hand-knotted Tibetan carpets to the international market with a sample consignment to Zurich, Switzerland. These carpets then went on to become the country’s second biggest export. Why are Nepal’s Tibetan carpets so popular abroad? For one, they are made of long-lasting Tibetan wool which only gets better with age. Then there is the novelty of them being hand-knotted and, of course, there are the eye-catching motifs.
It all began with the arrival of Tibetan refugees in 1959, among whom were a sizable number of skilled carpet weavers. In 1960, aided by the Swiss Development Cooperation, the Jawalakhel Handicraft Center (a.k.a Tibetan Refugee Camp) was established at Ekantakuna in order to mitigate the plight of the refugees by putting their skills to use. The center has, since then, become the preferred destination for tourists looking to get their hands on authentic hand-knotted carpets. However, this doesn’t mean that the handicraft center is the only place where good quality Tibetan carpets are to be found as there are many other equally reputed manufacturers in the valley.

One of such is Master Weaver, also situated at Ekantakuna. Run by the second generation of a Tibetan refugee family, they claim to be the first private manufacture and seller of Tibetan carpets in Nepal. The owner, Pema Karpoche, explains that the Tibetan knotting technique, called double knotting, differs from other carpet weaving methods which, in turn, makes its texture different. Master Weaver exports its products mainly to the U.S.A and Canada but is now making inroads into the European market as well. “The market in the U.S.A is more robust than in Europe, but a couple of new markets have also come up,” he says.

According to Karpoche, his venture is “less in volume but more in quality, and quality and creativity are the key factors for business.” He is delighted that there is a growing interest for Tibetan carpets in the domestic market as well and attributes it to people being more conscious about beautifying their homes.

As far as design preferences are concerned, Karpoche believes that locals prefer traditional patterns while modern designs are usually exported. Most manufacturers produce both kinds, customization being a given. Traditional motifs are mostly emblematic in nature, with the colors also chosen on the basis of their symbolism. As for modern patterns, Master Weaver has commissioned Michael Peters of Germany, an abstract/impressionist artist and Dharma practitioner, to work on a collection inspired by his 2004 trip to Nepal. The eight carpets that have resulted from his art have been titled ‘a Connosseur’s Collection’.

If you’re wondering where else to buy good Tibetan carpets in Kathmandu, there are quite a few stores around Boudhanath that sell the product. However, do look around to ensure that you get a good deal. After all, it’s not an ordinary thing you are buying. It’s something precious—a genuine Nepali hand-knotted Tibetan carpet.

Pride of paper


Attractive, long-lasting and versatile, Nepal’s Lokta paper is widely used and highly sought after both in the country and abroad. From official government documents to lamp shades, Lokta is a paper for all seasons.

Recently, while on a visit to a government office in Kathmandu, I’d happened to comment on the dreary stacks of paperwork that make up such an integral part of the operations in such places. I’d wondered how these files and documents survived all that rough handling and neglect. It was a friend who’d made me wise to the fact that government offices here use a specific type of paper, popular especially for its durability. I didn’t know it at the time, but what she was referring to was ‘Lokta’ paper.

Now, Lokta paper is derived from the Lokta plant, also known vernacularly as baruwa and kaagte paat, a high altitude shrub. Two species of the Daphne plant - Daphne bholua and Daphne papyracea – are collectively referred to as ‘Lokta’, and it is the inner barks of these bushes that are used to produce the traditionally handcrafted paper. Lokta is generally found between the altitudes of 6500 and 9500 feet above sea level, growing widely across the Himalayan region. The western district of Baglung and Bhojpur in Nepal’s east are where these plants particularly proliferate.

For those familiar with Lokta paper, it’s not difficult to understand why it has been so widely used. For one, the rough texture gives the material a very distinctive appearance. It’s also easily foldable and known to bypass the problem of corrugation. Additionally, Lokta’s germ-free, insect resistant and waterproof quality makes it very tough, which is why it’s been long utilized by the Nepal government for official purposes. The paper’s benefits, though, do not end there. Lokta is also environmentally friendly –the harvesting of the plant itself has minimal ecological impact and the paper too is easily recyclable.

In October, which marks the commencement of the harvesting season, the stems of the Lokta plant are cut about 30cm above ground level without affecting the roots. In this way, the plant retains the ability to regenerate. It then takes about three to four years for the shrub to fully mature again.

Shiva Subedi of Lokta Paper Craft, one of the leading handmade paper manufacturers in Nepal, says the process involves plenty of labour. “A large number of people are employed in the industry,” he says. “We try to uplift the economic standards of the populace in rural communities by employing them.”

“The use of Lokta benefits Nepal as it is entirely self-sustainable, so we don’t have to depend on others. That is probably its biggest advantage,” he adds.

Lokta’s uses are varied and, perhaps, limitless. Manufacturers come up with new ideas every so often. Lokta Paper Craft alone has an assortment of products that range from the expected note books, photo albums, cards and bags to L.P. boxes, lamp shades, printing sets and wrapping paper to retain the effectiveness of incense. A number of stores in Thamel and Patan sell these products exclusively, and plenty is exported overseas, where the demand for the textured material is high.

