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Holy Sheet: handmade paper from Nepal

Making paper in the traditional Nepalese fashion is a meticulous process, but the skilled artisans working for brothers Milan and Mahesh Bhattarai can dip, shape and dry 1200 sheets of this durable, reusable paper each day. Their work plays an important part in preserving an ancient, cultural craft, but also in developing a more sustainable, modern papermaking business model.​

Rebuilding Nepal

Nepalese Papers is just one of the many enterprises operating in the aftermath of an immensely destructive 2015 earthquake.  More than 8778 people were killed in the tremors of the quake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and triggered mass landslides that engulfed villages and ripped homes apart. The beginning of monsoon season soon afterwards hampered efforts to rebuild, and now, four years later, debris still haunts the communities struggling to move on.  

The earthquake has had a lasting impact on Nepal’s tourism trade and economy, meaning many young men are emigrating to find work abroad. As 83% of the population still live in rural areas, this declining availability of male workers has opened up more agricultural roles to women, who have always worked alongside men in agriculture and papermaking. However, despite their increased access to employment, female education is still limited with most primary schools having a much higher number of male students. For businesses looking to the future, female empowerment remains key.

On the paper trail

Long before the current devastation, Milan Bhattarai and his brother, Mahesh, began producing paper in the mid 1980s in a semi-rural area of Kathmandu. Although papermaking accounts for only a fraction of the company’s output now, it has been a traditional industry of the Himalayan region for centuries and was traditionally made for use by monks in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

Rather than using chopped wood, the paper is commonly made of strong Lokta plants which thrive at high altitudes in the Himalayas. For many centuries, local communities have made versatile use of the plant’s resilient, rope-like fibres, which can be liquidated and dried to form a durable, long-lasting sheet of paper. Unlike felled trees, these plants also re-grow when they are harvested and so have minimal impact on the environment.

Traditionally, the papermaking process took place in the Himalayan forests where the Lokta plants grow, but nowadays the fibres are transported downhill to be processed in more accessible areas. This allows paper manufacturers to dry the paper in the sun all year round, offer employment to local communities and ship their produce further afield.

Paper making requires very dry conditions and so the process is begun in low-lying Bastipur, which is close to the Indian border. A papermaking unit was set up here as part of Mahesh’s scheme to create employment for marginalised women in the area, and eight ladies are currently employed here.

The ladies cook and then rinse the plant fibre, and clean the mix by hand to remove any dark bark. This is then added to a machine called a Hollander beater which blends the liquid fibres into a smooth pulp. The unit here at Bastipur contains four papermaking vats and has the capacity to make 900-1200 sheets a day, depending on the season. At full capacity, that’s a whopping 20 kilos of wet fibre to process per day!

The paper is made by pouring the suspended fibres over a mould to form a thin sheet. The frame is then removed from the vat, propped against a post and angled towards the sun to dry out in the heat. The finished sheets are transported to the main base in Bansbari, to be dyed and finished to a high standard.

Forward thinking

The unit in Bansbari employs 90 permanent workers, and has the capacity to offer jobs to 500 people during busy, seasonal periods. Many of these roles are also given to women who live alone, have migrated to the area, or hold less value in Nepal’s strict class caste system.

In modernising a traditional industry, Milan and Mahesh have recognised the need to empower their workforce and so staff are paid over the statutory minimum wage and receive additional health benefits and food supplies. They also receive support to to send their children to school, and exercise decision-making power by electing annual executive, managerial and financial committees.

The success of businesses like this remain integral to rebuilding the Nepalese economy after a devastating 2015.  See this beautiful paper up close by checking out the stunning technicolour packaging on our Cosmic gift box, and keep your eyes peeled for more from where that came from too...

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