KATHMANDU: The Prabina Paper Atelier, a Swiss funded project, is supporting the poor members of communities in Okhaldhunga district to produce Lokta paper. The poor rural communities in the hilly regions can profit from this traditional industry. The paper is processed into various articles to be exported with added value, with the proceeds being used to support disadvantaged youth. Additionally, the paper is eco-friendly, free from chemical treatment such as the use of bleach or chlorine and can be recycled. I had the opportunity to visit several of these villages.
The raw material for Nepali paper is derived from the fibrous inner bark or bast of mainly
two species of shrubs: Daphne bhoula and Daphne papyracea. The shrub usually grows from one to three metres, but can grow twice as high if left alone. The flowers that blossom in the
winter can vary in colour from white, pink to purple. The fruits that grow to about a centimetre hold a single seed and when ripe turn purple or deep red. Various species of Daphne shrubs are found in an area stretching
from Pakistan to Southwest
China, usually at altitudes
between two to three and a half thousand metres. A lesser quality of paper is made by mixing in
or using the bark of the Argeli shrub, which grows at lower
altitudes than Lokta.
The plant is harvested by
cutting the stem at ground level; however, by preserving the main root ensures regeneration of the plant within an average of five years. The bast is cleaned using a sharp knife, chopped into small pieces, soaked in water and then boiled with soda. After the fibres are softened, they are beaten to a fine pulp and mixed with water to create a homogeneous emulsion. According to the required paper weight (usually ranging from five to 40 grams), the
emulsion is poured over a mesh screen with a standard frame size of 50 X 75 cm. After drying in
the sun, the paper is peeled off.
Paper of such quality can be extremely versatile. It can be used for printing, producing
various forms of handicrafts, lampshades or even wall paper. When considering the use of
paper in architecture, the obvious association is to the traditional Japanese buildings. These were built to be as light as possible in response to the constant threat to earthquakes, creating some of the most simple and beautiful shelters. The wooden frame structures contained spaces which could be divided up into rooms by sliding around decorated panels (fusuma) or translucent paper dividers
(shoji). These were made of Washi or Japanese paper.
There are more contemporary examples of innovative use of paper in architecture. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, architects such as Shigeru Ban introduced paper for cost efficient temporary housing. As a student, I remember visiting a house in Zurich
designed by Giovanni Scheibler, who did his dissertation while working in the German project
in Bhaktapur. He had introduced sliding panels with paper sandwiched in glass opening out onto a traditional newari style balcony around a central courtyard.
Nepali paper should be
pronounced a national treasure. The paper produced from the soft inner bark of the bushes
vernacularly called Lokta is of high quality, being durable against humidity, tearing and even pest attack. In Nepal, Lokta paper is still used for most
official documents such as
land ownership papers. At the National Archives in Kathmandu, there are supposedly specimens of ancient Buddhist texts on Lokta paper in Lichchhavi script, which would mean that they have survived for over a
millennium. However, there is
no clear government policy or basic data to increase raw
materials, standardise production and ensure quality. Long-term sustainability of this
exceptional traditional product needs to be ascertained.
(The author is an architect and can be contacted through