It’s safe to say that Lokta paper has carved a niche for itself in the local as well as international markets, made possible because of its distinctive appearance, versatility and durability. Not to mention the fact that it’s come to be practically emblematic of official transactions here. As Subedi puts with pride - “Lokta is 100 percent uniquely Nepali.”

Buzzing around the beehive


People have been consuming honey for thousands of years. A cave painting in Spain confirms that honey hunting began at least 8,000 years ago. The golden liquid has also been used for various medicinal purposes since ancient times.
Said to be one of the healthiest of foods, the advantages of honey are plenty. It filters our blood, and the friction it develops against blood cells creates heat. Interestingly, while honey keeps our body warm in winter, it can also be used to cool it down in summer. The liquid is used in healing external wounds and is also applied on the skin for its radiating properties.

The use of honey is believed to decrease body fat, cholesterol and gastritis and even said to increase memory power in children. With health consciousness at a high, many people have been switching from sugar to honey lately. The situation is no different in Nepal.

“The honey market used to be dominated by imported products especially from China. But because of the increasing popularity of bee-keeping practices in both small and large scales, Nepali honey has captured a large portion of the market lately,” says Prem Singh, proprietor of N. Stone Bee Concern. “The popularity could be due to the fact that this field doesn’t require difficult labour and profit can be generated in shorter time periods.”

A majority of Nepali honey comes from the Terai region but bee-keeping is carried out throughout the country, even at higher altitudes, thus producing a large variety of flavors. N. Stone Bee Concern alone sells six flavors - herbal, organic, leprosia (bheer maha), pure, mixed flower and jungle - through its bee-keeping farms spread across Nepal, but especially in Chitwan and Dang. A more daring and difficult practice would be honey hunting, which was famously documented in Oscar-nominated film-maker Eric Valli’s film “The Honey Hunters”. Honey hunting in Nepal involves extracting honey made by Apis Dorsata Laboriosa, the largest species of honeybee in the world, found 3,500-4,000 meters above sea level. This is done twice a year. The honey extracted from the Apis Dorsata Laboriosa is totally natural and believed to be healthier and more effective than the others, thereby making it more expensive.

“One major advantage of Nepali honey over imported ones is that it freezes, which is the tendency of natural honey,” explains Singh. “In imported honey, enzymes that crystallize it are extracted so freezing doesn’t occur even in winter. This is obtained by using various chemicals which destroys its natural properties.”


Coming home shorn


Despite facing stiff competition from far inferior (and cheaper) reproductions, Nepali pashmina has stood the test of time and persevered. Now, after being rebranded as Chyangra Pashmina, it is up to the industry to innovate and maintain its fabled quality.

The image of a lone mountain goat, high in the Himalayas, is perhaps the farthest one can get from luxury. But it’s from the soft inner coat of the chyangra, as the goat is locally called,  that we acquire the highly coveted and deluxe pashmina fibre. This very fine wool, measuring around 13 to 17 microns in diameter, is collected from the fleece of these animals that live more than 3000 meters above sea level. The outer coat is discarded and only the finest inner material, also known as the ‘Diamond fibre’, is used. This is what makes Nepali pashmina an internationally renowned and coveted luxury item.

The fibre for pashmina wool is collected every spring when the animal is moulting. Normally, a comb is raked through the fleece of the goat and tufts of hair are removed. They are subsequently sorted and de-haired to remove any coarse outer fur and then washed. The fibre is eventually spun into a yarn and woven into various products, a few of which are scarves, shawls and cardigans. Natural pashmina is usually found in shades of grey, blue or white but can be dyed into any colour.

Despite the decline in demand due to tough competition from cheaper foreign counterparts (that are often mixed with polyester and viscose), Nepalese pashmina still holds a status of its own. Perhaps the most important feature of Nepali pashmina is that it is completely authentic and unadulterated. “Pure pashmina has a certain spring to it that can never be found in any other blend of fibres,” says Sunil Shrestha of Nepal Pashmina Industries. In order to preserve the authenticity of Nepalese pashmina and combat the effect of cheap imitations, the Nepalese government and pashmina producers have jointly registered a trademark for the wool. Nepalese pashmina is henceforth to be referred to as ‘Chyangra Pashmina’.

This trademark, which has already been registered in almost 40 countries, is not only an assurance of the quality of raw materials used but also guarantees the process, production environment, processing and use of skilled manpower during manufacture.

Chyangra pashmina is generally handmade, another one of its valuable features, which ensures that each piece is one of a kind. While these products are traditionally plain and monochromatic, pashmina producers are now starting to use methods such as ikat and tie-dye techniques to colour and print designs onto the fabric. “Our Dhaka patterns are getting quite popular and our western and Nepali fusion designs are gaining pace as well,” says Shrestha. Similarly, other production houses too are introducing fresh designs to attract new clients.

While the rebranding may, to some extent, have brought the industry out of a decade long slump, the real challenge lies in maintaining the brand and its quality. That being said, pashmina is still one of Nepal’s biggest exports and a covetable luxury, one that cannot be imitated with a mere tag.