Written By: Sulava Piya and Nripal Adhikary. Contribution from: Ramhari Thapa and Man Bahadur Maharjan
Rows of three to four story brick houses juxtaposed into one another, smell of hay, golden crops spread in the pavement, men and women sorting out their grains , children running after their cattle, screaming, laughing and uttering their incomprehensible language takes one into another dimension of reality. Technically Pyangaon is just 10 kms south of Kathmandu yet culturally it is very far. Entry to this ancient village through an alley paved with brick and stone is like walking down the alley of time.
Pyangaons is inhabited predominantly by Maharjans. They are self-sufficient community, that has not only developed a unique custom and architecture but also produced their own variation of newari language that even Newars of Kathmandu don’t understand. They have built a beautiful adobe settlement on top of a hill. Around the hills where it is hard to farm or often called ‘degraded’ land they grow medicinal or utilitarian trees and bamboo. Below the hills are huge fields called khets they farm rice, wheat, vegetables etc depending on the seasons.
We have come here to meet Man Bahadur Maharjan. He is one of the two survivors who posses skills of making Pyang- a bamboo container that were used as measuring units. ‘Pyang’ from which the village derived its name, is a special container used to measure grains. Pyangs were made in various sizes of mana (400 grams) and pathi (3.2 kilograms). The village was officially authorized to produce pyangs which were used in Kathmandu as unit of measurement.
Most of the houses here are three to four story high using adobe in the inside and burnt brick in the outside. First two floors are storage for cattle and grains, third floor is where people live and this floor has large beautifully carved wooden windows. There are rows of similar sized houses built to human scale. Occasionally this beautiful skyline is broken by oddly placed concrete house.
To our dismay one of the few concrete houses was that of Man Bahadur. He had built his original house himself with adobe but now regrets the fact he had destroyed it to build this concrete house which he claims to be too cold. The inside however, perhaps for both economic and comfort reason he has managed to keep adobe. People of his generation were versatile as they were themselves farmers, weavers, builders, musicians etc. Since everything was homegrown that would have been possible, but now since almost everything is foreign, it requires specialized foreign skills to make them. Whatever skills that remain there, since they have no market value is also slowly vanishing.
Man Bahadur demonstrated us the skills of making pyang. This ‘Pyang’ is made out of bamboo in a very meticulous, sophisticated and unique method. Young bamboo of not more than 1 year old are first peeled off. They are then heated until they split themselves and then pressed to flatten them. Then they are folded and stitched neatly from inside-out to make containers. No glue or other chemicals are used. Pyangs, though are made out of bamboo that are not treated, are not affected by termites or insects. The secret Man Bahadur says is that it is only harvested in Paush -Falgun (heart of winter).
Pyangs are exact measures to the ‘Mana/Pathis’ and the measurement is done by experience rather than a measuring tape. “To make one Mana, four of your fingers have to get inside the hollow bamboo. ” explains Man Bahadur. Though what seems like a crude way of measuring, interestingly enough they always come out consistent. The tradition of using Pyangs have almost disappeared and so has the tradition of making it. There are literally only 2 elderly who are still making them. Their children and grandchildren see no economic prospects in this craftsmanship because of which this skill is at the verge of disappearance.
When we asked one of the villagers why such skill was not recognized, he said sadly, “Though we recognized the skill, it has now become old-fashioned to the local market. People are interested in metals and modern things. Its only the tourists who come to buy them sometimes. There is no point of learning this old-fashioned skill as there is no local market for it. We better do something that pays off well.”
As we walk down overwhelmed by what we have learnt, suddenly a huge motorcycle emerges from an oddly placed concrete building among the beautifully laid out traditional buildings, which looks like a wart in a beautiful skin. It is unfortunate, however, it is reminder of a harsh reality whether cultures like this that has managed to develop their own art culture and even language for hundreds of year will be able to handle the shock of modernity. Although in our modern world we might not use those measuring devices but we could use those techniques to build something else which caters to modern sensibility. But where do we start?
Some of the secrets of Man Bahadur
1. Only cut bamboo from Push to Falgun (Mid December to Mid February).
2. Only bamboo of age one can be flattened. Others will go bad.
3. Bamboo should not be harvested in Saturday and Sunday!
4. You cut one side of bamboo and slowly rotate in heat to flatten.
5. If four fingers enter laguna of bamboo it is usally makes a pathi container (3.2 kg).
6. Soak in water to get it tight.
We would like to thank Tourism Development Endeavors (TUDE) Nepal for providing logistic support for our visits.