Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The bora community in kumaon himalayas

Uttaranchal, India

( This is an article I wrote after interacting with the Bora community in Digoli. I feel at it is necessary to save the traditional occupation of this community, even as we find newer means of producing the fibre and weaving the fabric. As far as my knowledge goes, this fabric has already (a small) and can generate a potential market. Of course, price wise it might not be very competitive as regards cotton and jute, but definitely will strike balance with items of silk and muslin. )

The community was brought into existence when one of the two Rawat brothers married a Bora girl, descending upon the generations to come the title of Bora Kuthalia. “We are still Thakurs by lineage,” insists Bachche Singh Bora. “It’s just that our great grandfather decided to marry out of his community and villagers tagged us as Bora children, as per the woman’s caste, when it is the men’s caste that is to be recorded,” he adds, with some amount of disappointment.

The Bora community that lives in the Kumaon Himalayas is known for their trade in the products made from the cannabis plant, the commercial cultivation of which was banned over ten years ago. While the seeds, which have no toxic content, are used as a spice in the household, the stem of the plant makes for a tough and durable fibre. “The seeds are used extensively in food, during the winters, because they provide warmth. Moreover, they are not even toxic, so can safely be consumed by everyone,” elaborates Govind Bora.

The fibre too offers multiple uses. “We made sacks to carry the grass cut for the cattle and also strings to tie the buffalos to their stands,” says Kamla Bora, who gave up this profession many years ago, because of the government restrictions. “Which is also why, we are called Boras - the local term for gunny bags,” says Shamu Bora from Sukhna. Shamu is currently learning to weave with silk and wool.

Spread out over different villages in the Kumaon, I interacted with the community, primarily around Digoli and other villages in their vicinity, where some families still weave with the fibre. Working on a simple loom, which is strung around the waist of the weaver, the other end being pinned into the wall, a rough cloth is woven from the cannabis fibre. “The length can be made to order, but the width will remain in ratio to the waist of the woman,” explains Bachuli Devi Bora. However, this didn’t hamper the number of items that were created. From (budhala) carpets to bed covers and table cloths with some embroidery, the lady had a stock of such goods. “We weave a number of pieces and stitch them together accordingly,” she explained. The goods are then sold at fairs and in the local market.

Producing the fabric isn’t an easy task however. “The weaving doesn’t take as much time. It is actually the process of making the fibre that requires a lot of effort,” states Dhan Singh Bora, as reason for the cost price. Once the seeds are harvested, the stem of the plant is dried in the sun, where after it is soaked in water for a day or two, before the craftsmen peel the skin off the stem using their teeth. “The skin of course cannot be used just as it is, it must further be split into finer lengths, until you get the fibre to become as fine as a thread,” says he.

However, this profession is waning in present times. With the ban on cultivation of the cannabis plant, for fear of its toxic contents such as hashish and marijuana finding illegal routes, the community began to find it difficult to make these items and have switched to other activities like rearing cows and buffaloes and selling milk and butter to earn a livelihood. “The raw material cannot be grown in the required quantity,” explains Bachche Singh. “If we must grow enough to make the budhlas (carpets) and kuthlas (bags), the patwari will take a sum for allowing this cultivation,” he states. And the sum can vary from anywhere between absolutely no cost (!) to a whopping Rs 500. “It depends on what relations you have maintained with this local legal authority,” says Kaushlya Devi.

Of course the fabric is much sought after in the international market. Large manufacturing units all over the world, with the help of governments and agriculturists, are making efforts to grow the less toxic varieties of the cannabis plant. This so, even as a small community tucked away in the folds of the mountains that always thrived on this business finds its long standing tradition coming to an end.

Kalindi Kokal

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