• Culture & Tradition
  • 14 February, 2017

Colourful Handicrafts of the Kathmandu Valley

Colourful Handicrafts of the Kathmandu Valley
The production of woolen felt at Sahir Handicraft Center, owned by Raya and Samir Shrestha, Patan. Photo: Ira de Reuver

As a traveller, it’s easy to disregard local souvenirs as being kitsch, mass produced, perhaps even inauthentic. But as a photographer visiting the Kathmandu Valley, I was lucky enough to witness traditional artisans creating outstanding souvenirs representative of the area, using natural local materials and that displayed truly amazing artistic skills.

Walking the streets of Bhaktapur, a series of brightly painted faces stared at me. Nowadays, these bewitching handmade masks represent classical traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism; demons and deities that play an important role in religious ceremonies. Their long history, however, shows that they were once used by shamans of Himalayan tribes to worship nature spirits and guardians. The masks were worn during rituals to protect the village, to heal diseases and to honor ancestors.

Colourful Handicrafts of Kathmandu

Shyam Chitrakar working on the clay on a mould to produce handmade masks, traditional handicraft, Bhaktapur. Photo: Ira de Reuver

Shyam Chitrakar and his wife are the third generation in their family to create masks. It’s a time-consuming process, Shyam explains: “First the black clay is mixed with cotton, to strengthen the mask so that it will not break. Then rice paper is added to make it easier to paint, and to give it even more strength”. Shyam shows me how he beats the mixture with a hammer for no less than 30 minutes, to combine the clay with the cotton and paper. Then the mixture is flattened and spread out over the mould.

After the mask has been dried in the sun, Shyam applies an array of radiant colours. The painting of the mask is done by hand and can take up to six hours. When finished, his newest creation shows Ganesh, revered as the remover of obstacles and recognizable by his elephant head.

Equally colourful are Kathmandu Valley’s imaginative felt crafts, which have become a fashionable side product of the Nepali wool industry. Felt is the oldest form of fabric known to humankind. It is even said that Noah’s Ark was lined with wool and the fusion of heat, sea-water and the trampling animals left behind a felt carpet!

Colourful Handicrafts of Kathmandu

Painted Ganesh masks at Shyam Chitrakar’s workshop to produce handmade masks, traditional handicraft, Bhaktapur. Photo: Ira de Reuver

Curious as to how my recently acquired soft-but-sturdy felt bag was made, I headed to the royal city of Patan, located only 5 km from Kathmandu. Here Raya Shrestha showed me around her handicraft center. She explained:felt is a fabric made of wool fibers, but produced without the well-known techniques of spinning, weaving or knitting. Raw, white wool from the Tibetan plateau is first dyed in the required colors. Then our skilled laborers compress the material by hand with the help of soap and hot water. While still wet, the felt is shaped into the pattern of the intended design, such as bags, hair accessories and slippers. The shaped felt items are then dried in the sun and stitched if needed”.

Kathmandu Valley’s captivating Himalayan crafts have kept Nepal’s colourful culture alive. Often produced by families who have been involved in their trade for generations, many of these crafts are made with such skill and dedication that it does not seem appropriate to call them souvenirs. Rather, by taking home these traditional handicrafts, you collect what can only be described as authentic pieces of art.

Article and photos by Ira de Reuver.

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