Lokta was widely used in Nepal until 1950s when cheap machine-made papers from India took over market and pushed this traditional paper to near extinction
For its 2008 Summer Olympics, China had ordered something from Nepal. And they eventually imported a lot of it, too. That product was the soft paper to wrap precious stones to prevent scratching. This paper was used to redesign the wall panels of Beijing’s Grand Hyatt Hotel for the Olympics.
Nepali kagaj or lokta paper has many interesting and important uses. It is used in making of Yen banknotes in Japan. Besides being hand-made and representing a tradition, it is durable, resistant to insects and moths and non-perishable. This is why it is widely used in government offices for record keeping. Also, it is a must in preparing astrological charts (chinas). Presently, its use has been diversified for commercial purposes: to wrap incense sticks, and to make visiting cards, wallpapers, festive decorations, greeting cards, notebooks, calendars, lampshades, envelops, and many more decorative and useful stuff. Nepali kagaj has so many uses as it is both durable and easy to dye.
Nepali Kagaj is prepared from the barks of lokta plant or Daphne Spp. (Daphne bholua and Daphne papyracea), a non-timber forest product. It is an evergreen erect shrub with an average height of 1-3 meters, and is abundant in forests of Nepal. According to the Department of Forest, it is available in 2,910,848 ha of forest spread over 55 districts of Nepal, of which 25 districts in particular have plenty of it. Total stock of bark of Daphne spp. in Nepal has been estimated at 110,481 metric tons, which can support sustainable paper production of over 950 metric tons a year. Currently, there are over 500 lokta producers in Nepal employing around 50,000 workers, especially women. In fact, lokta paper and paper products are key export commodities and make significant contribution to the country’s economy, especially rural economy.
This is no rocket science. All that is needed to make Nepali kagaj is a little training and lot of dedication. It begins with the collection of lokta barks extracted from trees which are cut 30cm above the ground to let them regenerate after about five years. The cut parts except the bark are thrown in forest so that it is easier to carry the bark. The forest also gets vital nutrients when they rot. On the site of preparation, the barks are then sun-dried, usually for two or three days. The barks are then stored in a dry storehouse; moisture makes the paper rot. Then the required amount (usually 20-25 kgs for one batch) is rinsed and soaked in a drum filled with water for 24 hours. The unwanted weeds present in barks are removed from the soaked barks. This weed-free bark is now ready to be cooked.
They are cooked in a boiler (powered by either firewood or electricity). The firewood powered method is lengthy, as it takes 8-9 hours to cook 20 kg of lokta barks. It is also labor intensive as there must be a person to stir and turn the barks and feed firewood at regular intervals. Even careful monitoring cannot ensure uniform cooking. Also, burned wood generates Greenhouse Gases (CO2) which directly affects our health and the environment; this method also promotes deforestation, loss of floral and faunal diversity.
An electric boiler, on the other hand, is efficient. This technology not only reduces cooking time to half but also ensures even cooking of lokta, leaving behind negligible waste. Additionally, this method is environment-friendly.
Anyway, after its cooking, sheet formation process starts as a measured amount of pulp is poured into wooden frames. The thickness of paper depends on the amount of the pulp poured. The sheets are then sun-dried and in 20-30 minutes the paper is ready. Normally, in a day, 1,400 lokta pieces can be prepared.
The art of making paper from lokta barks dates back to the 18th century. But Nepal’s Archives in Kathmandu has the Karanya Buha Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text block printed on lokta paper which is estimated to be between 1,000 to 1,900 years old.
Lokta was widely used in Nepal until 1950s when cheap machine-made papers from India took over the market and pushed this traditional paper to near extinction. But some Nepali entrepreneurs have managed to revive the tradition.
Recently, the preparation of lokta paper from tree bark has proven to be a reliable source of income for rural entrepreneurs. Commercial lokta farming has also started in a few districts of eastern Nepal. On the one hand, it engages people and supports their livelihood and on the other, local resources which would otherwise go to waste is used. In Nepal, there are many entrepreneurs and workers who are making a living from lokta. Its harvest has little impact on forest ecosystem, compared to timber harvest, but offers plenty of socio-economic benefits to the community. The state should encourage such beneficial micro enterprises.
The author is an environment enthusiast and currently works for UNDP Nepal