In one of the rooms of the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory in Thimphu, Bhutan, Jamyang, 73, is hard at work. Sitting cross-legged against the wall, she deftly sorts boiled fibres of the daphne plant, a high-altitude shrub of the Thymelaeaceae family, removing hard bits or black parts, as my guide Sonam and I watch. This is the plant that forms the base of long-lasting paper, which naturally repels termites and other insects, for which Bhutan is known.
There are no accurate records of when paper-making, known as desho in the Bhutanese language Dzongkha, began but it is, in all probability, linked to the spread of Buddhism. Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, introduced Buddhism in the country in the eighth century. Scriptures and religious texts were an important part of the religion, so paper was in high demand.
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Tshering Dorji, the proprietor of Jungshi, tells us that some of the oldest scriptures on desho paper are around 800- 1,000 years old.
Over the years, with the advent of modern paper-making, the traditional art of desho began to decline as younger generations moved to cities and opted for professions more lucrative than paper-making. To preserve the art form, the ministry of trade and industry established Jungshi in 1990. In 1992, the factory was privatised under the sole proprietorship of Dorji’s father, Norbu Tenzin.
The family-run factory, located on a ridge above the Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu, produces 1,200 sheets of paper a day the traditional way, entirely by hand and with minimal use of modern technology. It is the best known of the few such factories in the country.
Paper-making did not originate in Bhutan, it may have come from China, via Tibet, along with travelling Buddhist scholars, explains Dorji.
Today, apart from meeting local demand, handmade paper from Bhutan is exported to the US, Europe and India after it is made into colourful diaries, envelopes, postcards, wrapping paper, lampshades and more. At the on-site shop, rows of shelves are piled high with beautiful handmade paper products—the prices start from 85 ngultrum, or NU (around ₹80) . There are papers in different shades of cream, some embellished with bougainvillea flowers and others with the cannabis leaves that grow wild in Bhutan.
The daphne shrubs, which grow wild on the Himalayan slopes, are harvested, leaving behind the roots and a few inches of stalk. Over time, the plant grows back and can be harvested again.
“There are two kinds of daphne,” says Dorji. “The black daphne grows at altitudes between 1,800m and 3,200m. Paper made from the black daphne, a strong fibre, is dark brown in colour and can last over a thousand years. The white daphne grows at altitudes between 1,200m and 1,600m and the paper made from this plant is cream in colour. The fibres of the white daphne are softer, and, hence, the paper doesn’t last as long as that made from the black daphne.”
Jungshi sources its black daphne from small farmer collectives in the eastern part of Bhutan, while the white daphne comes from Gedu in the country’s south.
Before the pile of fibres reaches Jamyang and her fellow paper-makers, the bark of the daphne is soaked in water for almost a day and then boiled. Once cleaned, the fibres are cut, pound and crushed to pulp and mixed with starch made from the hibiscus plant in large rectangular vats. It is at this stage that colour, leaves or flowers are added to the water to create embellished paper.
Unless specifically requested, all the colours used come from natural sources, such as blue pine barks, walnut shells, leaves and madder.
There are two techniques used to make paper, namely tsharsho and resho. In resho, the pulp is poured on to the flat surface of a screen made with cotton cloth. The screen is then left to dry in the sun for a day or two. Once dry, the thin sheet of paper is carefully peeled off by hand.
Jungshi follows the tsharsho technique, and, as we watch, workers expertly submerge rectangular bamboo screens akin to a bamboo blind in the vat holding the mixture of pulp and starch, submerging it entirely till a thin film forms on the screen. The screen is then removed and the wet layer is carefully peeled off, with the sheets being piled one on top of the other. The pile is then pressed down with a heavy metal press to remove excess water.
Layer upon layer of thin paper is separated and pasted on to sloping flat surfaces that are heated with warm water and left to dry completely. While it takes only a few steps to make a sheet of paper, some of the stages, such as using the bamboo screen to pull out a layer of paper, take a lot of skill. Dorji says it takes almost a year to learn the entire process at the factory. He spent two years in Japan improving his skills and knowledge before returning to expand Junshi’s product portfolio.
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Of the 22 people working at Jungshi for an average monthly wage of 15,000 NU, 14 are women. Although the working conditions are tough, it has given these men and women a new lease of life, maintains Dorji. Most of the workers are uneducated or have dropped out of school, some come from broken families, with abusive partners, and shoulder financial burdens. For them, the steady income is a lifeline.
Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based travel and culture writer.