Weaving the fabric of a new lifeA Nepali couple’s life-long struggle to run a thriving hand-woven dhaka business
Palpa is famous for its Dhaka weaves, but Pabi Sara Rajali did not know this when she first ran away from home to come here more than 20 years ago. From a Magar household, she did not even speak Nepali.
She had grown up in the mountains, herding livestock, fetching firewood, doing household chores. She often wondered what the outside world looked like and wanted to earn money to escape her little village.
A cousin worked as a weaver in Tansen and proposed to take Pabi Sara with her. Her parents opposed the idea, so she ran away.
Life in the bustling market town was different from her mountain village. She not only had to learn to weave, but also a new language. But with her cousin’s help, she quickly picked up both. “It wasn’t an easy job, but at least I had some money of my own,” remembers Pabi Sara. “In my village, I didn't even get to see money, here I could wear what I wanted and eat what I wanted.”
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Pabi Sara met Chandra Bahadur Rajali, who worked as a technician at the weaving centre. He had come from Gulmi at the age of 12 to spin threads and worked his way up to weave and fix machines. They got married in 1999, and a year later, their first daughter was born.
But their combined salaries were not enough to provide for the family of three. So, while Pabi Sara continued weaving, Chandra Bahadur took up a construction job. But that did not pay well either, and they opened a butcher shop in the bazar. Even that did not work out.
So, Chandra Bahadur decided to try his luck abroad. He took a loan and went to Dubai. The earnings there were not as good as expected, and the work in the desert was hard. In three years there, Chandra Bahadur saved just enough to pay back the loan to his recruiter. “I thought that I’d be able to make the same money at home while living with my family, so I came back,” he says.
In Palpa, he went back to working at the dhaka factory again. He realised that because so many young men had migrated for work, there was a labour shortage and wages had improved. The fabric that had been a part of Nepal’s national dress had started gaining popularity and the demand for Palpali dhaka had surged.
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Dhaka fabric originated in southeast Asia and came to Nepal through then East Bengal during the British days, which is why it is still called ‘dhaka’. Experts have traced the patterns and colours of Nepali dhaka to Bangladeshi jamdani dhakai. The dhaka tradition in Palpa can be traced to the late 1950s when Ganesh Man Maharjan traveled to Dhaka where he saw saris made from the muslin. He learned the process and set up the first factory in Tansen. The fabric became emblematic of the country’s identity when King Mahendra made it mandatory in the 1960s for government officials to wear dhaka topi.
After 17 years of weaving dhaka for others, the couple decided to strike off on their own. Today, Pabi Sara and Chandra Bahadur's New Sangharsha Dhaka Udhyog is one of the 32 small-scale dhaka businesses in Palpa. They borrowed money, bought a plot of land, and struck a deal with a factory owner who was closing down and bought five of his jacquard looms. “Getting the looms was not enough, we needed stands, threads, and that too added to the cost,” says Pabi Sara.
They named their company Sangarsha Dhaka Udhyog, a nod to the many struggles they had in life. But the struggle was not over: while both had the weaving and mechanical skills, they did not know enough about management.
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In 2016, Pabi Sara got selected for the Women Rural Enterprise Acceleration Project where she learnt the basics of running a business and was among the top five entrepreneurs in the district. Things were slowly starting to look up for the couple.
Before the pandemic hit, they expanded to 11 looms and even set up a showroom in the bazar. But the factory remained closed during the lockdowns, so did the showroom and they faced severe losses. Then a landslide damaged a part of the factory and four of the looms.
“It felt like our backs gave out,” recalls Pabi Sara. The couple did not have the money to pay interest on their loans or taxes to the government. They decided to shut down for good. “We went around asking for help from the municipality and government offices but maybe because we are small people with no political connections no one listened to us,” says Chandra Bahadur. Desperate, the couple sold corn and other vegetables by the highway, carrying the sacks on their backs.
When the world started getting back to normal in 2021, they renovated the shed and registered the company again. Things seem to be finally falling into place, and they now employ seven women on six looms and sell everything they produce from the factory itself. On average, the company has a turnover of Rs200,000 a month.
“There is a huge demand for dhaka in the market but we have not been able to meet it,” says Chandra Bahadur. “We don’t have enough space to add more looms. But we do not have the capital to expand either, and there are loans to pay off.”
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While uncertain about financing, the couple is confident about the quality of their weaves. The thinner and tighter the threads, the better the design and quality of the fabrics, and Pabi Sara makes sure the weavers all hit hard to make firm knots. Since they have risen up the ranks themselves, they know that happy workers make better products, and take good care of the staff. Rambha Devi Saru was one of the first women to join the company ten years ago. She learned to weave from Pabi Sara herself, and has been working with the couple ever since. Her husband worked in Malaysia and is now in Saudi Arabia. “I was just wasting my time at home. But since I started working here, I feel like I am contributing to the household as well. It makes me happy,” says Rambha.
Pabi Sara empathises with that and is pleased she can help other women gain financial independence. “If I had just turned to my husband to provide for me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I encourage them to join us. We want to help them in any way we can,” she says.
She adds, “We want to scale up and hopefully create a sustainable business. If one day, our daughters decide that they don’t want to work for someone else, I want them to at least have this business to fall back on.”
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