Downtown Kathmandu is world-famous as one of the greatest crossroads on the globe. Here, the ancient trade route has metamorphosed into a busy tourist trail and the city is a meeting place for millions of travellers and hikers. They come to visit the beautiful temples and to prepare for treks into the sky-high Himalayas. In meeting every need of these travellers, Kathmandu has grown to be a shopping centre of extraordinary verve and variety.
In the tightly-drawn maze of narrow and noisy streets, Sherpas who may have climbed Everest a dozen times decide on an easier way of life by opening up the very best of climbing equipment shops. Others who have finished their travelling days run the world’s finest mountaineering book shops. There are German beer gardens, French patisseries, Indian tea shops, Tibetan carpet shops, Thai restaurants and plenty of places selling exquisite Nepalese crafts. Among these crafts are intricate wood carvings, metalworking and clothes-making. But, for me, the most eye-catching of all is the traditional Nepalese handmade paper.
Paper here possesses a long history at the centre of trade, worship and learning. It has for centuries been a commodity of great importance in this kingdom. And the skill of making beautiful papers is as vital today as ever. Readily available everywhere are papers that range from glorious thick, oatmeal-coloured sheets, like rough woven cloth flecked with straw and petals, to the finest, diaphanous tissues dyed the richest, densest crimson, gold and indigo. They are sold in plain sheets or already made up into lampshades, pictures frames, cards and albums.
On the outskirts of the city there is a scattering of paper-making workshops. Here, in simple tin-roofed sheds, men and women work side by side making pulp from an assortment of raw materials. The liquid is scooped into traditional rectangular wood and wire frames and paper sheets are strewn like washing on the grass and hedges around the outside of the factory to dry in the sun.
The papers have a powerful appeal because of their variety of colour, texture and quality. The traditional raw material which forms the bulk of the mix for most papers is a shrubby plant called lokta. This tough plant, indigenous to the mountainous region, has the capacity to grow happily at heights of over 2000 metres. The woody bark of the plant is used for paper-making, and because of its toughness it produces the very desirable long, strong fibres that produce soft, strong papers.
Fears that over-cutting of lokta was contributing to Nepal’s deforestation problem have driven most paper-makers to diversify and also make stocks from cotton rags, waste paper and a variety of other plants.
Key to the success of one of the largest producers, General Paper Industries, has been The Body Shop’s Community Trade programme. GPI was established in 1984 and was visited four years later by The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick on one of her trade missions. She was keen to source handmade recycled paper for the shops, and was travelling with friend and paper-maker Mara Amats when they met GPI’s founder Milan Bhattarai. Discussions led to a deal that would encourage the expansion of traditional paper-making, creating jobs and helping to fund community programmes.
Over the past eight years, The Body Shop has helped GPI incorporate alternative raw materials such as banana tree stems, jute and water hyacinth. It has worked to overcome technical hitches with processes such as disposing of excess dyes, and has encouraged environmentally-friendly production.
The Body Shop pays a premium for the goods to help fund community schemes and, so far, has seen money invested in important ventures such as the Send Your Daughter to School campaign and an extensive AIDS awareness education programme.
The papers imported by The Body Shop are put to countless uses in preparing press material and creating shop banners. The stocks are also sold as notebooks, and made into scented drawer-liners and sachets or bags filled with pot-pourri.
Happily, for those interested in buying and using Nepalese papers in sheet form, a range of materials is imported in significant quantities into Britain by specialist shops such as Paperchase and Falkiner Fine Papers.
The latter has for many years carried supplies of Nepalese papers and ensures there is always a range of sheets in stock. “Nepalese papers are very good quality and rustic in character,” says Gabrielle Falkiner. “There’s very little that’s available in pure white, but the variety of textures, thicknesses and colours is wonderful.”
Falkiner is an admirer of the country’s paper-making skills. “The quality of production is excellent, the lokta fibre is not over-beaten and it produces papers of great flexibility and strength. Many types of sheet also take printing very well. We have particularly strong sales of the very fine tissues to the conservation-restoration world and there is a demand from fine arts and graphic design for papers with intriguing textures.”
Because Nepalese papers are handmade, buyers can expect to find variations from sheet to sheet and from batch to batch.
However, suppliers like Falkiner endeavour to keep as much continuity of supply as possible, often maintaining stocks of up to 3000 sheets of the most popular papers. But the best advice to anyone looking for unusual and distinctive material is that if you see a paper which you like… buy it.