The struggles of the Pattharkattas, Nepal’s invisible workforce

Jawahir carving loro and silauto from stones. Image by the author.

Jawahir carving loro and silauto from stones. Image by the author.

The ‘Pattharkatta’ in the western Terai region of Nepal represents an endangered community of people who have an ancestral occupation of cutting stones. In Nepal, they are considered ‘untouchables’ and are subject to social segregation and discrimination. For generations, Pattharkattas have been making stone tools for Nepali households. However, being an outcast with a low population, they faced years of marginalisation and a constant struggle for recognition. And the study of their present socio-economic conditions is often not prioritised in Nepal.

Dalit Identity

In Nepal, they are part of the Dalit community, who belong to the lowest tier within the caste hierarchy. They have been traditionally confined to carrying out caste-based occupations, often doing menial jobs and facing social segregation.

Today, an estimated 3,343 Pattharkattas living in Nepal are struggling with dead-end jobs with no opportunity for growth to sustain their livelihood. While the government provides a minority social security allowance to the Pattharkatta community, it is insufficient to adequately support their families. For instance, while the government has reserved 9 percent of civil service positions for Dalits, no Pattharkattas have managed to join the civil service field in Nepal. The main reason is that they have higher illiteracy rates than average in the country, due to a lack of educational resrouces, and they struggle to benefit from government initiatives to include Dalits in the employment sector.

Jawahir’s story

This is the story of Jawahir Pattharkatta, a 38-year-old stone-carver from Sawatikar village located in Nawalparasi (West) district of Nepal who began stone-carving at the age of 12. Jawahir spends his days with stones. Whether in the scorching sun or the freezing cold; he is often covered in stone dust, hammering stones outside his small one-room, one-story house. In a face-to-face interview last November, Jawahir said, “My forefathers used to live under a tent, but through continuous hard work, I built this house to shelter my family from the sun and rain”.

Unfinished silauto and loros stacked up in Jawahir's compound. Image by the author.

Unfinished silauto and loros stacked up in Jawahir's compound. Image by the author.

He gets large stones from the nearby rivers after paying a fee to various local committees where he sources the stones. He then carves them into appliances like loro, silauto, jato, and okhal— all tools for cooking and processing ingredients. They are basically traditional stone blenders and grinders. During festival seasons, he also carves idols of deities. Stone carving is his year-round job, spanning 365 days a year.

Jawahir blames his illiteracy for the poor finances of his family. He expressed, “I never had the opportunity to study, so I ended up with a low-paying occupation. But I am determined to provide higher education for my daughters so that they can become powerful officers in future”. Jawahir continued, “I have three daughters. Our society prioritises sons over daughters, but I never felt the need for a son because I believe daughters can achieve as much as, or even better than, sons can”. It is through the income from crafting these stone-made appliances that he is able to send his daughters to school.

Despite his skilful hands and the long hours he dedicates to his work, his stone-carving occupation barely provides him with the basic necessities, making survival challenging. Caste-based occupations such as stone-carving are perceived as low-status in Nepali society and are frequently subjected to discrimination. The additional burden of caste discrimination and untouchability is also a concern, as it limits access to various resources, both material and non-material, leaving fewer viable alternatives to their traditional occupation.

The rapid pace of modernization has placed the future of Jawahir’s occupation at stake, as the demand for traditional stone-made appliances is declining. People are switching to modern appliances such as electric mixers and grinders because they are efficient and easy to use. Jawahir said, “The sales of loro, silauto, jato, etc. have drastically declined over the past five years. It has become very difficult to sell these items even when I travel village to village”. With pain evident in his eyes, he added, “I will never be able to provide a better life and higher education for my daughters with the meagre earnings I make from stones”.

Regarding the Dalit employment quota, Jawahir says,

We don’t need any money or quota from the government. We would be happier if we only had a proper market for our stone-made goods because stone carving is our identity and the only skill we have. The government should guarantee a fair market for the skilled work of indigenous communities who rely on their traditional occupations to sustain themselves while preserving their ancestral identities.

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