How a cross-border exchange helped revive a traditional craft

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At a recent exhibition of cultural handicrafts in Gangtok, Sikkim, India, one item stood out among the rest. Two women in their mid-thirties – Ankit Lepcha and Pasangkit Lepcha – had come from Dzongu, 65 km away from Gangtok, to sell unique knit bags made from nettle fibre. Although nettle is a fibre traditionally used by the indigenous Lepcha community, this bag combined natural fibre with modern design, resulting in a product that drew attention to this vanishing craft.

Ankit Lepcha and Pasangkit Lepcha sell unique knit bags at an exhibition in Gangtok, Sikkim.

Himalayan nettle is aptly named. The tough plant grows abundantly in most Himalayan forests above 1,500 masl. A hardy fibre is extracted from the stem of the plant. 

For centuries, people from the Lepcha community have extracted nettle fibres using age-old techniques to weave sacks, bags, and jackets for use in their homes. However, eight years ago in the village of Dzongu – where Ankit and Pasangkit are from – this traditional skill was on the verge of extinction, with only two people still alive with the knowledge of how to process and weave nettle fibre. 

This changed when two women from the mountains of Sankhuwasabha in eastern Nepal came to Dzongu to train women from the Lepcha community. This exchange helped revive the craft. New designs were introduced as were more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to extract nettle fibres. Now eight women in Dzongu know how to harvest, process, spin, knit, and weave nettle thread. Thread made using the new extraction method is also more durable. The new process also eliminates the need for harsh chemicals, making the final product and the working environment safer.

The design of their nettle bag combines traditional techniques with modern style. 

Through this new enterprise, the women from Dzongu have also been able to supplement their families’ incomes. The nettle bags and hats have become a popular souvenir for tourists visiting Sikkim. Each year, the women jointly sell products worth around INR 60,000 (USD 820). Through the Amusakchum Self Help Group that these women run, they are able to share the financial benefits among themselves.

People interested in nettle and other products from Dzongu at an exhibition in Gangtok, Sikkim. 

This exchange of knowledge between women across the India-Nepal border showcases how cooperation across borders, at the community level, can help promote alternative livelihood options and revive dying traditions. For the Lepcha community, which is found only within the Kangchenjunga Landscape, reviving this dying craft provides them new entry points to benefit from the growing tourism industry in Sikkim. 

The exhibition was a part of a two-day awareness campaign and workshop on ecotourism in the Kangchenjunga Landscape of India, held 27–28 September 2018 to coincide with World Tourism Day. The exhibition showcased traditional handicrafts from Bandapani, Dzongu, and Gorkhey-Ribdi, all pilot sites of the Kangchenjunga Landscape and Conservation and Development Initiative (KLCDI). The two-day event was organized by the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development and other partners of KLCDI. KLCDI is an initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development supported by the Austrian Development Agency and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

Pratikshya Kandel