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Kathmandu Bead Market

by Diana McLeod

Asantole Chowk is an ancient five cornered intersection in the heart of Kathmandu. A magnificent restored Hindu temple dominates the little square. It is a busy place, with no traffic signs whatsoever, so I have to dodge motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, cars, cows, and hundreds of pedestrians, who are all trying to make their way around a rickety ancient shrine that is unfortunately taking up the center of the road.

I step out of the traffic stream and into a back eddy. Two more steps, and I am in another world. Sandwiched between two buildings and two tiny temples, I have found the tiny alley, so small that, if you blinked, you would miss it. I have entered the diminutive and dazzling world of the Kathmandu bead dealers.

Most of the shops are smaller than the average American closet. The dealer sits crosslegged on a raised platform, several feet above the alley floor, in a shop that may be as small as four feet across by five feet high. Curtains of shimmering glass beads surround each proprietor. From his central seat, he can reach most of his stock without effort.

The merchandise is so appealing! I want them all! Thousands of strands in endless variations of every color and texture blend together in rainbow waterfalls. My favorites are the fancy iridescent strands imported from Japan. They shimmer like butterfly wings.

I try to peel my eyes away from the beads and focus my curiosity on the proprietors instead. They are an interesting bunch. Most appear to be Muslim, with long scraggly beards and white caps. I watch one fellow winding his knot which will be the final loop of a necklace clasp. He works very fast, using an ancient technique, with a bobbin of thread on the end of a stick. I smile to myself as I realize that my father uses the same knot to secure the loops at the end of boat ropes. Make a loop, parallel to the rope, wrap the thread many many times around the length of the loop, pull it through, tie it off. Knots are the same the world over. Technology will change, the world will metamorphosize, but knots are knots and they will always be the same. There is some comfort in that.

I leave the knots alone, and check out the intricacy of the necklaces. How can they produce such exquisite delicate little patterns with these tiny little seed beads? They string them into lacy little chokers and bracelets in an infinite variety of colors and patterns. I ask about a price for one complex design. How much, for business price? They tell me, and I am amazed. How can they do it? So much skill! So much workmanship! I can'’t help but imagine myself doing the work; it would take me days to make only one. And what happens when the beadmaker’s' eyesight begins to go? Is his business over? No, that is why the family is so important here. The oldest children are already learning, spending time working with Papa when they come home from school. By the time Papa is old, one of them will take over the trade, and the little shop will have a new keeper. It is a time honored tradition here. I talk to one very young man, and it is apparent to me that he has just been given the family store. His pride in his business is evident in his eyes.

And who buys this stuff? Tourists? People like me? Yes, but the main market for these shimmering creations is local. In many areas throughout Nepal, women wear these necklaces as marriage necklaces. There are many many ethnic groups, and within each Hindu ethnic group there are many castes. A woman'’s necklace is a sign of her caste and her status. Sometimes, a lady will wear two or three necklaces. Sometimes the center of the necklace holds a long, tubular, decorative metal bead. Most of the time, they are brass, but the better ones are gold plated. Occasionally, you will see one that looks 24 carat. Ladies in this part of the world value gold over bank accounts. They wear their wealth. There is little fear of street crime here. In a society that believes in reincarnation, people are afraid of divine retribution. They do not wish to be reborn in an unfortunate incarnation because of bad deeds in this life.

Tradition dictates that most of these necklaces are red in color, which is why the stalls blaze with red. Another favorite color is green. If I ever saw a local lady wearing purple or blue, I would know that women were finally daring to be different in this tradition-bound society. It hasn'’t happened yet. But the little girls buy every color in the world for bracelets...

Thanks so much for reading!

Sincerely yours, Diana

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