Weaving traditional Yathra brings income and villagers together

Thick hand woven woolen textile with intricate designs, locally known as Yathra, are a unique specialty of weavers in Chummey, Bumthang for generations. Due to the long cold winters, people in Bumthang have had to use Yathra as coats and raincoats and bedding material. Yathra is also used as furniture cover, stitched into caps, purses and bags with design preference of customers, mostly tourists.

Yathra weaving is prevalent in all the four gewogs in Bumthang. It is a tradition that is kept alive by the women weavers in Chungphel, Zhurey, Kertsho, Bhim, Terzoe and Yeerangbi in Chummey. They weave throughout the year as it is their main source of cash income. Settlements in these villages are clustered, and therefore, women come to weave together as a group in a hut. Girls begin their training to weave as young as 8 years of age.

Joint collaboration among weavers in Bumthang has helped to diversify in their weaves and to enhance the Yathra business. In a typical set up, a group of four to six women usually weave facing each other. While they weave, they converse on various topics and sometimes they sing together or listen to radio programs.

A weaver, Dema, had pooled in her resources and weaving expertise in such a joint venture. Dema and members of her family weave new Yathra designs in addition to the traditional designs. Through the joint weaving venture, weavers share floral designs and multi-coloured stripe combination, and they even guide each other as they weave in groups.

Dema is a successful entrepreneur today. She said her investment is now paying off  huge dividends as marketing and delivery of products is easier. Dema and her family are delighted to show their successful endeavour to other weavers and farmers in the village.

Villagers from Zhungri, about a day walk to Chhume, sell their products to the dealers in Chhume once a month. They prefer to barter their Yathras for groceries and garments. However, many weavers prefer to sell their products in shops along the bypass road, the main marketing outlet, to commuters and tourists. They can also buy yarns and rations from grocery shops.

Three Yathra weaving centers are located in Chhumig gewog. Gakid Yathra Weaving Center is located in Umsang village, while Thokmed Yeshey Handicraft and Yathra Production Centre and Sonam Lhaden Tshongkhang in Zhung Ngae Chiwog are located at Chummey gewog, which facilitates the sale of  Yathra to highway commuters and tourists.

The demand for locally hand-woven Yathra is consistent. The products are valued by consumers. “For the tourists, the Yathra products are unique souvenirs from Bumthang. However, to increase the market base, the channel of marketing will have to be improved further,” said Ap Wangdi from Chummey.

A Yathra dealer in Chummey, Yeshey, said that he gives cash to people who take money for their yathras and groceries to those who barter their Yathra, which suits him as he does not have cash at times. Each year Yeshey supplies about 100 to 200 Yathra pieces to the various textile shops in Thimphu and other dzongkhags. He sells them for Nu 600 to Nu 1,800 depending on the quality of the product. According to Yeshey, the products he buys or exchanges with the villagers fetches him about Nu 20,000 to Nu 30,000 during the tourist seasons and drops down to Nu 5,000 to Nu 6,000 during the lean tourist seasons.

Although weavers prefer to use the imported Swiss wool as yarn for weaving the Yathra, however, these days the wool from India is in demand for economic reasons. “Bhutanese wool is considered to be of greater quality,” said Yeshey. “But the charges are abnormally high.”

The cost of local wool production is expensive as compared to the cost of  imported Indian wool. The price of bleached and ready-made cheapest Indian wool is Nu 300 per kg and Nu 1,200 per kg for the superior quality of wool.

The Yathra producers depend on imported wool to keep production costs down. The Yathra factory owners pay about Nu 10,000 to 15,000 for weaving 15 pieces of Yathra, in addition, some owners also provide meals to the weavers. “One piece of 3 meter long Yathra requires approximately 1.1 kg of wool. A weaver can complete weaving 15 pieces of 3 meter long Yathra in one month,” said Yathra dealer Yeshey.

According to the Information and Technology Communication (ITC) officer in Bumthang, Sonam Jamtsho, Yathra production could become cheaper if there is a technological advancement in the production of woolen yarn in Bhutan, which will bring down the cost of local wool. “The lack of such a processing unit has compelled the Yathra factory owners to depend on imported Indian wool, although the locally produced wool is of pure and superior quality, which is preferred by the consumers,” he said. He added that the dependency on imported wool has led to the decrease in sheep rearing for wool in the dzongkhag.

“Yathra is a traditionally woven by wool produced from sheep raised by the people of  Chummey. But decreasing number of sheep has led to import of raw material from India. Today, almost all the raw materials are imported from India,” Mangmi Chundu Tshering said.

Around 240 households of 13-15 villages in Bumthang depend on the sale of Yathra for their livelihood. The data on production and sales volume of Yathra is absent because the production is based on individual household, and the marketing practices is unorganized. However, Yathra weaving is a priority in the four gewogs in Bumthang.

This article was possible due to support from the DoIM.

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