The 'Hemp' Ropemakers of Jharkhand
Sunn hemp ropes were once used to make charpais, tie cattle, use around pails that were lowered then into wells to collect water, and on auspicious occasions. But now, nylon and other factory-made ropes have replaced the natural ropes. The traditional craft of making ropes is slowly disappearing.
Ashwini K Shukla 15 Dec 2022 8:11 AM GMT
Bhikhahi (Garhwa), Jharkhand
In a corner of his home, Sitaram Chaudhary is making rope. The 61-year-old is holding a tool called dhera in one hand and some yarn in another, and he does not take his eyes off for a moment from his hands. "I don't want any lumps in the rope," he told Gaon Connection.
Sitaram's family makes ropes from the sunn hemp plant, which they cultivate in 10 katha of land (1 acre = 27 katha). Though it is different from the hemp, the sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) is known as brown hemp, Indian hemp or Madras hemp. It is a tropical Asian plant of the legume family.
Sitaram said that it takes about eight hours to spin one kilogram of rope. And, the entire process from harvest to the finished rope is a journey of three weeks. He and his wife Shanti Devi who live in Bhikhahi village in Garhwa district, Jharkhand, have been making these ropes for over 40 years.
Sunn ropes were once used to make charpai (cots), tie cattle, use around pails that were lowered then into wells to collect water, and on auspicious occasions. But now, nylon and other factory-made ropes have replaced the natural sunn ropes.
The mallaah community (traditional boatmen) in Jharkhand, which has been making these sunn hemp ropes to earn a living, is slowly moving away to other occupations. Many of its members now work as manual labourers or migrant workers.
"The mallah community that we belong to has been making rope for as long as I know. When I was a child, I learned this from my father," said Sitaram, adding that he would be the last generation in his family to do so.
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Sitaram and Shanti Devi's son and daughter-in-law have already moved away from rope making. "They don't want to do this anymore. They feel they can earn more elsewhere," Shanthi said.
"Nylon ropes cost Rs 60 per kg, they are cheaper and stronger than sunn. So why would anyone want to buy sunn ropes," asked Gautam Anand, a third-generation rope seller in Garhwa market, about 16 kilometres from the Bhikhahi village. "No one is asking for the sunn ropes anymore," he told Gaon Connection.
The process of making sunn hemp ropes
The plant known as sanayi in Hindi and son in the local Bhojpuri language, is sown in the beginning of the kharif season (June or July) and harvested in the months of January or February. But many farmers including Sitaram harvest it a little early in order to make space for their rabi (winter) crops.
Sunn hemp is a labour-intensive crop. After harvesting, the seeds are separated from the stem that are then tied together in bundles. The rope-making couple carry these bundles on their heads, and walk to the Koel river that flows about a kilometre and a half away from their home and soak the bundles in the water for about eight to ten days.
After that, the extraction of the fibre from the stems begins. Sitaram said that he and his wife went every day at four in the morning to the river and beat the soaking stems on the surface of the water till the fibres begin to separate.
"The fibre comes out looking like the feather of a white bagula (heron)," Shanti told Gaon Connection. "In a day, both of us together can extract about six kilos of fibre," she added.
Once the fibres are extracted, they are dried in the sun and that takes about four to five days. After the fibres are completely dry, they are spun into ropes with the dhera.
The dhera has three small extensions to it. Sitaram holds it in one hand with the fibre in the other and spins. "We have been using a dhera to make rope for generations in my family," Sitaram said.
The finished rope is once again soaked in water for a while to strengthen it and then rubbed smooth with a gunny bag.
It is a difficult livelihood, Sitaram said. "We cultivate and harvest the crop ourselves and then make and take the ropes to the market to sell. "We can't afford to pay for labour. As it is there is barely any profit for us," he said."
"The whitish rope, made of the best quality of the fibre, is sold at Rs 80 to 100 per kg. The ropes made from the discoloured fibres sell for about Rs 25 to 30 per kg," Sitaram explained. But the process of making both kinds of rope is the same, he added.
There was a time when a good sunn harvest was likened to a harvest of gold, said the 61-year-old rope-maker. "But those days are long gone," he said wistfully. There has been a falling demand for the sunn ropes and many traditional rope makers are looking elsewhere for a better livelihood.
"I don't do this (ropes) full time but it gives me some money when I don't have any work," Sitaram added. Sitaram and Shanthi Devi also cultivate paddy and maize in the kharif season and wheat, gram and other pulses in the rabi season. They also own two cows, and a few goats which provide them with some additional income.
Traditional rope-makers are now migrant workers
Anand Chaudhary said he grew up making sunn hemp ropes, but now the 32-year-old from Bhikhahi village earns a living doing manual labour.
"I cultivated sunn on about four katha of land this year. We (his family) made about five kilos of rope that I sold for five hundred rupees last month," said Anand, who had migrated to Chennai to work as a construction labourer earlier this year.
"We do not earn enough for the amount of effort we put in to make the ropes," Somnath Chaudhary, another inhabitant of the village, told Gaon Connection. He tutors high-school students at home.
Somnath's family of five owns six acres of land on which they cultivated sunn every monsoon for decades. But unlike his forefathers, Somnath has shifted to seasonal kharif and rabi crops.
"No one in the next generation will grow sunn, people don't want these ropes anymore," the 30-year-old said. Gesturing towards the fibres drying in his courtyard. "The last time I sold the ropes was two years ago at Rs 800 or so for 10 kgs," he said.
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Sitaram and Shanti Devi were hoping to get about 100 kgs of fibre from their land this year, but insufficient rainfall in Jharkhand has dimmed that possibility. "We hope to get at least 50 to 60 kgs of fibre this time," said Sitharam.
Everytime they make about 20 kgs of rope, Sitaram heads to the weekly market at Garhwa town, about 16 kms away, to sell it.
In the past year he has made three trips there and sold about 70 kgs of rope he and his wife had made. This has earned them about Rs 7,000.
Sitaram will again be in the market in a few weeks time with his bundle. For now, the dhera in his hand spins busily, turning out the ropes made of the natural sunn hemp.