The dense peaked landscapes of the mountainous region of Nepal are the habitat of the high attitude plant Daphne (lokta) which has been used for centuries for making paper. It is conjectured that the Chinese technique of paper-making was brought from Tibet over the ancient trade routes about a thousand years ago and that skilled Nepalese artisans have been producing paper and supplying the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries ever since. The Nepalese themselves have found myriad uses for this paper in their daily life – these include, among others, its use in writing manuscripts, printing sacred texts, inscribing valuable documents, making ritual masks, constructing kites, rolling incense, packaging, and wrapping precious stones (as its soft fibres do not scratch the surface). In many local communities all over Nepal, artisans have been making paper by hand for over a thousand years, using age-old labour intensive techniques. The paper-making industry is of crucial importance to the economy, since many families in the Himalayan foothills supplement their farming income with that from making paper.
TRADITIONS & USE
In Nepal and Tibet, hand-made paper was traditionally used to prepare manuscripts, land registration documents, and loan and other legal documents. For all these durability has been a basic requirement.
Lokta paper was used in government offices in Nepal till the coming of democracy when the offices changed over to using imported paper. This adversely affected the production of paper and a great many paper-makers lost their source of employment and livelihood. However, in the past decade, international recognition and increasing demand has resulted in immense growth in the production of lokta paper. The lokta plant cultivation provides an environmentally sound, self-sustaining, natural resource and paper-making has now become a catalyst for the empowerment of local people, especially women, by providing jobs, income, and financial independence.
Renowned for its exceptional durability and for its special texture, lokta paper is suitable for drawing, monotype, and relief printing, collage and book-making, packaging, and making lamp shades. The paper in its undyed form is a natural ivory appearance; it also has a silken texture that is extremely appealing. Lokta paper can be soaked in a dye bath and even be tie-dyed as its natural fibres prevent easy tearing, Resilient and versatile, this paper readily absorbs dyes and is available in as many shades and colours as required. Among its other characteristics is the fact that when wrinkled the creases can be ironed out. Due to the inherent quality of the plant the paper also has the advantage of being a natural insect repellent.
The Daphne plant, from the family Thymelaeacae, comprises 70 species and grows in altitudes ranging from 1,524 meters to 2,743 meters above sea level. Small and differently shaded flowers grow on the numerous types of Daphne plants. The plant demonstrates a tremendous rope like strength when its branches are pulled: the branches, like elastic, can be coiled, twisted, and turned. It is the unusually strong inner bark that is stripped and used to make the ivory-coloured paper. Many varieties of Daphne are used for making paper, among them Daphne papyracea, Daphne bholua, Daphne cannabina, Daphne sureil, and Daphne involucrate.
The bark from Daphne cannabina and the Daphne papyracea is what is commonly used in Nepal to make paper. It grows in the northern Himalayan regions at an altitude of 7000-11,000 feet. The local names for these shrubs are sikra, susu, and kagat pate, while the bark of the shrubs are known as baruwa or lokta, from which the paper derives its name. The bush is mainly found among conifers or deciduous trees. In an ideal climate the plant can reach a height of 15 feet. The stalk diameter varies between 2.5- 4″ and its green leaves have a length of 2-4″, with a width of 0.33-1″.
It is gathered at high altitudes without destroying the fragile ecology of the Nepalese forests and is carried to the paper-making villages, often a two or three days walk down the mountains.
When harvested, 10-15 feet tall plants are cut down to a size of about six to eight inches. In about approximately four to eight years the plant regenerates itself and can be cut again. The correct manner of harvesting lokta is to cut the slender stems at ground level without destroying the main root, so that new main shoots can grow and mature for another harvest.
Nepalese lokta paper is prized for its strength and durability. Due to the high length to width ratio of the lokta fibre, the paper has a high tearing strength and is extremely resistant and durable. In addition, paper made from lokta withstands temperature extremes and dampness as well as attacks from insects, as the long-fibered bark contains a natural enzyme, which resists insects. Related to the Japanese mitsumata, lokta produces paper of a similar silky texture.
PROCESS & TECHNIQUE
The paper made by the Nepalese artisans follows a completely different process of manufacture from the paper made by their Indian neighbours. Within Nepal, however, though regional variations exist, the basic method followed remains the same.
First the cutters strip the inner bark from the Daphne plant. The plant grows wild but is also especially cultivated for the making of paper This de-barking generally takes place in the months of falgun, chaitra, and baishakh (March-April)
A sickle is used to separate the knots from the strips of the Daphne inner bark; this is then dried without delay. The bark is cleaned and cut into small pieces and soaked in hot water for 5-6 hours to make is more soft and pliable. This part of the process is done near a source of water – a river or stream – as it requires plenty of water. Next, the bark is completely cleaned of any clay or dirt that is still adhering to it. The bark is then hung in tight bundles to enable the water to trickle off.
An extract is prepared from the ashes produced by burning woods such as banjh, khusru, phalant, katus, and lye; water is poured into a tightly woven conical bamboo basket (doko), which acts as a sieve. The basket containing the ash extract allows the concoction to drip though. A wooden vessel, (doond) is placed below it. The filtered water obtained is initially brackish in colour; however, as more and more ash is added in the doko the filtrate below becomes gets darker in colour. This filtrate forms the alkali extract used for digesting the barks. In order to obtain the dark, alkaline liquid filtrate, the process is often repeated several times over.
