Nepali Paper (Nepali Kagaj)

Wrapping paper with prints of mane (Buddhist religious object) made of Nepali paper (Lokhta). © Monalisa Maharjan

If anyone had an opportunity to go through legal documents in Nepal like legal paper of property rights, they must have noticed the thin, fibrous, off-white paper, which are known as Nepali kagaj or Nepali paper. Not only legal documents but also ancient religious texts were written on that paper.

The name “Nepali paper” might give the impression that the name comes from being made in Nepal; however, the paper’s actual name is lokta. These papers are handmade from the fibrous inner bark of shrubs named Daphne—Daphne bholua and Daphne papyracea—grown in elevations between 2,500 meters to 4,000 meters.

The inner fibrous bark is extracted from the plant without harming the root so that the plant can regrow. Thin layers of the bark are stripped out. These thin strips are washed and dried and then boiled for five to eight hours to soften them. After boiling, the strips are transferred to a machine that turns the strips into a puree. (This step used to be done by hand by rubbing seashells on the strips.) Then soft pasty puree is poured evenly into a wooden frame with net. These frames, when dried, produce lokta paper.

The thickness of paper is controlled with the amount of pulp being poured and spread evenly. Lokta can be made very thick and transparent, which are special characteristics of this paper. These papers strong—not easily torn and resistant to termites and decay. The plants used to make lokta regrows in few years, making it sustainable. Even though machines were introduced for some work, most of the work still done manually.

Because of its limited use—legal documents and religious manuscripts and to make incense sticks by binding incense powder to the paper and ayurvedic medicinal purpose—these industries were dying out. But the tourism industry gave the rebirth to Nepali paper. Targeting tourists, the producers started to make the various products other than writing paper.

Another specialty of these papers is that they can be dyed to produce wonderful patterns and even natural elements like leaves and petals can be added to create beautiful designs. Taking advantage of the flexibility, producers started to make various products out of lokta. Nowadays, products such as lampshades, notebooks, paper bags, greeting cards, wrapping paper, photo frames, and calendars are made from the paper. Tourists are the main consumers these products.

According to Mr. Raja Ram Tandukar who owns a Nepali paper shop in Kathmandu explains, “lokta products gained popularity with tourist thirty to thirty-five years back. Tourists know this paper as rice paper.” The new life of the Nepali paper industry has created many job opportunities for the people, contributing in the economy.

Now, not only tourists but also the Nepali people started to use this paper in various new forms like for making visiting cards, restaurant menu, paper bags, and photo albums. This paper is environmentally sustainable as it comes from bushes that regenerate every four to five years.