LB THAPA FOR ONTOTHEROAD.COM

Flocks of tourists visit Chitwan National Park round the year. The Park is the treasure trove of amazing stock of nature’s beauty that lures one and all. The Park is rich in flora and fauna that has helped to grow handicraft market in Sauraha. Most of the handicraft items found in Sauraha are not brought from outside rather they are made in Sauraha itself. These handicraft items are locally marketed by the villagers and shopkeepers. Of several kinds of handicraft items found in Sauraha, the wooden Rhinos and Elephants are the cynosure of all eyes.

Artisans are always respected all over the world, because what they can do is not everybody’s cup of tea. History is witness where many famous artists spent their lives to improve certain skill. Let’s say painting of horses. Great painters like Edgar Degas, George Stubbas, Theodore Gericault, John Freederick and Cruz Azaceta had devoted their lives capturing different moods of the horses. Today, their paintings of horses have become legends in the history of painting.

Such a beautiful rhino can only be made by Karma Lama in Sauraha. Photo-LB Thapa
Most of the visitors to Sauraha do not only buy rhinos but also a pair of elephants Photo-LB Thapa

Like these painters of the west, the artisans in Sauraha are known for chiseling beautiful rhinos and elephants out of wood. Many artisans of Sauraha have taken making wooden rhinos and elephants as their only livelihood. However, such legendary artisans of Sauraha are now reluctant to carry on the tradition any more. Due to lack of proper market, protection and encouragement from the government, once flourishing trade is now dying slowly.

Among many artisans who have dedicated their lives to making wooden rhinos and elephants in Sauraha, one name is very popular. He is Karma Lama, originally hailed from Ramechhap, who is considered the best artisan in Sauraha. Mr. Lama has successfully carved out a reputation for himself as a highly skilled artisan. Speaking with this scribe, one of the shopkeepers in Sauraha said, “If you see the most attractive wooden rhinos and elephants in the shops of Sauraha, they are made by none other than Karma Lama”.

“I am from a poor family background of Ramechhap. Due to circumstances as such, I could not continue my school education. I had more pressing needs to fulfill than continuing education in school. I, therefore, left home in search of a possible livelihood. For a few years, I wandered around and tried my hands at every possible job that came on my way. Meanwhile, I realized that without education I could not get a better job. After having spent a few years recklessly, I reached Kathmandu where I took interest in Thanka Painting. I settled in Bhaktapur where subsequently I spent 25 years of my life, polishing my skill in Thanka painting. Well, how I happened to come to Sauraha is an interesting story to tell about”, said Lama with a broad smile on his face.

It is really quite interesting to know that how a man who spent 25 years of his life in Thanka Painting, suddenly decided to change his interest in woodcarvings…a skill that he knew nothing until then.

“My friends and relatives did not like my idea of leaving Kathmandu to Sauraha. They immediately declared that I made a disastrous decision and I would regret for sure in future. In fact, during that time, I was regarded as one of the best Thanka painting artists in Bhaktapur, but in deep down, I was not at ease. A sense of incompleteness and discontentment did always reign over me.

Then one day I had been to Sauraha with my wife to experience wildlife at Chitwan National Park. We enjoyed elephant riding into the dense forest of the Park. After the elephant riding, I wanted to buy something very special of Sauraha. About that time, I saw some wooden rhinos and elephants. I immediately liked them very much. I bought a few rhinos and elephants. After holding those rhinos and elephants in my hands, I was very happy and satisfied like never before. I could never draw such satisfaction and happiness from Thanka Paintings. At once I took a vow to spend rest of my life in making wooden rhinos and elephants”, revealed Lama.  

Leaving an established trade aside and adopting a new profession was not that easy at all. Mr. Lama immediately came under severe criticism from all quarters of people. “My wife supported me at a time when everyone criticized my plan to quit Thanka to woodcrafts. She stood by my decision as she had full confidence in my dedication and commitment. I sailed against the tide of time and eventually I got what I had dared to dream…in the long run I proved my wife right”, said Lama with the sense of pride and confidence.

