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Trashigang: Cane production - Pasaphu: sustaining a tradition?
Working with cane is a daily affair in almost every household
It all began in 1988 Farmer Sangay Wangdi of Pasaphu village in Thrimshing, Trashigang, took along a few cane products from the village on his visit to a relative in Thimphu who owned a handicraft shop.

The products were displayed in the shop and it sold out quickly, much to Sangay Wangdi's surprise.

When he returned to his village, a six-hour climb from Phekpari, he narrated the experience to friends and neighbours. Encouraged, they started making more cane products.

Several months later Sangay Wangdi headed for Thimphu again, this time accompanied by a couple of friends and a lot more cane products.

"Until then, cane products were made only for domestic use," said Sangay Wangdi, 60, who supplies cane products to several handicraft shops in Thimphu and a few other places as well.

Working with the cane species, locally called ringshu, is a daily affair in almost every household in Pasaphu and in recent years both men and women have started producing cane products for sale. Some villagers have given up fieldwork to be fully engaged in producing cane goods as a means of livelihood.

According to Sangay Wangdi, who started making cane products at the age of 16, cane streaks were dried and soaked in dyes imported from India.

Several dyes were also blended to obtain other colours. The skills then came into play to weave the strips of coloured cane into various shapes with intricate patterns.

Earlier the most popular product was the bangchung, used as plates or for storing edibles, hats, worn as protection from sun and rain while travelling and working in the fields and mats, which are also used to fence and partition.

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Pasaphu: potato cave

Present Pasaphu village once fell along the main trade route for the people of Kangpara, who journeyed to Martshala and Gomdar in Samdrup Jongkhar to trade for salt and cloth.

According to village elders, travellers usually halted for the night in a cave in Pasaphu. It so happened that some travellers had dropped some potatoes, called pasong in local dialect, in the cave. Potato was rare in the area then.

Travellers that followed few months later saw the tuber growing and cooked it for a meal. Since then the travellers had called the place Pasangphu (potato cave). Over the years it changed to Pasaphu.

"The tradition of cane weaving has existed for long time here," he said. "At one time our parents bartered the goods with people from neighbouring villages for agriculture products," he said.

Today competition from other regions in the country and availability of similar foreign goods in the market had forced many in the village to take up innovative productions, said Sangay Wangdi.

There were more than 40 households in the village, which produced more than 50 varieties of products like pencil stands, bags, slippers, cups, and holders besides the regular traditional products. Some cane craftsmen in the village had had the opportunity to participate in workshops and exhibitions.

Cane quivers, baskets and bangchungs
Sangay Wangdi said that when he and some of his friends went to Guwahati, India, on a government-sponsored trip few years back, they were introduced to many new ideas. The designs and patterns were copied on paper and shared with craftsmen back home.

The villagers prefer to sell all their products to Sangay Wangdi who supplies them to various handicraft outlets around the country.

He has his own handicraft shop in the village to cater to visiting government officials."The transportation charges are too high," said 36-year-old Karma Phuntsho, a cane craftsman. "The small quantity we produce would not meet the expenses, so it is better to sell it to Sangay Wangdi." The prices of the products varied from Nu. 40 to Nu.1,000 in the village. In Thimphu it sold for double the price.

But while it has proven to be an important source of income for the villagers, its commercialisation has led to extinction of the cane species in the locality. Every year, a group of fifteen people from the village brings the cane species from Marthang, and Rimung in Samdrup Jongkhar and Narphung in Pemagatshel.

"With more people in business now, there has been over harvesting and the species has disappeared," said Karma Phuntsho. "We have to arrange food and lodging and hire trucks and people to carry it back home."

He said that it was a hassle to get permits. "The formalities are very complicated and we have to go all the way to Trashigang," he said.

According to the gewog Renewable Natural Resources extension forest officer, Sonam Wangchuk, excessive cultivation had lead to the exhaustion of the cane species in the locality.

Last year, a group of 32 farmers had planted about 3,000 shoots brought from Samdrup Jongkhar in about 15 acres of land but continuous sunshine had destroyed the plantation.

Sonam Wangchuk said that the Japan International Cooperation Agency had given a fund of Nu. 300,000 to create a nursery. "We are now encouraging community forestry and using private spaces for plantation," he said.

Meanwhile, customers say that the prices of the products were unreasonably high. "Unless they are aiming the tourists they should have a different rate for the locals," said Pem, a corporate employee. Another said that most of the products had bad finishing.

But the villagers claim that it required immense hard work, skill and it was time consuming. "Even weaving a small bangchung takes three days," said Wangmo, a mother of three, adding that it involved a lot of work before it was actually made.

This article was contributed by Kesang Dema KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2006
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