As a world heritage site, Patan is one of the most visited tourist sites in Kathmandu. While three temples in the main square collapsed in last April’s earthquake the place retains its old world charm.
For long the town’s artisans have held the title of the most skilled craftsmen in the country and for good reason. The architectural beauty of Patan is unmatched, and even today bronze sculptors and wood carvers work in dimly-lit workshops, chipping away with a hammer and chisel to create high-quality religious figures.
Prem Awale (pic, above) is a craftsman-turned-businessman who opened his own showroom 12 years ago. Back then Malaysian tourists were his major customers, today it is Chinese mainlanders who make up 80 per cent of his clientele.
China today is the biggest importer of Nepali metal craft, and last year the Nepali handicraft industry earned Rs 2.8 billion selling Buddhas, Taras and Manjushrees to the mainland. Metal craft makes up more than 20 per cent of Nepal’s total handicrafts export.
However, as with other businesses, handicraft owners have seen huge losses first with the drop in tourism after the earthquake and later with the fuel shortage caused by the Indian blockade.
“I have received orders for bronze figures, but there’s no way I can continue selling them at normal rates,” Awale says frustrated, “manufacturing cost has gone up because of the price of fuel and also due to shortage of workers.”
There are six other handicraft showrooms in the lane that houses Awale’s shop, and all the owners have the same story.
An online handicraft store owned by Chinese businessmen this week rejected a customer’s order for ten pieces of 7-inch copper Sakyamuni Buddha statues because they were unable to guarantee the delivery date due to problems in Nepal.
On Taobao.com, the biggest e-commerce market in China, there are almost 1,200 outlets selling Nepal-made metal statues. Nepali handicrafts command a premium because they are made in the country where the Buddha was born.
But Nepali handicrafts now have to compete with cheaper mass-produced Chinese imitations.
A 5-inch gilt Tibetan Buddha statue imported from Nepal sells at RMB 650 (Rs 10,400) online, but a similar statue made in China is sold at RMB 299 (Rs 4,800). But even in the online photos it is easy to see that the Nepal-made statues have finer craftsmanship.
Even so, the delivery difficulties are pushing many Chinese traders to promote low-quality China-made statues back home. “The Nepalis never deliver on time and customers always complain,” said one Chinese businessman.
Awale used to receive orders for up to 1,500 Buddha statues from a single Chinese buyer, and he still gets similar inquires but is just not able to produce so many so quickly. Another factor in the waning business is the downturn in the Chinese economy.
Handmade for China, Sunir Pandey
Made in Nepal
From wax to copper, Gopen Rai