Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Kukri-makers of Nepal

This past November I traveled to Kathmandu as part of a work project. This was my first time in Nepal but my schedule was a rather breakneck one that provided little opportunity for sightseeing. On top of that, I came down with some sort of virus that left me wiped out after just a few hours of activity, and prone to evening cycles of shuddering chills and sheet drenching night-sweats.

A week into the trip I finally drove the bug from my system with cheap over-the-counter antibiotics (fortified by chloroquinine in case it was malaria) and I was finally able to take a little time to myself.

Earlier in the week, I had stopped into a kukri shop in Thamel, the heavily tourist-oriented district of Kathmandu. Kukris are the famous leaf-bladed combat knives of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, and something of a hot tourist item for visitors to Kathmandu. The shopkeeper and I had a pleasant conversation about the origin of his knives, which came from two small workshops that he also owned. Intrigued, I asked if it was possible to visit one of the workshops, and he said he would be happy to take me to the nearer of the two as long as I gave him a little notice.

On Saturday took him up on the offer, and a friend of his drove us out to a small blacksmith shop in Biratnagar. Blacksmiths hold a rather unenviable position in the Nepali caste system – they (along with goldsmiths) belong to the Kami caste, one of the lowest-status groups in the country. Although caste distinctions have been somewhat diminished since the 1962 constitution, they are still a powerful and unavoidable fact of life in most parts of the country, particularly for those who come from the lower castes and especially those living outside urban areas. As we were leaving the city, we passed a street rally for increased Dalit rights. From my limited knowledge of India social structure, Dalits (sometimes called untouchables or Hijaran) are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to social strata, and I asked if that was also the case in Nepal. My host waved dismissively at the marchers, “Their situation is very good. They have legal protections and unions. Blacksmiths are at the bottom.”
Dalit Women March for Public Respect
He went on to explain that despite legal formalities to the contrary, blacksmiths are social pariahs in the communities where they work. “Parents to not want their children to play with the children of blacksmiths, and they would never invite a blacksmith into their home.” Although they cannot be excluded from community governance activities (like town meetings), and they are invited to family events such as birth and marriage celebrations they are not given equal status in most matters. Ironically, many blacksmiths, despite few opportunities to escape their social strictures, are financially successful, as their trade is one with limited competition and their services are vital to the rural communities that they serve.

My guide (who also comes from a Kami family) said that his own suppliers earn more money making knives for him than they do from making and repairing farming and household implements for their neighbors. Unfortunately, they must set aside time to forge sickles and hoes, or they face the threat of further ostracizing or even violence from the community.
This is actually a different Nepali village that I visited earlier that week, but it's a better picture.
A 45 minute drive brings us to the town where the workshop is located. Like most things in this part of Nepal, the town is perched on the slope of high hills overlooking terraced fields that look like they’re just waiting for a talented photographer to show up and make them look good at sunset.

This is where the magic happens
The workshop is in the back of what can best be called a one-room storefront packed with sharp things and hammers. Some are clearly factory made, and some more evidently the handiwork of the friendly balding man in a blue jumpsuit and bandanna who greets us as we enter.

His setup is a simple one, and aside from the incorporation of an electric blower to replace the human-powered bellows, the setup is much like it would have been a century ago or longer. The process, too, is straightforward: a scoop of charcoal is placed on top of a small glowing fire in a shallow depression in the ground that serves as a forge, at which point the blower is turned on, forcing air up through the embers, and rapidly raising the temperature of the fire. The metal to be worked (usually a piece of spring steel from a busted automobile leaf spring) is laid on top of the coals until it is glowing red, at which point the smith grabs it by the cool end with an ungloved hand, and works the metal with steady hammer strokes until it has cooled too much to be malleable. As seen in picture here, the anvil itself is just two sledgehammer heads imbedded in a large log. The top face of one of the hammer heads is flattened in a way that suggests decades of use.
Kukri knives with 10" and 7" blades laid out on an unmade bed

Each knife takes about a day of work, which includes fitting the wood for the handle, sharpening the edge, and buffing the blade to a bright shine. No two knives are exactly alike, so every sheath is custom-fitted for an individual blade. Every blade is accompanied by two additional blade-like implements. I've heard several descriptions regarding the purpose of these two mini-knives, most commonly that they're held in the clenched left hand with points protruding from between the ring/pinky fingers and the index/middle fingers so they can be used to punch or gouge an enemy's eyes in battle. Although this is not entirely implausible, according to the blacksmith their purposes are much more mundane. Both are made from a high-carbon steel that is harder than the blade of the kukri itself. One has a dull edge, and is intended to be used for sharpening the kukri by running it down the length of the blade on both sides like a butcher's steel. The other has a squared-off flat edge and is used for striking fire-making sparks off of flint or other spark-producing stones.
The blacksmith. Note automobile leaf spring mid-photo.

As the blacksmith shapes the end of another blade, I stand and watch with the shopkeeper and the blacksmith's nephew - a teenager in a track suit. The nephew doesn't understand why I'm there; this is not a tourist destination and I'm not talking business with anyone. I'm just standing around asking questions about the tempering process and the random household implements in the front room.

After a bit of that, the shopkeeper goes through the standing inventory of new stock and loads much of it into the back of the car as we prepare to leave. Ordinarily he makes the trip on a scooter, which limits how much he can bring back to his store in Kathmandu in a single trip. Fortunately for him, I'm footing the bill for a car, which saves him a trip or two.

Once we're ready to go, the blacksmith and his nephew wave good-by and return to the anvil.


For more information on the Kami blacksmiths of Nepal, some additional reading can be found here:

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