Women in the hilly region of Uttarakhand learn to make felt rugs as a means to supplement their incomes

Selwani and Balkhila in Chamoli district of Uttrakhand are migratory villages; settlements used only during colder months, when the people descend from their higher summer homes that are situated at altitudes of about 10,000 feet. While the inhabitants do cultivate some land in their own villages, there is little else they can do for the six months of winter. Consequently, they resort to working as daily wagers or selling the wool they get from their sheep at throw away prices. The women knit sweaters and scarves which do not fetch much either.

But this time round the women had the opportunity to learn the art of making felt rugs (called namdas in the local language) at workshops conducted by Jansamarath, an NGO, and a Ministry of Textiles run Panipat based weaving centre.

One such woman is Gudddi Devi, sarpanch of Mehar village who comes down to Selwani every year. She led other women of her community, the Bhotias, to take a month long training in making felt rugs, and assan's (prayer mats). Now these women can do everything on their own, right from opening dyed wool to preparing appliqué, covering appliqué design with wool, sprinkling it with soap solution, and rolling the woollen mass to give it a final shape. Nearly 20 of these women have formed a self-help group and have already received orders from local people. Funded by United Nations Development Programme, the India Institute of Entrepreneurship, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the training activity spread over nearly four months and covered six villages in the area.

About 30 locals, 22 women and eight men of Bhatwari village also underwent the training. Prem Bhatt, one of the trainees, says that namdas made by them during the training were greatly appreciated by the local population and sold for good prices. The village purohit even approached them with a bulk order for prayer mats, to be sold to the pilgrims on their way to Badrinath, Kedarnath and Gangotri. The namdas are very warm and cost much less than carpets. Ten of the trainees got together to form a self help group Bhagirathi Swayam Sahayta Samooh. Bhatt says weaving a carpet takes 15 days whereas three to four namdas can be made in a matter of hours.

The group has procured wool in bulk, washed it and kept the felt ready for dying; once the weather becomes warmer they will start making namdas. The uncertain weather, rain and snow can be a problem because then it becomes difficult to wash the wool and dry it, says Bhatt. The local market does not sell the right type of soap solution for washing wool, so they have to procure if from elsewhere. Bhatt says they need to sort this out. He also wants them to be thoroughly trained in dying wool using non toxic and natural dyes. Deputy Director Ranbir Singh in the Ministry of Textiles says that their centre in Chamoli will extend all help and beneficiaries will be identified for this purpose.

Due to the rush of pilgrims in the region, marketing namdas locally in not a problem, but in order to export these rugs, the villagers need to use vegetable colours, attractive designs and greater finesse to fetch good prices. Apart from agriculture, the mainstay of the people is sheep and goat rearing, so wool is available in plenty. Bhatt says if the namdas venture is taken up in a big way, it can provide livelihood to a large number of youth in the village.