Rohini Kejriwal and Nicholas Rixon spend time with a family of weavers in the Chamoli district to understand how ringal is their legacy and their livelihood
It was after spending a few days in the South Gola range of the Himalayas that we first came across the nifty art of ringal weaving in the form of baskets, bins, mats and other utility items that were intricately woven, yet sturdy to look at. Ringal weaving is an age old craft of Uttrakhand that is becoming tough to preserve commercially.
Artisans use a special species of dwarf-bamboo that grows in these areas to weave. Besides utilitarian goods, this resilient, reed-like bamboo is also used as sheeting under tin roofs in many of these villages. It’s a micro village industry that current weavers say has been around for over a century. In the Chamoli district, Gram Pradhan, Manoj Kumar gives us an overview of the plant and how it is utilised. The forests of Uttarakhand are natural ground for this bamboo, he says, and making products out of this plant is a source of livelihood for many. Flexible yet sturdy, it can be turned into household items and ready-to-sell goods.
The February winter sun is in full swing, the clear blue sky an ever-changing painting as Kumar points up to a cluster of houses on top of a hill. “That is the house of Balkishen Arya. One of the oldest ringal weavers in Baidiya village.” There is a steep winding road leading to the mud-concrete houses, and we are soon trudging our way up the hill. Balkrishan has invited us to speak to the weavers and their families.
A toddler whizzes past with a wheel attached to a stick, while two others frolic on a mat. Ringal mats and cradles can be seen around the courtyard. A puppy lies dozing near a fresh stack of stripped bamboo under a tree. It is plain to see how this local plant is an integral part of the community. Balkishen and his brother Naveen Chand Arya, form a circle with a bamboo as other members of the family go about their chores. “I’ve been doing it since I was 15. My father taught me and I’m proud of the craft. I see it as a way to earn money to survive. Our grandfathers have done this too,” says Balkishen.
The two brothers then go on to describe the meticulous process of ringal weaving. It begins with a search for the bamboo, which is usually high-up in the mountains. It is then carefully harvested and soaked in water to give it the flexibility it requires for weaving. Navin Chand uses a total of twenty-four strips to make a small basket as we speak. His hands move quickly, making narrow strips with a sharp knife and then intertwining them in a circular motion. He says, even though his family has been doing this for two generations, it is getting harder to sustain the craft now. He explains that this is because of the time spent in harvesting, carrying the bamboo back home from the forest, then soaking it in water, weaving and finally getting it into the market is a long process. The dividends do not match the labour.
“Construction work pays three hundred rupees a day and the village youngsters are moving on to that. There used to be at least two weavers per family in our village, but the numbers are fast dwindling,” he complains. Kumar shares the same concerns. He also says, that since this is not a well-known craft like other popular village industries, the demand for it is not very high. Moreover, people prefer plastic items. Ringal baskets are known to last for over twenty years if maintained properly, and are cheap. One basket can cost you something between Rs. 250—Rs 350, depending on the size. Despite the problems facing this micro industry, the young Pradhan is optimistic about the future. If people began cultivating this bamboo along with their regular crops, a lot of time could be shaved off the harvesting process. Training the weavers to create other fancy decorative items— like miniature temples and ships, could also expand the market for ringal. He says that the presence of an NGO has helped boost the trade considerably.
Currently, over ten thousand artisans work with the ringal in Uttarakhand. Balkishen and Navin Chand state simply that ringal weaving needs help. If NGOs and the Government decide to work together and boost this trade, it will help improve the living conditions of this small village as well as Khaljhuni and Bageshwar, where there is demand for these items as well as other expert weavers, they say. Sustainable living is a major concern everywhere, and ringal can be the answer towards using items that are not harmful to the environment in any way. They are bio-degradable and the perfect alternative to plastic and other materials. The items created with this bamboo are aesthetically-pleasing and lightweight.
As we say goodbye to Balkishen and his family, his five-year old son stands in a corner, gathering up the bamboo strips. He stops to pull a splinter from his finger, smiles shyly and runs towards the heap of ringal, carefully arranging them in rows.