A few years ago I traveled to Kathmandu as part of a work project. It was my first time in Nepal but my schedule was a breakneck one with little free time for sightseeing. On top of that, I came down with some sort of virus that left me wiped out after just a few hours of activity, and prone to evening cycles of shuddering chills and sheet drenching night-sweats. After a few days I drove the bug from my system with cheap antibiotics and chloroquinine and I got to take a little time to myself.
I made the acquaintance of the owner of a a kukri shop in Thamel, the heavily tourist-oriented district of Kathmandu. Kukris are the famous leaf-bladed combat knives of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, and a hot souvenir item for visitors to Kathmandu. The shopkeeper was proud of his products, which came from two small workshops that he also owned. After some conversation he offered to take me to one of his shops, and after further arrangements a friend of his drove us out to a small blacksmith shop in Biratnagar.
Blacksmiths hold a rather unenviable position in the Nepali caste system — they (along with goldsmiths) belong to the Kami caste, one of the lowest-status groups in the country. Although caste distinctions have been somewhat diminished since the establishment of the 1962 constitution, they are still a powerful and unavoidable fact of life in most parts of the country, particularly for those who come from the lower castes and especially those living outside urban areas. As we left the city, we passed a street rally for increased Dalit rights. From my limited knowledge of India social structure, Dalits (sometimes called untouchables or Hijaran) are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to social strata, and I asked if that was also the case in Nepal. My host waved dismissively at the marchers, “Their situation is very good. They have legal protections and unions. Blacksmiths are at the bottom.”
He explained that despite legal formalities to the contrary, blacksmiths are social pariahs in the communities where they work. “Parents to not want their children to play with the children of blacksmiths, and they would never invite a blacksmith into their home.” Although they cannot be excluded from community governance activities (like town meetings), and they are invited to family events such as birth and marriage celebrations they are not given equal status in most matters. Ironically, many blacksmiths, despite few opportunities to escape their social strictures, are financially successful, as their trade is one with limited competition and their services are vital to the rural communities that they serve.
My guide (who comes from a Kami family himself) said that his own suppliers earn more money making knives for him than they do from making and repairing farming and household implements for their neighbors. Unfortunately, they must set aside time to forge sickles and hoes, or they face the threat of further ostracizing or even violence from the community.
A 45 minute drive brings us to the town where the workshop is located. Like most things in this part of Nepal, the town is perched on the slope of high hills overlooking terraced fields that look like they’re just waiting for a talented photographer to show up and make them look good at sunset.
The workshop is in the back of a one-room storefront packed with knives and other tools. The blacksmith himself is a friendly balding man in a blue jumpsuit and bandanna who greets us as we enter.
His setup is a simple one, and aside from the incorporation of an electric blower to replace the human-powered bellows, the setup is much like it would have been a century ago or longer. The process is straightforward: a scoop of charcoal is placed on top of a small glowing fire in a shallow depression in the ground that serves as a forge, at which point the blower is turned on, forcing air up through the embers, and heating up the fire. The raw material is usually a piece of spring steel from a busted automobile leaf spring that gets laid on top of the coals until it is glowing red. At that point the smith grabs the cool end of the spring with an ungloved hand, and works the glowing end with steady hammer strokes until it is too cool to work. As seen above, the anvil itself is just two sledgehammer heads embedded in a large log. The top face of one of the hammer heads is flattened in a way that suggests decades of use.
Each knife takes him about a day, which includes fitting the wood for the handle, sharpening the edge, and buffing the blade to a bright shine. No two knives are exactly alike, so every sheath is custom-fitted for an individual blade. Every blade is also accompanied by two additional blade-like implements. I’ve heard several descriptions regarding the purpose of these two mini-knives, most commonly that they’re held in the clenched left hand with points protruding from between the ring/pinky fingers and the index/middle fingers so they can be used to punch or gouge an enemy’s eyes in battle. Although this is not entirely implausible, according to the blacksmith their purposes are much more mundane. Both are made from a high-carbon steel that is harder than the blade of the kukri itself. One has a dull edge, and is intended to be used for sharpening the kukri by running it down the length of the blade on both sides like a butcher’s steel. The other has a squared-off flat edge and is used for striking fire-making sparks from flint.
As the blacksmith shapes the end of another blade, I watch along with the shopkeeper and the blacksmith’s nephew — a lanky restless teenager in a track suit. The nephew doesn’t understand why I’m there; this is not a tourist destination and I’m not talking business with anyone. I’m just standing around asking questions about the tempering process and the random household implements in the front room.
After a little while, the shopkeeper goes through the standing inventory of new stock and loads most of it into the back of the car as we prepare to leave. Ordinarily he would make the trip on a scooter, with a duffel bag of cutlery strapped to his back. Fortunately for him, I’m paying for the driver and the gas, so he can carry extra stock to the shop while riding in comfort.
The blacksmith and his nephew wave good-by and return to the anvil, and we get on the road back to Kathmandu.
For more information on the Kami blacksmiths of Nepal, some additional reading can be found here: