Asha Maya is probably more than 80 years old. People re-fer to her as “Laati Budhi” (that is, elderly woman who cannot speak). She lives in the decrepit Yukta Jayalaxmi Chatrawas on the premises of the Tulsi Mehar Mahila Ashram at Gothatar in Kathmandu, close to the international airport. It is an offshoot of Nepal Charkha Pracharak Gandhi Tulsi Smarak Mahaguthi, a welfare organization established in 1927 by the eminent Gandhian, Tulsi Mehar Shrestha, and dedicated to the betterment and upliftment of widowed and destitute women.
The center has a small community hospital, production workshops, training center, and higher secondary and kindergarten school as well as living quarters on its premises sprawling over some 151 ropani (about 19 acres) of land. The center offers free two-year training programs in weaving, sewing, knitting and literacy, for destitute women from all over the country. Asha Maya has a companion, another laati budhi like herself, living
in the ashram, which is undoubtedly a godsend for them as the center must be for the thousands who have lived there and acquired skills to lead self reliant lives. But at present, the center seems to have lost some of its earlier luster. The rundown state of the building in which the laati budhis live is only one example. According to a person who has been living there since childhood, the deterioration appears to have begun some six or seven years ago. Even the grass seems to be growing wild nowadays. One assumes that all of this is a temporary problem and because its history is so profound, one hopes that the tide will turn for the better soon.
The vegetable gardens on the site are thriving, however, and a big building that is almost complete and meant to house 100 trainees is another redeeming factor. But, as of writing this article, the training center is empty. The training, which was supposed to have started from Baisakh (April-May), shows no sign of starting yet the delay is another sign of the times, reflecting the lack of an earlier coherence in policy and practice. And it’s hard to match the place today with its description of a few years ago: “The ashram was truly inspirational. Set in seven acres of garden, with wonderful flowers, trees and bushes, and bright-eyed children playing, this seemed an idyllic haven from the hustle and bustle of the main city” (www.lovethatstuff.co.uk/maha.html). Nevertheless, even if things seem to have a taken a somewhat wrong turn nowadays, the spirit lives on, though it might be a little dimmer today than it was when Tulsi Mehar Shrestha, the founder, established it some three decades ago.
A Nepali Gandhian
Tulsi Mehar (1896-1978) was born in a humble middle class family in Lalitpur. He was a reformer who spoke publicly against prevalent social ills, especially against the rigid caste system and discrimination against women. His vision was to empower women through education and income generation activities and so make them economically self-reliant. As a result of his reformist activities and vocal denunciation of such issues, he was exiled by Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher J. B. Rana. This led him to Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in India where he worked with untouchables and low caste women to help them earn a living. Later, on Gandhi’s request, Tulsi Mehar was allowed back into the country where he immediately put into practice what he had learned in India. He distributed cotton to destitute women in villages and encouraged them to start weaving projects.
He started the country’s first cottage textile industry at the Shankhamul Ghat in Lalitpur. In 1927, he established the Shree Tin Chandra Kamdhenu Charkha Pracharak Mahaguthi and the Nepal Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, which later merged in 1973 to become the Nepal Charkha Pracharak Gandhi Smarak Mahaguthi. In 1977, Tulsi Mehar received the Nehru Award in recognition for his social service. He donated the award money to establish a training and rehabilitation center for widowed and destitute women from various parts of Nepal. Here they were given vocational training to develop new skills that would enable them to transform their sad and hopeless lives. The center is known as the Tulsi Mehar Mahila Ashram.
To sell the ashram products, a small craft shop was first established on the premises of the Patan Durbar courtyard. Later in 1984, with support from Oxfam, it went on to become an organization known as ‘Mahaguthi: Craft with a Conscience’. A guthi is a traditional social organization used to maintain the social order in Nepal’s Newari society, and maha means large; thus, mahaguthi means a large Newari social organization. Serving both the domestic and international markets, the Mahaguthi organization produces, markets and exports Nepalese handicrafts. It has three shops in the Kathmandu Valley and 40 percent of the organization’s income goes towards providing women and children of the Tulsi Mehar Mahila Ashram with training, food, shelter, clothing, health care and education. The stores, besides being an outlet for the ashram’s products, also provide access to the market, training, and support to more than 1,000 handicraft producers in five developmental regions with over 90% of their workforce being women. Mahaguthi is the founder member of Fair Trade Group Nepal, which in turn is a member of Asia Fair Trade Forum and International Fair Trade Association (IFAT).
Mahaguthi also has its own production site on the ashram center grounds in Gothatar, which will be completing nine years of operations this year. It employs about 15 women who produce about 1,200 meters of handloom cloth every month according to master weaver Om Sagar Shrestha. Many of the women are from in and around the valley and sometimes, their children also give them company while they go about their task of weaving. Laxmi Thapa of Gothatar and Sarada Maharjan of Kirtipur, both working there since its inception, are the block printers. They look happy enough, but at the same time they have a few suggestions for improvement, as well. According to them, there are no proper provisions for drinking water and the toilet is woefully inadequate. And the unkempt grass around the production shed brings with it the danger of snakebites.
A Healthy Proposition
The training center, a large building, is situated behind a temple next to an impressive bust of the late founder. It offers training programs in weaving, sewing, knitting and literacy to destitute women as well as free education to their children. It is empty at the moment. The completion of the previous training period some months back saw 100 women from various parts of the country go out into the world with new skills and renewed confidence. According to people at the site, previous trainees were permitted to bring their children to live with them whose education up to SLC (School Leaving Certificate) was provided for free. Nowadays, however, only one child per trainee is permitted, and the child’s education is no longer as completely free as before.
According to a past trainee who works at the ashram, being selected for a training course at the ashram is a much sought after opportunity for many women from in and outside the valley because one gets to have a relatively carefree life for at least two years. That one also receives valuable training is of course the primary motivation. Still, one can well imagine that to be able to get free quarters and food as well as education for one’s child in an expensive city like the capital, must be certainly an attractive proposition! Speaking of food, the mess is a large hall and most of the vegetables served are from the ashram’s own gardens. This is no doubt a most healthy part of ashram life, as must be the wide open spaces around the site. However, all said and done, it is an ashram and there are certain things that cannot be overlooked, such as the large sign in the mess with a saying by Mahatma Gandhi which reads, “One should eat not in order to please the palate, but just to keep the body going.”