Working magic with wood

15 min read
17 Feb 2017
15 min read
1780 words
Over the last three decades, Bungamati has turned into Nepal’s premier woodcarving town from a primarily agricultural one
“More than 60 per cent of the people in Bungamati have taken up woodcarving as either a full or part-time job”

It is Mani Ratna’s father who is to be credited with turning Bungamati’s farmers into woodcarvers. In the mid 80s, Mani Ratna’s father decided he didn’t want to be a priest—the work his family had been involved in for generations. “Working as a priest required a lot of studying and training. It wasn’t a reliable source of income either. My father realised one day that he’d rather do something else,” says Mani Ratna. That’s when his father, along with some other men from Bungamati and a young Mani Ratna, went to the Patan Udhyog Kshetra to learn woodcarving. After their training, the men worked for workshops in Patan but later decided to set up their own ventures in Bungamati. They invested in their own tools and wood and opened little workshops back in Bungamati that manufactured curio items and taught woodcarving to the villagers.

The items produced at these first workshops sold well among the tourists who would visit Bungamati. Mani Ratna’s family also started to get wholesale orders from curio sellers from around Kathmandu; and they came to understand that wooden frames were needed, in pretty large quantities, by the army and government bodies for housing their official documents and certificates. Realising that woodcrafting promised much potential, more and more people in Bungamati started to learn woodcarving from villagers who were already involved in the craft, and the town soon turned into a village of woodcarvers. Everyone, from retail shopkeepers and rugmakers to farmers, started working with chisels, mallets and blocks of wood. Woodcarving has been especially popular among the women. Mani Ratna’s wife, Dilmaya Bajracharya, has been carving for about 18 years now. Her brother had taught her the basics when she was younger, and she improved her skills further under the tutelage of Mani Ratna. “Woodcarving is very suitable for women, especially housewives, because you can do this right at home,” she says. “I carve while the food is cooking or when I’m minding my daughter while she does homework or after I’m done with the day’s chores.” Dilmaya has also taught numerous women in Bungamati the craft and conducts free classes for anyone who is interested in picking the skill up.People who take classes at Dilmaya’s can carve basic designs on photoframes and mantelpieces. The designs engraved on them are inspired by the age-old carvings on temples in Kathmandu. The designs are carved on woods like saur or karma, which they get from wood depots in Gwarko, Balkumari, Panauti, Dhading and Dang. The wood is first cut into manageable pieces at a wood mill and then smoothened with a planing machine. These pieces are then sent to the woodcarvers. Each wooden product consists of a number of parts that need to be worked on separately. In a typical workshop, the workers are given different parts to carve on, and they are all assembled at the end. With this manufacturing model, workshops can produce anywhere from 40 to 100 products per day. These products are then picked up by wholesalers and sold to retailers in tourist hotspots like Thamel, Basantapur and Bhaktapur. Orders also come in from places outside the capital like Pokhara and Butwal, among others.

No matter what business model they follow, most woodcarvers have found different niches for themselves

Besides the woodcarvers who produce curio items for wholesale buyers, there are a select few artisans who create highly intricate, expensive pieces, for high-end clients. Raj Bhai Shakya, proprietor of Hayagrive Wood Carving, Bungamati, is one such artisan. His works have reached countries like the Netherlands, France and the US. He does not work on mass-produced items but instead takes custom orders from home and abroad for intricately wood-carved doors, windows, statues and other decor items that take months to complete. For example, the statue of the Avalokiteshvara—the bodhisattva of compassion—at his workshop took him four months to finish. He charges Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,300 for every day he spends on a project. No matter what business model they follow, most woodcarvers have found different niches for themselves.There are also some woodcarvers, such as Tri Ratna Bajracharya, who make small batches of Ganesh and Buddha statues, masks, keychains and wooden prayer wheels and sell them to tourists who visit Bungamati. After 2015’s earthquakes, their business almost got snuffed out because tourist arrivals in Nepal dipped to extremely low levels. Today, most of them do contract work for Mani Ratna’s workshop, which collects work from them and ships them out to buyers in Nepal and abroad.

In Bungamati, there are three to four woodcarving houses that have the capacity—the machinery and the space—to mass-produce items such as Mani Ratna’s venture. Most of them produce much more than Mani Ratna’s company does and at faster rates. Their works are obviously not of the same quality as Mani Ratna’s, but they do find wholesale buyers who want cheaper products. A few years ago, the workshop established a woodcarvers’ association in Bungamati that would help protect the woodcarvers who were producing higher quality items—but which the wholesalers were not buying. But the idea failed terribly. “All of us mass-producers came together to start an association to properly allocate the work that comes into Bungamati,” says Man Ratna Bajracharya, brother of Mani Ratna Bajracharya and proprietor of Windows and Wood Carving Centre. “However, instead of equally distributing all the work among the woodcarvers, the association head would assign the orders only to his workers on the grounds that he has been working with the concerned wholesaler for a long time,” he adds. The association disbanded.

But there’s another problem that’s threatening Bungamati’s woodcarving industry. Today’s generation does not want to pursue woodcarving as a career. According to Dilmaya, many children in the village don’t want to learn woodcarving because of the profession’s image in society. They think woodcarvers sit on dirty floors and dark rooms and carve all day. “Today’s generation would rather spend money on some fancy degree and work a boring desk job with a computer and meagre pay than stay at home and carve on wood, which is actually a fairly lucrative alternative,” she says. Man Ratna, on the other hand, thinks today’s generation are just sick of the sight of wood. “For how long are we going to sit and carve?”, the teenagers of Bungamati ask him. “They would rather just loiter around the fields and do nothing than acquire a skill and earn some pocket money. They want to wear ties and suits and do something more modern,” he says.

Many children in the village don’t want to learn woodcarving because of the profession’s image in society

Luckily for Mani Ratna, his two daughters can carve well and love what they are doing—for now. They go to school and come back home to carve as well as teach others woodcarving. But not many youngsters want to follow in their parents’ footsteps. That’s why some woodcarvers are getting workers from outside Kathmandu—places like Nuwakot, Sarlahi and Bhimphedi—to keep their workshops running.The woodcarving industry in Bungamati has followed a rather unique development arc. It contrasts starkly with how things have been in places such as Patan, where generations of artisans worked on specific artisan trades and passed on the tradeskills to their descendents. Here, a village that was chiefly dependent on agriculture suddenly became a thriving woodcarving industry—but for only two generations.“The youngsters in Bungamati need to understand that we have created an industry that they can take over when they come of age,” says Mani Ratna. “The people of my generation need to work together to maintain the quality of the work that Bungamati is known for. And if we all teach our children that there’s no shame in being an artisan, Bungamati will continue to maintain its reputation as the Valley’s wood-carving capital.”