The dried barks are placed in a large vessel called the khadkaulo made of copper, tin, or zinc. The alkali filtrate is then poured into the vessel. The extract covers the bark. The bark is then boiled on an oven for 3 to 4 hours till it is absorbed and the fibres become soft.
The khadkaulo is then slowly tilted to allow the alkaline water to pass into another vessel, leaving behind the softened bark. The bark is taken out, washed with water, and cut into small pieces with a knife.
The minced bark is again placed in the khadkaunlo vessel with the alkali solution and boiled for 3 to 4 hours, or till the bark becomes soft and easily breakable. If this stage is not reached, further boiling, with an addition of more alkali solution is required. The softened bark is spread over a mat for the water to soak away.
The bark is cleaned once again with water. The boiled fibre is placed in a stone mortar or on a stone slab and pounded by hand with a conical wooden mallet known as the mungro. This pounding process takes 3 to 4 hours; water is added as and when required to further loosen and break up the fibres into a fine pulp. This laborious and rhythmic hand pounding contributes to the strength and flexibility of the sheets of paper that are ultimately created.
The lokta, thoroughly pounded into a pulpy mass, is now placed in a tall cylindrical vessel and a particular amount of water added to it. This mixture is then vigorously stirred with the stirrer (madani) so that a homogeneous emulsion of pulp is formed in the water. At this stage, any dirt or foreign body in the pulp is removed. This pulp emulsion is now ready for paper-making.
The paper-making wooden mould in which the fibres are made into paper consists of four wooden sticks joined together in an rectangular size frame that is fitted with a tightly stretched coarse cloth called khandi or gharbuna. The casting of paper is usually done near a stream or pond as plenty of water is needed for the process(es). A small water pit or tank is made near the source of the water. The mould is floated in the tank of water and the paper-maker ladles the pulp on to the frame either by hand or with a measuring pot that provides an estimate of the required quantity of pulp per sheet – the thickness or fineness of the paper depends upon the quantity of pulp measured out.
As the pulp is poured over the frame, the mould is gently shaken to evenly disperse the fibres so that they spread uniformly over the stretched cloth. After this, the frame is taken out of the water and is held for a few minutes to drain out the excess water. It is then placed tilted on the ground and allowed to dry in the sun; in cold weather the drying is often helped by heat from nearby fires.
Once dried, the paper sheet is peeled off the cloth – the mould is ready to be reused. The dried paper is then folded and made into bundles, called dheps. A dhep usually comprises of 200 sheets of paper. Each sheet of paper has four deckle edges and is normally 20 X 26″ in size and 45 grams (and above) in weight.
The sun-dried sheets are transported to paper factories where they are dyed, stencilled, printed upon, and transformed into attractive products or sold as paper sheets. Today, products such as greeting cards, stationery sets, notebooks, gift wrapping paper, bags, envelopes, photo frames, and a range of other items are being made in large numbers in Kathmandu Valley.
The preferred location of the paper-producing units is near the forest area where there is sufficient quantity of both the lokta and the fuel wood required in the process of paper-making. The lokta shrub grows in the north of Nepal and from the east to the far west of the country. Traditionally, the people engaged in making lokta paper were those who lived on the caravan routes leading to Lhasa in Tibet – the art of paper-making gradually spread to the western parts of Nepal specially among the Gurungs and Magars. In the eastern region, the Rais excel in this technique.
Paper is produced in forested areas like Arun, Baglung, and Dailekh in the west, and Solukhumbu, Ramechap, and Barabise in the east, and is processed and sold worldwide.
CREATING A SUSTAINABLE & RENEWABLE RESOURCE BASE
Since lokta is the basic raw material for producing hand-made paper, a sustainable supply is essential. However, by 1984, the harvesting of lokta had led to its reduced availability within reasonable distances of paper-making communities. As a solution, a programme was initiated in 1985, which divided lokta resources into blocks and established a four-year block harvest quota for the period from 1985 to 1988. Within each block, a rotating harvest programme was introduced. In 1986, further protective measures were introduced following a more comprehensive inventory of lokta resources. The original four-year rotation cycle was changed to a cycle of six and then eight years: the time it takes for new shoots to be mature enough to harvest.
Concurrent to this development and to further safeguard lokta resources, the Department of Forests introduced two improved techniques to reduce wood consumption. The first involves the use of caustic soda in the process. This reduces the quantity of wood ash required and speeds the breakdown of the lokta fibre. The second improvement is the introduction of more efficient stoves. These stove reduced fuel wood consumption by 10 to 25 per cent.
In addition to these improvements, nurseries and plantations have been established in the project areas. Workshops on Nepalese hand-made paper, community development, and lokta management are frequently held in Baglung. In these workshops, the issues of environmental awareness are discussed with the local participants. The workshops stress that farmers should use only dry wood and branches to prepare the lokta fibre. These workshops also advise that caustic soda effluents not be discharged directly into rivers and nearby water sources.
A measuring device that shows whether or not the lokta stems are ready for harvesting (6-7 cm in diameter or more than one meter in height) has been developed and supplied to lokta harvesters. In the high hills, the Department of Forests now works with lokta gatherers to conserve the supply of lokta shrubs. In the high valleys, forest rangers help the paper-makers protect forests and establish nurseries to supply species suitable for fuelwood. As a renewable resource, lokta now protects Nepal’s fragile and threatened forest ecology.