In the beginning, life in Sauraha was full of hardships. Lama had no supporting income and Thanka Painting had no demand in Sauraha. It was time when he had to borrow money from his friends and relatives to make both ends meet. In the meantime, he received normal training of woodcraft from Ratnamani Brahmacharya. The training was organized by Mirga Kunja, a part of Chitwan National Park.

“We were 12 persons who received special training of woodcrafts. Our training was limited to only 15 days. It was only a basic level. I wanted to receive advanced level training, but the organizer never arranged advanced level training. Without advanced level training, I used my intuition and basic knowledge to improve my skill. I must admit that I improved my skill mostly by the process of trial and error.

Today, I am the only person continuing the tradition. However, many others disappeared into the thin air. In the beginning when time was unfavorable and I was struggling to make my both ends meet, I did not give in because I knew that one day I would succeed. Well, to support my family, I continued Thanka Paintings and sold them in Pokhara and Kathmandu”, said Lama. 

It was Lama’s sheer hard work and dedication that he took his art to another level. But Lama was never satisfied as he always wanted to improve the quality of his wooden rhinos and elephants. For that, he would never hesitate to do experiments with wood and sometimes with his skill as well.

Karma Lama has a small shop in Sauraha. Photo-LB Thapa

At a time when Lama was passing through a critical phase of time, one day Binod Khanal, a prominent shopkeeper from Gorkha, visited his shop and appreciated wooden rhinos and elephants crafted by Lama. Mr. Khanal showed interest in those rhinos and elephants and asked Lama to sell them in Gorkha. Lama was very happy from such unexpected offer. However, Khanal put a condition before Lama and said that he would make payment only after selling of all rhinos and elephants.

“I had no choice but to accept the offer. I was a new artisan and there was quite a small market of such rhinos and elephants in Sauraha. I accepted the offer, packed all my tiny wooden rhinos and elephants, and handed over to Khanal. Only after a week, I received a phone call from Mr. Khanal who informed me that he sold all the rhinos and elephants in less than one week and he wanted more. That was a pleasant surprise for me. This feat of success encouraged me to make more such rhinos and elephants”.

The demand of rhinos and elephants made by Lama was picking up gradually. By this time, Lama stopped Thanka Painting and devoted full time to making different sizes of rhinos and elephants. “Mostly I make small and medium size rhinos and elephants. However, I make big size rhinos and elephants on demand only, because they are expensive. The price of rhinos and elephants depend on their sizes, quality of wood and decoration. A big size quality rhino or elephant can cost around Rs.40,000 to above Rs.100,000”.

Over the years, Lama has carved a niche as the best artisan of Sauraha and this has become possible due to his hard work and perseverance. Lama is generous and wants younger generation taking interest in woodcrafts. Until now, he has trained several young men and women, but only a handful of them have taken this skill professionally.

When asked why younger generation does not stick to this skill for long time, he said, “Today’s generation wants to achieve quick results and that is not possible in the field of art. It is more like doing a penance…I mean one has to spend a great deal of time in doing relentless practice to achieve a degree of quality…but today’s generation does not have patience and this is the reason why they give up practicing this skill after a few months or years”.  

“Ever since machine made rhinos and elephants are available on market, the sale of handmade rhinos and elephants has plummeted. Machine made rhinos, elephants are made of low quality wood, and they are devoid of aesthetic beauty, which can only be found on handmade rhinos and elephants. We use Chanp wood, which is the best wood to make fine quality rhinos and elephants.

In the absence of machine made wooden rhinos and elephants, we could make good money out of our sale. However, nowadays overall sale of handmade rhinos and elephants have gone drastically low. Literarily speaking, without protection such a traditional skill is now on the verge of disappearing”, lamented Lama.

Handmade wooden rhinos and elephants look awesome and they are the special trademark of Sauraha handicrafts. Artisans one like Lama are a few who are still clung to such traditional skill. Many artisans have already left this profession permanently and now they are abroad or involved in other professions. If the government does not wake up in time and take necessary steps to encourage these artisans, these great artisans one like Lama will no longer remain in this profession for sure.

The state must provide better working environment and helping them to sell their products at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that for centuries, Nepal has been known for brilliant woodcrafts and stone sculptures. People like Lama are the assets of the nation. Helping these artisans does mean protecting and preserving the vanishing art of the country.

LB Thapa, the blogger

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