Nepali Times
Nepali Society
Hira means gem

Like many, King Birendra visited Dwarika's Hotel and was greatly impressed with the restoration work. Invariably, the management calls in Hira Kaji Bramhacharya to explain the intricacies of the woodcarvings. After all, he is the senior-most artisan working on the hotel's heritage conservation project.

Everyday for 26 years, 61-year old Hira Kaji has been cycling two-and-half hours from his home in Bungamati, south of Lalitpur, to his work place in Kathmandu Gaushala at Dwarika's Hotel. Humble and cheerful Hira Kaji is in his element when faced with his traditional wood carving instruments jyawal, chupahancha and lyahacha. Time has compelled him to use reading-glasses, but his hands are still firm and accurate and have withstood the test of advancing years and technology. "Electric machines help save time, of course, but the patterns and your carving style come from skills sharpened over the years," he says.

Before joining Dwarika's for their Nepali Heritage Architecture Conservation Project, Hira worked in places like Bungamati, Dhapakhel, Sunakothi and Khokana making elaborate wooden frames for doors and windows for new houses. "There's a booming international market for such crafts nowadays if quality is maintained," says Hira Kaji. "But the thing is, these things are not appreciated where they're supposed to be used-in Nepal," he says. "But then wood is very expensive and there are very few carvers left, so not many Nepalis can afford it," he says, pointing to an carved pillar from an old Newari house in Banepa.

The largest woodcarving he and his team have made is a 10ft x 6ft three-faced window, which would take a lone worker four months to finish. Hira has the memories of a lifetime in traditional Newari patterns including the chain-like sikha and leaf-like polo. Earlier sal wood was commonly used. "But nowadays wood like eucalyptus, sisam and even pine are much more readily available," he says.
"These skills were passed down from our ancestors," says Hira Kaji whose elder son Hira Ratna joined his buttakarmi crew 17 years ago. "He learned this ancient skill playfully, like I did. I used to spend a lot of time with my grandfather and uncles," reminisces Hira Kaji. In addition to his son, Hira Kaji has long been working with two artisans-40 year-old Shanta Muni Shakya and 36 year-old Gyani Raj Shakya. "The interest has to arise naturally. We shouldn't force ourselves to do things that we know we won't be able to do," he says. "Wood carving needs a lot of patience and focus."

"I pray to lord Bishwokarma. And he's been good to me," he says. Bishwokarma, the god of craftsmanship, is a favourite deity of artisans. Every year during Bishwokarma Puja, Hira Kaji also takes a well-deserved break from all his obligations. "I really enjoy this festival. It's good to be with friends and make merry. sometimes you have to do that," he smiles.
Hira's only complaint is that his salary is very low. "In the last year, kerosene prices have increased three times. And I've been working here for quite long-it's high time I got a raise," he says. Lord Bishwokarma and Dwarika's willing, this last complaint of one of Nepal's gems will also disappear.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)