India is blessed with a philosophy and way of life which has remained unbroken and all-encompassing throughout the years. The concept of Shakti, or feminine energy, is central to this philosophy – and the worship of mother nature in all her manifestations is a fundamental aspect of our lives. It is ironic that while we adore and worship the Goddess in her myriad avatars, the lives of millions of women in India, who embody Shakti, are subject to suppression and humiliation, a phenomenon which cuts across social strata.
Submission and self-effacement are reinforced, and this is especially true of rural mountain women, who are conditioned by cultural norms and societal dictates compounded with the confines of the hills and valleys where age-old beliefs and traditions continue to hold sway. While the Nanda Devi peak, in all her splendor, dominates the skyline of our border with Tibet and is revered as our mother goddess, the stoic and strong mountain women continue to silently shoulder their burden yet remain the backbone of society.
Songs of praise to the Goddess describe her as the slayer of evil, the protector and mother of the world, and the giver of life and positive energy which nurtures all beings. Would it not be wonderful if the feminine force described in the hymns to the Goddess became the energy which drives us forward to a better future? This idea, in fact, is the core philosophy behind the combined efforts of Mandakini and Panchachuli Women Weavers, which attempt to weave a fabric whose warp and weft are the embodiment of the concept of Shakti. The organizations provide women with sustainable livelihoods linked to global markets, the success of which has catalyzed the creation of a new hub for handlooms to scale opportunities for women weavers across India’s Himalayan region.
Now self-sustaining enterprises, both Mandakini and Panchachuli are countering generations of neglect of women who bear the brunt of physical hardships of society in the high Himalayas, offering them a sense of community and a robust livelihood. By harnessing feminine forces through creativity and solidarity, these enterprising mountain women have translated an idea into action, and slowly but surely the winds of change are beginning to blow across the high valleys of our Himalayas. From Kedarnath to Almora, across two regions of Uttarakhand, the courage and determination of women to overcome impossible odds and create beautiful products is being noticed and discussed among local communities. Their work is being seen as a role model for women, especially those living in remote border valleys close to Tibet, where traditionally the art of weaving was practiced for centuries, dying slowly after the closure of the trans-Himalayan trade routes by China.
By learning the art of handloom from each other, women have shown that a vibrant and sustainable enterprise is possible even in the most difficult of circumstances, like in the aftermath of devastating floods in Kedarnath, out of which was born the Mandakini Women Weavers. What strikes any visitor is the mindset of the women artisans, whether they are from Kedarnath or Almora. From timid and self-effacing to confident and joyful, it is this shift in attitude which is truly remarkable. As Gandhi famously said, one has to be the change one wants, and in being what they are today, these remarkable women have demonstrated they have what it takes to be the agents of the change we so desperately need in today’s environment.
A strong civil society, led by women, is needed to end the corruption, negligence, lethargy, and policies crafted for vested interests. In order to call those in power to accountability, and give power to the voiceless, it is women who will lead by example. The real beauty of the weavers is not in their craft, lovely though that is, but in their capacity to form bonds across mountain ranges and raging rivers and be united in spirit. Through a change in attitude and a unity of purpose, the women will be able to guide and mentor the next generation.
Innovation lies not so much in the production and marketing of the handlooms as in setting the right example at the right time and influencing others to think out of the box. In a male dominated and strictly hierarchical society like ours, this is the real challenge which, I daresay, has been successfully addressed by the women thus far.
Our efforts are merely a drop in the ocean, but as an old saying goes, it takes drops to fill the urn.
Mukti Datta is the founder and managing director of Panchachuli and Mandakini Women Weavers. She is one of four 2016 John P. McNulty Prize Laureates and a Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.