“The chapatis stored in these stay softer than those stored in plastic or steel boxes,” guarantees Kanyavati Rana, holding up a handmade pitiriya (container), made of local kasra (grass). 

Kanyavati lives and works in Jhankat village, in Sitarganj tehsil, of Udham Singh Nagar district in Uttarakhand. She belongs to the Tharu community listed as Scheduled Tribe in the state and native to the terai region (lowland) of this mountain state. She says in every house in her village women do this craft, getting together in groups to make baskets, bags, ropes and other  functional products for their own use and for sale.

“We have been making handcrafted products ever since I can remember. This is a traditional skill that has been passed down to us,” says the 60-year-old artisan adding, “The money I earn brings me happiness. I can buy things for the house.” Kanyavati dropped out of school in Class 5 as her family was not keen that she continue.

Kanyavati in her home weaving a basket (left) and holding a decorated mirror (right) Photos by Pankaj Joshi. Women in Jhankat, Uttarkhand, get together in groups to weave. Illustration by Meghana Reddy

The group travels to local fairs in nearby cities in the state like Rudrapur, Ramnagar, Pantnagar and Dehradun. They have even travelled as far as Delhi during the winters to sell their handmade products. They get orders sometimes for up to 400 pieces. Kanyavati prices the bags she sells at around Rs. 600 and the baskets around Rs. 300-500. She says she spends roughly Rs. 150 for each item’s raw  material, and it could take her up to three days to finish one item.

Tharu artisans rely on local materials such as leaves, stems and grass. Most of these products are made during the rainy season when grass is plentiful. “We use special types of local grass such as taat and kassara for some items,’ says Kanyavati. A knife-shaped tool called suja is used to craft  dalva (basket), dhakna (lid or coaster) and chapriya (container for fish).

To make ropes, the women artisans harvest and soak the stems of the locally grown patsan (jute), for around four days. When ready, the fibres are separated from the long stems to weave ropes. The grass is brought from the nearby Kailash river, roughly 8 kilometres away or from the banks of the Nanak Sagar dam on the Deoha river. 

“There used to be many ponds which had grass but they are now full of mud, not water, and their beds are used to grow crops. Our own house was also built on land that was once a pond,” says Kanyavati. The government has begun work on revitalising the ponds but they remain empty as the last two years’ have seen poor rainfall, she says. 

In summer, during the agricultural season, the women are engaged in the fields and their craft work pauses. Kanyavati lives with her husband Virendra Singh and their two sons. The family grows paddy, wheat, turmeric and ginger on their five acres, and they also have a mango orchard on 1.5 acres of land. The couple’s two daughters are married and live apart from them. 

At Jhankat’s marketplace, plastic products that mimic the handcrafted grass ones have flooded the shops. “Interest in this craft is disappearing day-by-day,” says Virender, adding, “The craft is almost like a religion in our community.”

Kanyavati says she is distressed about the fact that young people do not have the time or interest to pursue the craft.  “Today only the older generation is doing this craft. Young people prefer to study and look for jobs outside. But if they don’t do this, the craft will die. I am worried.”

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Editor's note

Pankaj Joshi and Rohit Bhatt are in Class 12 at Nanakmatta Public School in Udham Singh Nagar district in Uttarakhand. 

“While doing our story we learned many techniques such as how to research and document. But we also learnt how to build a relationship with other communities in our society. This process of learning and documenting rural India gets us out of our comfort zone of just sitting in the classroom and memorising textbook theories.”   

Meghana Reddy is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. She worked on an illustration for this story as part of her internship with PARI Education. She says, "When creating this illustration, I had to make sure it wasn’t too fictional and that it did justice to the people in the story. Every PARI story I have read has made me very curious. These stories are detailed, and explore areas I haven’t ever heard of. PARI brings a different perspective."