The Story of Digoli
"It's an old tale passed down from our elders...the whole tribe was created due to this", said Mr. Anh Singora, describing the mythical origins of Digoli, a Bora village in the Central Himalayas. He remembered his father telling him the story of two brothers from the village of Rawatsera, of the Rawat Caste, who were fighting over some land. The brothers decided to resolve the dispute through a bet: if the younger brother could make a cucumber drop from its tree with a stone in a slingshot, they would continue to stay together and share the land. If the cucumber didn’t fall, then the brother would have to leave the village.
Kumaon Pine Forest (November 2017)Avani Society
Ultimately, the brother missed the cucumber, and was forced leave home and go into the forest. While living in exile in the woods, the brother fell in love with a woman from a Bora village. However, their romance was frowned upon by her family, and the woman's brother banished her from the family home. So, both lovers went to live in isolation in the forest.
View of Bora Village (November 2017)Avani Society
The lovers were very poor, and needed to find a way to make a livelihood. One day, while exploring the forest, the couple discovered hemp fibers. Soon, they had begun weaving them to make items to sell and trade. After some time, the couple settled down and founded the village of Digoli, where they sustained their family on the production and sale of hemp. Their descendants, the Boras of Digoli and its 4 neighboring villages, continued to thrive on the cultivation and harvest of the hemp crop for many generations.
Hemp is one of the oldest plants in continuous use by human civilizations. As a crop, hemp has a wide range of uses. Its seeds are highly nutritious, and its fibers can be used to weave a wide range of items, from clothes to bags. Evidence of its use can be found all over the world, from traces of hemp cord in pottery found in modern-day Taiwan to a piece of hemp fabric found in Peru, all of which date back to 8,000 BC.
Requiring extreme amounts of labor, hemp cultivation, spinning and weaving decreased in popularity throughout the 18th and 19th century as new fibers were being introduced to the market. Nicknamed, the ‘quello delle centro operazioni’ or "substance of a hundred operations" by Italians, hemp plants require significant care and attention to grow properly.
Raw Hemp Bark (November 2017)Avani Society
The true difficulty, however, lies in extracting bark from the stem of the plant, and converting that bark into fiber. The adhesive substances which keep bark and stem together is dissolved through micro-biological processes, such as water-retting, which are time-consuming and necessitate minutely-supervised conditions.
Close-Up of Woven Hemp TextileAvani Society
The Bora community in and around Digoli used to be widely known for their cultivation of hemp to produce a range of bags, mats, and sacks. However, as the laws surrounding hemp cultivation and production have become increasingly hazy, the practice of this traditional craft has begun to disappear. In this isolated village, the traditions surrounding hemp cultivation and processing have become emblematic of the wider cultural and technological changes sweeping the region.
The Bora Community
Nestled in the foothills of the Central Himalayas in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, Digoli is carved into a steep mountainside, with narrow, winding paths connecting each house and terraced rice fields stretching into the distance.
Bora Women (November 2017)Avani Society
The Kumaon region was occupied by the Gurkhas (Nepalese) from 1790 until 1815, when they were defeated in the Anglo-Gurkha War. Even after the end of Gurkha rule, the area retained strong ties with Nepal, and a community near this village was populated by Nepalese traders who migrated to the area. As such, Bora culture is influenced by Nepal, and some in the village have posited that their hemp traditions may have originated from these Nepalese traders.
Bora Woman with Goats (November 2017)Avani Society
Renowned for their skills as spinners, weavers, farmers, and cattle weavers, the Bora have long been known in the area for their hemp products. Indeed, the name “Bora”, comes from a local word meaning “sack”, and the Bora often traveled to local fairs in the valley to trade their hemp goods for other products.
Although they share many cultural similarities with neighboring castes, the Bora are, in some ways, culturally unique. They speak a distinct dialect of Kumaoni, the local language, and have some unique religious traditions.
Today, the Bora are classified as an “Other Backward Class" by the Indian government, a designation used to classify castes that are socially and educationally disadvantaged. As such, they receive some benefits in the forms of government schemes.
