In Langscape Magazine Articles

Ethical Straw: Reviving a Sustainable Weaving Tradition in Nepal

August 08, 2023
Indigenous Newah farming communities reaffirm their identity and protect the land by rekindling ancestral artisanal skills.

Sheetal Vaidya, Manju Maharjan, Samjhana Dahal, Yuvash Vaidya, and Prakash Khadgi


Land dedicated for paddy production in Siddhipur.

Land dedicated for paddy production in Siddhipur, a small village in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Newah rice farmers cultivate rice for food and also for rice straw, which they use as the perpetual raw material for their traditional craft. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya


Indigenous people make up a total of 35.8% of Nepal’s population. The country has ratified both the ILO (International Labor Union) Convention No. 169 and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Despite this, the 2018 Kathmandu Valley road construction project evicted about 150,000 people from their homes without their consent, approval, or payment. Religious sites and cultural landmarks, about ninety percent of which pertained to the Indigenous Newah community, were damaged. This is a clear violation of UNDRIP requirements by the government of Nepal. And this is just one example. Many Indigenous groups in Nepal have long been battling discrimination. Well aware that, in order to obtain biocultural rights, they must maintain their traditional practices and sense of self, some of them are making creative attempts to fulfill their responsibilities.

Newah rice farmers in Siddhipur, a small village in the Kathmandu Valley, have launched a remarkable initiative to promote a biocultural resurgence by protecting and sustainably managing their lands and territories. They have begun restoring their centuries-old tradition of weaving rice straw into mats and are now making a variety of useful home goods, including carpets, mats, chairs, sofas, hats, shoes, utensils, and artifacts such as photo frames, containers, chairs, shoes, and more. The women of this tribe are well known for their talent in making such objects.

Newah rice farmers have launched a remarkable initiative to promote a biocultural resurgence. They have begun restoring their centuries-old tradition of weaving rice straw.

The restoration of this craft began very recently, only about twenty years ago. At that time, the majority of households in the community were feeling compelled to send their adult children to the Gulf states in search of employment. The reason for this exodus was that their unparalleled traditional occupation had become insufficient to sustain their livelihoods. In particular, imported synthetic carpets had taken over the handmade straw mats, which had been their main source of income.

Ram Chandra Maharjan, a Siddhipur villager who was still relatively young then, began thinking about how to preserve his people’s rapidly vanishing traditional skill. He started out on his objective by weaving other products besides just mats. He designed these products himself and started training his fellow community members as well. To formalize his efforts, he founded the Siddhipur Community Learning Center. Initially, the center worked to uplift the underprivileged members of the community outside of the conventional educational system. With financial assistance from the government, the organization is now holding training sessions for Indigenous tribes elsewhere on a variety of skills besides straw weaving.

The community has advanced considerably by designating a sizable portion of land for paddy production to get a perpetual supply of rice straw. It is forbidden to sell the allotted land, build infrastructure on it, or cause any other kind of destruction. The community members have been successful in reviving their traditional craft, and by doing so, they are helping to protect the environment and their territory. Traditional procedures are used to extend the lifespan of the rice straw harvested from the paddy fields. The items have a place in traditional houses, hotels, and restaurants both domestically and overseas. The craft has both helped families financially and protected the environment, while strengthening the community’s sense of identity and responsibility.

Sheetal Vaidya (right) speaks with the elected officials of Khokana.

Sheetal Vaidya (right) speaks with the elected officials of Khokana, a Newari village, about the Nepalese Indigenous movement. Community officials are campaigning to have their ancestral lands protected, their heritage revived, and their cultural traditions preserved, including straw weaving. Photo: Samjhana Dahal


The Khokana ward president, Rabindra Maharjan.

The Khokana ward president, Rabindra Maharjan, 48, is concerned about maintaining culture and heritage and speaks out for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. He describes the delicate connection between agriculture and the traditional use of rice straw, which farmers hold in high regard. Straw has been incorporated into ceremonies from birth to death. The elderly use straw to create mats as a hobby. The mats are cherished for their ability to insulate cold floors. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya


Dried straw is piled up to form a mound.

Native Newah have traditionally worked in agriculture. Their everyday routine and important rituals and festivals are closely influenced by paddy and its products, without which their identity would be incomplete. One of the biggest cultural events is the planting of rice in June and July. Autumn is when paddy is harvested, and the dried straw is piled up to form a mound, or su-panh in Nepalbhasa. Up until late October, the straw is stored in the fields. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya


Ram Chandra Maharjan.

