Preservation of an ancient craft
Mon shugu, a 1,000-year-old papermaking tradition from Arunachal Pradesh, has got a new lease of life with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussing it in his monthly address to the nation. Local crusader Maling Gombu, who was praised by the PM for preserving the tradition, takes us through the journey of this craft
Arunachal Pradesh, popularly referred to as India’s land of the rising Sun, is rich in traditional handicrafts, art forms and natural resources, which have the potential for developing village-based industries and aiding to rural economic development. The state is also home to several tribal communities, including Wancho, Nocte, Tangsa, Singpho, Khampti, Mishmi, Adi, Galo, Padam, Minyong, Memba, Apatani, Nyishi, Tagin, Aka, Miji, Sherdukpen and Monpa, with each exhibiting distinctive culture, language, customs and traditions. Several of their crafts have remained confined to their communities for ages and it’s only now that they are being showcased to the world.
Monyul Tawang, a frontier district in Arunachal Pradesh that shares borders with Tibet and Bhutan, is inhabited by the Monpa tribe. Despite the remoteness and inhospitable terrain of the district, the region has become a popular tourist destination and is making appreciable strides in economic development while pursuing its traditional skills. One of their traditional crafts, which was brought into the limelight recently by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his monthly radio addresses Maan Ki Baat, is the art of making mon shugu, a handmade paper from a local shrub called shugu sheng. As the Prime Minister explained, mon shugu is not just a cultural heritage but a sustainable practice that reaps dual benefits – it protects the environment and can generate employment.
Almost 1,000 years old, this indigenous art form of paper-making of the Monpas uses the bark of a local shrub called shugu sheng (Daphne papyracea). The process of turning the dry bark into paper is a tedious one and not many practice it today. While most artisans have given up the skill, the forests surrounding Mukto, a village perched at an altitude of 10,800 ft in Tawang district, grow the shugu sheng shrub, and a few artisan families still practice this craft. Traditionally, this coarse handmade paper has been used in Buddhist monasteries for religious scriptures, manuscripts, prayer flags, and sometimes as a part of flag poles and prayer wheels. Not just local monasteries, mon shugu was in demand in countries like Tibet, Bhutan, China and Japan as well. In ancient times, the paper was used for writing mantras, sutras and Buddhist epics. At present, it is also used for artistic purposes and for making exquisite gift items. However, the long process of turning the bark of the shrub into a pulp, then to boil, beat, dry and cut the paper, all by hand was time-consuming and not financially viable. Thus, many artisans shifted to alternative sources of income.
The process of making the paper is very systematic and follows centuries-old traditions. The harvesting of the bark starts between March and April, and continues till December, before the season of flowering. During the stage when flowers and then fruits appear on the shrub, the bark is not harvested, so as to let the plant regenerate. Bark harvested during the earlier part of the year is used for paper-making in the rest of the year. To get around 1.5 kg of bark, around four to five plants are required, depending upon the size of the plant. At least two sheets of paper (62 cm long and 51 cm wide) can be made from the bark of one plant. After harvesting, the barks are scrapped off the outer layer and the soft insides are thoroughly washed and dried in the sun. The bark is then passed through ash-water, soaked and cut into smaller pieces before being boiled. The residue is then beaten into pulp and then laid out as a sheet of paper. The entire hand-crafted process results in paper that has a unique texture. The smoothness of the paper surface depends on drying – generally, one side of the paper is like cloth and the other, is slightly rough with long fibre-like texture. In a day, around 100 sheets of paper can be prepared and dried if the weather condition is suitable. Mon shugu paper is sold in the local area at INR 15 to 25 per sheet.
Challenges and solutions
Mon shugu is a non-timber forest product (NTFP) and a natural one developed without any chemicals. Compared to conventional paper, mon shugu’s lifespan and durability are much longer, and it is said to have immense tensile strength. With these are also connected traditional knowledge and practices, which are important in prudent resource use and biodiversity conservation. Currently, wood is by far the major raw material for the global pulp and paper industry, and non-wood fibres are a minor part of raw material supply. The Tawang-based voluntary organisation, Youth Action for Social Welfare, has been working towards preserving this unique cultural heritage. Efforts are being made by the Khadi and Village Industry Commission (KVIC) and Kumarappa National Handmade paper institute (KNHPI) as well. But there are several hurdles, the most prominent being that many communities do not allow their forest produce to be taken outside the villages. A solution could be encouraging plantations of the shrub, and finding a suitable commercial market.
Shugu sheng is a very important indigenous species as its fibrous bark is used for paper making, the stem for fuel wood, and the flowers for the preparation of perfume. The plant has mostly been observed to grow in a closed canopy, so people can cultivate it, derive fuel wood as well as use the leaves for mulching in agricultural fields. Thus, it can reduce the pressure on natural forests to some extent. There is a local market for this paper since it is used in daily prayers and packaging of special items like butter. But there is also an international market for it in countries like China and Japan where it’s used for writing scriptures. Japanese artists use this paper for calligraphy. Planned cultivation of this shrub and its marketing could support the Monpa tribes financially and the eco-friendly technology can act as a sustainable production system. It can result in overall socio-economic development without compromising the ecological pristine in the mountainous region. Once, the product becomes financially viable, artisans will return to their craft. However beyond economics, what matters more is the preservation of this 1,000-year-old tradition, a living heritage that is intertwined with the culture of an ancient community.