However, despite these benefits, life in this remote region remains extremely challenging. Many villages, including Digoli, are inaccessible via road, and the closest major city to the region (Delhi) is over 460km away. There is minimal economic activity in the area, and few livelihood opportunities beyond farming and manual labor.
The Bora Community & Hemp
Hemp cultivation used to play an important role in the daily life of Bora communities. A multipurpose crop, the Bora used the fibers the make ropes, sacks, and mats, and used the highly nutritious seeds to make spices and chutney.
For many, hemp cultivation held emotional, as well as economic, value for the community. One village woman, Lalita, shared fond memories of taking hemp products to fairs in the area, where they could sell it or exchange it for other goods. For many in this isolated region, such trips offered a rare chance to see the outside world, while also generating valuable income.
For some, hemp was a lifelong tradition, passed down from generation to generation. One Bora woman, Raduli, started working with hemp when she was 15 years old. She worked with every aspect of the production process, from growing, to spinning, to weaving. Through this craft, Raduli says that she was able to provide for herself and her children. Although the craft was difficult, Raduli took immense pride in its challenges, and the skills required to create these durable fibers.
The Hemp Ban
Hemp cultivation was banned by the Indian government in 1985 under the “Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act". At the time of the ban, many in the Bora community felt angry towards the government for denying them an important cultural tradition and source of livelihood. In Raduli’s words, “This is our tradition. We do all things with hemp.”
Mr. Anh Singora, a villager elder, noted that there are three uses for hemp: seeds for consumption, the fibers for textiles, and the bud for smoking. Yet in the government's eyes, the third use was sufficient to ban the entire crop, denying his community an important source of income. Still, despite the villagers' anger, after the ban, hemp cultivation began to wane.
View of Bora Village (November 2017)Avani Society
In November 2015, the Uttarakhand state government announced a plan to distribute permits for farmers to begin cultivating hemp. This cultivation was restricted to strictly industrial purposes, such as textile production. As the hemp that grows naturally in the Kumaon region contains a high THC content (the compound that allows people to get high when smoking), the government decided to distribute specially developed cannabis seeds to farmers with significantly lower THC content. However, despite this recent, albeit qualified, legalization, misinformation and rumors about the legality of hemp abound. Some in the Bora community are unaware that hemp has been legalized at all, while others are hesitant to test the legal “hazy area” and begin cultivating again.
Even with the recent legalization, few believe that the traditions around hemp will be revived. Legal barriers notwithstanding, many in the younger generation of Boras have little interest in cultivating hemp because it is so labor-intensive.
Some in the older generations mourn this change. Noting the durability of hemp fabrics, Raduli claimed that sacks made from hemp typically last from 10-15 years, while their plastic replacements rarely last longer than 6 months. Others, such as Mr. Anh Singora, celebrated the craftsmanship surrounding hemp cultivation and production, noting that “the beauty of handmade things is important.”
But for younger generations, hemp is “old”, and the labor-intensive demands of its cultivation and production significantly outweigh its cultural value.
Life in Digoli has changed significantly since its hemp cultivation days. With increased exposure to the outside world, more and more youth are finishing school, and girls are getting married later.
Although the craft of spinning and weaving textiles has somewhat diminished, others have found new avenues through which to use these traditional skills.
Avani, an organization dedicated to creating sustainable livelihood opportunities in rural areas, opened a center in 2004 for weaving silk and wool scarves, shawls, and sarees. Through this center, many women have been able to transfer their traditional knowledge of spinning and weaving hemp to this new craft, generating a valuable source of income for themselves and their families.
Man Walking Towards Bora Village (November 2017)Avani Society
Thus, while traditions around hemp cultivation and production have changed, they are not lost. As Bora communities face the future, their traditions and crafts continue to evolve with them, creating new avenues for opportunity, empowerment, and pride.
Avani Society/Kumaon Earthcraft Cooperative
Text: Camille Parker, Emilie Thevenoz
Images: Emilie Thevenoz, Camille Parker, Avani Society
Additional thanks go to Rajendra Joshi for his translation support, the staff of the Avani Digoli field center for their generous hospitality, and the wider Digoli community for their willingness to participate in interviews.