The Disappearing Craft Of Likhai

A guide from Shankhdhura village visually documents the intricate craft of Likhai (wood carving in Uttarakhand), from walnut wood to wood-carved window and doorframes, once found in villages across Kumaon
Wood carving is a labour of love in the village
Wood carving is a labour of love in the village

When the COVID-19 pandemic happened, tourism in our village Shankhdhura suddenly stopped. I started working as a high-altitude trekking and bird guide, so the income I earned to run my house also suddenly dried up.

I come from an ordinary farming family. Most of the agricultural land in our village has become barren due to attacks by wild animals. I used to sing chabeeli (the creative interludes and additions to a traditional folksong) at marriages and parties in the village before I became a guide.

We have been engaged in homestays and tourism in our village for the past 16 years. In the past year and a half, we have retrofitted these homestays with wood carvings through Shilp Studio, a collaborative project between Himal Prakriti and IIT Roorkee.

Alongside guiding, I also enjoy photography. When the opportunity to share our stories came up, I decided to use this time and interest to work on my skills and document the whole process from wood to wood-carved mirror frame in a photo story

The snow-covered peaks of the Panchachuli massif draw tourists to Munsiari. Munsiari is 6000 feet above sea level, bordering Nepal and Tibet on two sides. The closest railhead is at Kathgodam, 300 km away.

Wood from the akhrot (walnut) tree is preferred for carving as it is dense and has a fine grain that is good for making minute designs. On drying, it takes on a dark and beautiful colour. Wood is extracted from old, thick and straight trees, felled and sized for timber. Today, there are only a few walnut trees left in our region. So instead of walnut wood, people now use wood from surai (cypress) and utees (alder) trees to make their homes' doors and windows.

Traditionally, people in Munsiari would use thhekis (wooden utensils) in their daily lives, made of wood from the trees of akhrot (walnut), lwainth (taxus), saandan (oogenia) and gainthi (boehmeria). Even today, people store curd, butter, salt and other foodstuffs in these utensils, so the wood carving of Uttarakhand serves many useful purposes in daily life.

Until two generations ago, the people of Munsiari would build their houses' door and window frames with wood from old walnut and taxus trees. Walnut Likhai can still be seen in old homes. It was done by the master craftsmen of the Oar community (also called Shilpkars and designated as Scheduled Caste).

This photograph shows an old traditional home in Martoli, a high-altitude village in our valley, which though worn, still has its carved doorframes and windows intact for everyone to admire the beautiful walnut carvings.

Whenever I came across such old homes, I wondered how long it must have taken to carve them. In those days, there were no electrical tools to make such big, elaborate frames.

This is a window frame in a 50-year-old house in my village. Unfortunately, the craftsmen who made it are no longer around, and their offspring do not continue this craft either.

The fine work on Likhai and walnut wood carvings requires an investment in time. But today, people who build new homes are unwilling to pay the artisans the right amount for their skill and craft. You do not get to see such traditional door frames in new homes anymore, and you can barely find skilled artisans who still know the art of Likhai.

These are the tools used for carving &ndash chenni, pateshi (both chisels), aari (saw), basula (a cutting tool like a small axe). Most of them are handcrafted by local mechanics quite easily, but they are unavailable in the market.

Though many homestays in our village are built in the modern style, we are adding wood-carved panels in the traditional design onto the existing door and window frames.

We tried to find a local artisan skilled in wood carving when we started work. We then had to employ a migrant artisan from Bihar who had come here to work as a construction mason. He helped us train two local artisans. Taking this opportunity, we, too, enrolled to learn wood carving.

Each homestay chose from a set of traditional Likhai designs for their doorframes. These were then carved on walnut wood by the local artisans undergoing training. Once the design was carved onto the wood, it had to be further refined using sandpaper to give it a smooth finish.

The carved wood panels were then nailed onto the existing frame of doorways. Most of our homestay houses have beautiful Likhai carved wood panelling added to their doorways today

In these challenging times of Covid-19, my friends and I, who had been engaged in tourism, learned carving to make a walnut wood mirror frame. The experience has been memorable for me.

With the lockdown, there is no tourism in our village today. Even though likhai was traditionally done by men, women from the homestays also joined to learn how to carve. Many are wool artisans, so they are artists in their own right. But working with wood has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them too.

Having learnt basic wood carving skills from our now-trained local artisans, we have also been able to make attractive traditional wood carvings on items like tea trays and paper holders

Mor Pithak is a traditional artefact used to keep vermillion, sandalwood, and rice to put tikas on auspicious occasions. Unfortunately, steel plates have replaced this artefact in most homes, making the Mor Pithak a mere showpiece.

One of the women's homestay owners decided to make one for her home, to revive the tradition of using this carved artefact. Hopefully, this will be used again on auspicious occasions.

With schools closed because of the lockdown, girls from our village joined to learn how to carve wood.

Women homestay owners made mirror frames with traditional carvings on them, done with their own hands.

It took me ten days to make a mirror frame for myself. When I took this to my home, my wife Indu showed it to all her friends with great joy. People even offered to buy it from me right away

But this was my first wood carving and a labour of love. It now occupies a place of pride in my home.

Our village folk were thoroughly impressed when we displayed the mirror frames we made during the Likhai training. Our local artisans can now keep the old designs alive in this region.

The questions I had in my heart about the beautiful carvings on our ancestral houses got answered when I made them with my own hands. I am glad that I also learned a new skill. This traditional craft of Likahi will once again take its rightful place of pride in Munsiari.

Images by Trilok Singh Rana, Rekha Rautela, Malika Virdi, Lalita Waldia, E Theophilus.

About the Storyteller

Like all able-bodied young men, Trilok Singh Rana grew up dreaming of joining the Army. Then in 2008, he went on his first high-altitude trek as a crew member of a Himalayan Ark trek and was mesmerized by the snowscape on Barjigang pass at 15000 feet. And never looked back. From hunting birds with the village boys till he was 14, he is now a respected bird guide of Uttarakhand. He sees himself growing old, exploring and photographing these grand mountains and the wildlife they nurture.

Submitted by - Himalayan Ark

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