Khokana’s KolsHe is walking along a trail cutting through vast farmlands, his mind set on the long journey ahead. He is focused. It has already been an arduous morning and the kharpan balanced precariously on his shoulder is getting heavier by the hour.
He is walking along a trail cutting through vast farmlands, his mind set on the long journey ahead. He is focused. It has already been an arduous morning and the kharpan balanced precariously on his shoulder is getting heavier by the hour.
Suddenly, a piercing cry emanates from the hills. “Ohh hooooy Khokane! Here! Come Here!”
On looking up, he sees a tiny figure atop a hillock, shouting, flailing her hands wildly in the air. She must be half a kilometre away, uphill. To reach her, he’d have to hoist his heavy load up the dusty trail; a twenty minute detour that doesn’t necessarily promise a good bargain. Should he respond, or play deaf?
To the woman, the man from Khokana was recognisable from afar. He is clad in a daura surwal, a faded black waistcoat and a dishevelled cap, but what gives him away is his gait as he balances a heavy kharpan containing tins filled with Kokhana’s mustard oil.
Khokana’s elderly men have vivid memories of this once common episode during their long, tiresome journeys on foot to distant villages, where they bartered their famed roasted mustard oil with mustard seeds. Now, with a generation already coming of age without having taken up this tradition, these aging men are the direct and only link to a 500-year-old tradition.
After Kols—or community oil mills—were established in Khokana in the 16th Century, they became the axis around which the life and culture of its people revolved. It is a tradition that has all but ceased with the advent of industrial manufacturing and transportation. But if you make the short journey to Khokana and ask its elderly to recount their days as wandering oil salesmen, they will recreate for you the journey like they had only embarked on them yesterday.
At its heart, they will tell you, it was a simple business modality—you produced the oil by pressing roasted seeds together, you bartered the oil for more seeds; pressing oil from them again, ad infinitum. But, beneath these simple stories remain tales of struggle and devotion. Long, tedious journeys on foot to distant, hilly villages; the perpetually churning of the Kols and the toil and sweat in its searing heat.
Jit Lal Maharjan, 84, recalls with guarded nostalgia the days when Khokana’s men woke up well before dawn and prepared to set out with their loaded kharpans.“We ate our morning meal at the crack of dawn,” he says. “And we ate as much as we could possibly stuff in our stomachs because we had heavy loads to carry and long distances to cover.”
Like their forbearers had done before them, the Khokanes, as they were endearingly or derogatorily called by others, sometimes went west to villages like Kirtipur, Panga, Machhegaun, or much further to Dakshinkali and Pharping to the south. Sometimes, they set towards the Nakkhu Khola and past it into Patan or Kathmandu to the north, and the villages dotting the Valley’s hills.
They went from door to door, walking through the narrow lanes in the core Newar settlements in Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur; or, through the sloping paths between more scattered houses around the Valley’s centre. They had their regular customers before whose houses they dutifully stopped to enquire if their previous delivery had run out. Mostly though, they’d be uncertain of the bargains the day held in store.
“Every trip with a kharpan-ful of oil was new,” Jit Lal says. “We had to deal with new customers each time. There were no fixed rules, no fixed routes and there was no guarantee that we’d get good deals for our oil.”
These, Jit Lal says, were the easier journeys. An hour and half to reach Kirtipur or Panga. Over three hours to reach Dakshinkali and Pharping. But having started early, they always returned to their homes in Khokana by dusk.
By contrast, there were much longer, gruelling journeys the Khokanes undertook. Aspiring to expand their customer base and to access quality seeds, Khokana’s residents often went as far as Makwanpur, Dhading and Chitwan. This is because mustard grown in the hilly areas are rounder, larger, and have a better yield, says Gopi Lal Dangol, 79.
Jitlal, Gopilal and their contemporaries followed their forefather’s footsteps to these villages as well. Following the trail through Kirtipur to Satungal to Nagdhunga, they travelled westward, reaching Naubise, Dhunibesi and Dharke in Dhading. In the south, they reached Tistung, Palung, and sometimes even farther into Bhimphedi, Hetauda, Parsa and Tandi in Chitwan.
On these excruciating journeys, they’d devise a mental map of the paths they’d tread, skipping the houses scattered too far into the hills. They did so because oftentimes having reached a particular house, the owners only asked for meagre quantities of oil, or worse, offered sub-par seeds in exchange.
“We didn’t feel right pretending to not hear when someone hollered from afar,” Sanu Kaji Maharjan, 75 says. “At the time, we were their only source of cooking oil, and a sense of duty made us wander away from the trails. This was rewarding in its own way, but also extremely taxing.”
At each stopover, a manna of oil was exchanged for four to five, or even six, mannas of mustard seeds. The seeds they accumulated amounted to at least four times the weight of the oil they set off with. And until the Tribhuvan Highway was built in the late 1950s, the men took on a much strenuous journey back home.
“But as hard as these journeys were, we had no other way of securing mustard seeds to continue our tradition. The seeds we produced in our farms just couldn’t keep up with the demand,”Jit Lal says.
Khokana was built during the reign of King Amar Malla, who had it placed in the middle of these farms.Where the fields ended, the town started and the community Kols were built in order to keep the town sustainable. Understanding the value of community, the residents operated the Kols in a Sahmo, or cooperative. Each family contributed an equal share, and the members took turns at the mill—waiting for about a month between turns. Starting with one mill, named Kut Sha, over the centuries, Khokana added three more—Gaabu Sha, Nhyabu Sha, Nhu Sha. By the time today’s elderly generation came of age, each Kol had 100 to 150 members.
Purna Bahadur Maharjan, 79, remembers that the wheels of these Kols never-stopped, save for a day for annual repair, maintenance and feast in the month of Baisakh. “Even as the villages and towns of the Valley slept, the wicks in the lanterns kept burning in Khokana,” he says, “And it took at least seven people to fully operate the mill. We knew, and were taught as children, that we would have to stick together as a community to keep the tradition going.”
“Whether inside the mill or outside, inside our homes or out in the chowk, we’d smell the aroma of mustard oil at all times of the day,” Purna Bahadur says. “The smell constantly reminded us of our heritage, and the onus to carry it forward.”
Albeit late, the windfall of modernity was inevitable. Eventually, Khokana’s young began pursuing new ways of life and the tradition of the Kols slowly eroded. But more than from within, the demise of Khokana’s oil tradition came from outside. The oil that they once extracted through immense physical labour was now mass-produced and cheap, processed oil flooded the market.
Meanwhile, the centuries-old tradition received no protection, incentive or encouragement.
Gaabu Sha closed in the early 1980s; Kut Sha, shut down in 1992; and Nhyabu Sha, the last surviving Kol, was flattened by the 2015 earthquake.
There are upsides; with many of Khokana’s residents having switched to machine-producing mustard oil. It might not taste the same but they continue to put the town on the map as the ‘Oil Capital of the Country.”
But now with a slew of large-scale development projects—including the Tarai Fast Track—threatening to cut through their farms and streets, Khokhanes of yore are not sure how their communities will change in the coming years or what effect it will have on the last vestiges of a lifestyle that has been preserved for 500 years. Today, Khokana is one of the last surviving remnants of the Malla-era pastoral life in Kathmandu Valley. And for its residents, the town is more than just a cluster of ancient homes, temples and courtyards. At its heart, Jit Lal says, it is the traditions that bind the residents together that need protecting.