If you have never heard of the paper-makers of Mukto Village near Tawang, don’t feel sad as you are not the only one. Most people haven’t and even I had no clue till I actually got there. It was also a very taxing day, in fact, I can probably count that as two days because we got up at an unearthly hour at 3 am. We were in Dirang and going to Tawang, but there was a birding session atop Se La. So, we barely slept, that too after doing both Dirang Valley Trek and Sangti Valley visits on the previous day.
I’ll talk about the Se La birding later in a different post. Nevertheless, we were totally exhausted by the time we were done with that and crossed Se La. However, our hosts at Holiday Scout had other plans and told us that we are not directly going to town and getting rest but there are more offbeat Tawang things to be done. I could barely open my eyes and was having a splitting headache and hoped this detour would be worth it.
It took around an hour through a difficult road, mostly along a river, crossing several sparsely populated villages and forested areas, and finally reached Mukto around noon and went directly to one of the families involved in making paper. In fact, the paper was visible already as it was being dried in the sun.
Papermaking traditions in the Buddhist World
So, why do they make this paper at Mukto and what is the historical significance?
While I could not find too much documentation, from what I could figure out, it is an ancient practice and they make paper from the barks of a certain plant. It is mostly a handmade process and the limited quantity of papers is used for writing Buddhist religious scriptures in the monasteries.
Here, I must mention my previous experience with local papermaking. A few years ago I witnessed papermaking traditions at the Gompa in Sural Bhatori in Pangi Valley, the remotest part of Himachal. They used the barks of bhojpatra trees (betula utilis/Himalayan Birch) instead but the purpose is the same, used for religious scriptures. At Mukto, they use the barks of a different plant. So, I think techniques differ based on the material used but such paper-making traditions are alive in various remote corners of the Buddhist world (I have headed of one in Nepal too). I think Tibet itself is too high for such trees and they used to purchase paper manufactured in such lower Himalayan areas. So, this is a disappearing art but still has its demand in the gompas.
While the normal paper is easily available for other purposes now, this paper is still in demand. The raw material used here is the bark of ‘Shug-Sheng” (Daphnie Paperacia, India paper plant). From what I could understand, it’s not a big tree but sort of a shrub that grows in the region. It is probably used in other parts of the country too but most of those traditions must be disappearing. In fact, harvesting the bark from remote mountains is a labour intensive job that is done by very few people nowadays.
The barks of the tree are dried in sun for a few days and then boiled in water and eventually, it is ground to create sort of a paste, which is then spread on a rectangular frame holding a filmy screen (probably a fine piece of cloth). After spreading the paste uniformly, it’s dried in sun again so that the paper is finally formed.
This has been an important local craft for the Monpas and from what I could understand, they’ve been trading this paper since ancient times, especially to the monasteries of Tibet, Bhutan, as well as the local ones in Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal. The paper is sometimes called Mon Shug (literally Monpa Paper). Due to the current geopolitical climate, I think it’s not possible to conduct cross-border trade and so they are dependant on local gompas only.
We spent around an hour and saw all the main processes involved in papermaking. The demand is now limited and do I think they need to find ways to use and market this paper in some other ways. As of now, the artisans do not earn much from this complex and time-consuming process.
So, this was more or less it. We took another exotic route to reach our hotel in Tawang and got some rest finally, but not before we passed through a stretch of golden rice terrace sprinkled with pink cosmos. This is a landscape that doesn’t often feature anywhere when we talk of Tawang Toursim. So, I’ll leave you with this.
How to Reach Mukto village?
Mukto is a somewhat remote village not located on the highway but on a narrow, bumpy diversion. Also, very few families are involved in this process. So, you need to know where to go but it can be difficult alone. As far as I remember, we took a diversion after crossing Jang and later on arrived at Tawang through a different road. It is at least 1.5 hrs from Tawang. A local guide or operator may be helpful in this case.