In Siddhipur and most other Newah-dominated communities, the long-standing custom of women weaving straw mats for domestic use had been abandoned for some generations. Ram Chandra Maharjan, 55, spearheads the effort to retrain women in the trade. He initiated the training programs, some of which were funded by UNESCO-Nepal. He has also ensured that the women can earn a good living by selling the woven straw items they manufacture. Photo: Sabina Maharjan


Women are involved in weaving mats and carpets from straw.

Women are involved in weaving mats and carpets from straw and hold a prominent responsibility for passing the skills down through generations. Their renewed participation in the craft is making more people aware of the value of environmentally sustainable traditional knowledge. These women think that, by reviving their traditional talents, they can preserve their identity and communicate their desire for sustainability to the government. Photo: Sabina Maharjan


The Siddhipur Community Learning Center (CLC) takes part in handcraft fairs.

The Siddhipur Community Learning Center (CLC) takes part in handcraft fairs held in different areas of Nepal. Sabina Maharjan, 35, coordinator of Siddhipur CLC, teams up with Ram Chandra Maharjan to showcase a range of straw products during an expo in Lalitpur. Participation in such events not only promotes Indigenous craft, its value, and its aesthetic appeal, but also highlights the existence of the community that produces it. Siddhipur CLC’s initiative improved the status of women and helped Siddhipur rediscover its identity. Photo: Shova Maharjan


The people of Siddhipur participate in expos.

The people of Siddhipur participate in expos to reach out to more people. Because the cost of their goods has soared above their expectations, this campaign has shown that a biocultural resurgence can also bring economic well-being. Now the younger generation can enter their long-standing vocation with greater confidence. Photo: Sabina Maharjan



Shova Maharjan, secretary of Siddhipur CLC.

At the 2019 Expo of Nepal, the straw products of Siddhipur won first prize. Shova Maharjan, 42, secretary of Siddhipur CLC, proudly displays the award. Recognizing nature’s gifts and using them wisely gives more rewards in return. As it values Indigenous knowledge and nature, Siddhipur CLC has been able to maintain its distinct identity. Photo: Sabina Maharjan


Siddhipur CLC oversees a storeroom.

Siddhipur CLC oversees a storeroom where finished goods, crafted according to customers’ requests, are kept until they are delivered to clients. Younger buyers show a keen interest in the variety of products manufactured from the same raw components. By arranging a market for the crafts and offering the necessary training, Siddhipur CLC has motivated individuals to pursue Indigenous craft making. This guarantees the population’s economic viability through the inventive revival of old talents. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya


Sabina Maharjan proudly displays attractive rice straw items.

Sabina Maharjan proudly displays attractive rice straw items. Broadening the application of the craft to novel purposes and featuring newly designed straw artifacts in photo shoots and fashion shows raise public awareness of handmade crafts that are environmentally benign, thus fostering a biocultural resurgence of this tradition. Photo: Shova Maharjan


Some new eateries in Kathmandu Valley employ straw mats.

Some new eateries in Kathmandu Valley employ straw mats instead of tables and chairs. Environmentally conscious company owners recognize Indigenous cultural talents and show their solidarity with the Indigenous movement. Their efforts motivate rice farmers. Additionally, as every home in the past had straw mats in the dining area, restaurant patrons may feel as if they were “at home.” Photo: Sheetal Vaidya


Ram Chandra Maharjan and Sheetal Vaidya.

Ram Chandra Maharjan and Sheetal Vaidya portrayed against the background of straw-collage artwork hanging on the wall. The artwork was created by Ram Chandra’s 25-year-old daughter, Nilima Maharjan, who drew inspiration from him. These customs need to be passed down through generations so that children may recognize and emulate their parents’ abilities and labor. It is imperative that more people join Ram Chandra in the quest for a biocultural resurgence. Photo: Prakash Khadgi


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Sheetal Vaidya, PhD, is a member of the Newah ethnic group in Lalitpur, Nepal. She is a freelance researcher and community activist. Her research interests include biocultural diversity and plant taxonomy.

Manju Maharjan.

Manju Maharjan, also a Newah, is a graduate student at National Taiwan University. Traditional ecological knowledge and biodiversity preservation are two of her study interests. She is keen to support Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Samjhana Dahal.

Samjhana Dahal is a botany lecturer at Tribhuvan University with an interest in biotechnology and biocultural diversity. Despite being a member of the Brahmin group, she has lived most of her life with the Newah people.

Yuvash Vaidya.

Yuvash Vaidya is a traveling pianist and keyboardist who is ready to use his position to advance Indigenous rights. He is a Newah community member.

Prakash Khadgi.

Prakash Khadgi, a member of the Newah community in Kathmandu, combines his work as a teacher with advocacy for Indigenous rights and the preservation of cultural heritage.

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