Sardar woman twining ropes © Maya Rai
Indigenous skills, and the stories connected to them, are learned at home and passed on down the generations. The eastern plains of Nepal, around the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, are home to more than two hundred Sardar families.
Their income largely relies on the natural resources in the wildlife reserve. Not only are the Sardars protectors of the environment, but also of local crafts. They contribute to a strong relationship with the environment’s local resources through their weaving craftsmanship, skills they have been practicing for generations.
Almost all Sardar households have a traditional bamboo loom where the family members, especially the women, weave. They gather wetland grass, mostly cattail (pater), and using this as the weft and local hand-twined jute fiber as the warp they weave “chatais,” a type of floor mat that they then sell at a weekly market. This supplements their income but on its own is not sufficient to earn a livelihood.
While weaving does offer secondary financial support, money is not the only reason to weave. It is a community process, bringing together people of all ages in the village.
Employment and profit are benefits, but perhaps more importantly, weaving is a display of women’s agency and leadership.
I come from a Rai community of weavers and I know how important weaving is to women. As well as being a source of income, it is a source of expression and satisfaction when you create a thing of beauty that is admired by others. They admire the creator too. Weaving is a part of the community’s cultural heritage, an indigenous intergenerational knowledge and skill that is symbolically and tangibly entwined in women’s lives.
The Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve faces challenges in community awareness and access to economic resources. Because of social change, weaving and other cultural traditions (stories of the past) are being replaced. Local crafts tell a story.
Weavings are an offering, a gift of thanks and celebration to the forest, highlands, and marshes that produced the fibers. Local knowledge and craftsmanship is the result of generations of learning from nature. There are so many untold stories hidden in communities that speak of wisdom and an undeniable bond with the environment.
There is an urgent need to encourage the Sardars to continue their stewardship of nature. At a time of great uncertainty, such as that created by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the gradual loss of traditional skills can go unnoticed. The Sardars, however, balance the past with the present. Their heritage, belief systems, and focus on community, in tune with the ecosystem, are a stabilizing force. They celebrate their creative skills, their connection to nature, and
the stories that connect them to their ancestors. The culture offers unlimited potential where weaving acts as a transformational tool for learning, nderstanding, and respecting the environment, and for recognizing and supporting women’s creative ability.
The Sardars are isolated from the urban world; they live a different life, steeped in the past surrounded by their culture and the old ways of living with nature. Integrating the past with the realities of the present in order to live and survive in a contemporary world is a move that threatens their future.
But for the new generations it is crucial to accommodate new traditions and new skills that will encourage the evolution of the Sardar legacy. To continue their protection of the environment in a modern world, the Sardars need to integrate older traditions with appropriate technologies that can improve the livelihood and wellbeing of the community.
As outsiders we need to understand the difficulties of a culture in transition. With innovation and careful planning, the wisdom of the ancients can contribute much to better management of natural resources in order to balance the ecosystem. Improved weaving could be the thread of continuity that paves the way to a better future for the Sardars.
A Sardar man weaves on a traditional bamboo loom © Maya Rai