I came to Hampi to chase the story of how waste banana fiber was being transformed into useful products.
Hampi, a small city in Karnataka is a UNESCO world heritage site, and for many it is the land of ruins, boulders, and temples. But that's on the city-side of the Tubabhadra River. As I crossed over to the other side, I was transported to a world like no other - 'Hippie Island'.
Hippie Island is where most of the 'In Hampi' stories you've obviously heard come from. The place, because of the people who come through, is steeped in a lackadaisical vibe that blends with the sleeping, ancient remnants of the Vijaynagar Empire, boulders that evoke more curiosity than interest, and cafes that serve everything from English breakfast to Israeli cuisines, keeping its international tourists well fed and satisfied.
Just a short distance away from Hippie Island’s hippest street, I found myself at a fork in the road that could either take me to Sanapur village, or Anegundi village. Right there, at the crossroads was a local restaurant that served tasty lunch at throwaway prices and even tastier tea made from jaggery. As I sat there for hours reading a book, contemplating my direction, the decision was made when I was offered an unexpected ride by a girl heading towards Anegundi.
Good thing too. Because my story was in Anegundi.
More to Hampi than hippies
Anegundi – It is All About Monkey Business
Anegundi, also known as Kishkinda, means the kingdom of monkeys, at least that’s what Indian Mythology says. It was also an important seat of the Vijaynagar Empire. Situated at the banks of Tungabhadra River, Anegundi is believed to be older than Hampi! As I entered this nondescript village, I was amazed to see a huge chariot that dominated much of the landscape. Once past the gigantic ancient vehicle, I could see the ubiquitous presence of Kishkinda Trust, the main organization that undertook the preservation and restoration of the village’s antique treasures.
The women working in Kishkinda Trust’s office
My business was with Kishkinda Trust, so I started asking around. Sure enough, within 5-minutes I was directed to a whitewashed office that looked more Grecian than South Indian. I was intrigued by its pristine and cool architecture and invited myself in. As I stood in the doorway, adjusting to dark rooms after spending an inordinate amount of time in the sun, I was met by Varalaxmi and she was to be my guide for the rest of the day as I explored Anegundi village.
Making Living Out of Waste
Bananas are abundantly found in India. After extracting the fruits for consumption and leaves to be used as biodegradable plates, the stems are discarded as agricultural waste. However, only a handful of villages, like Anegundi, saw the potential in this waste product and used it to create a natural fiber that was transformed into export-quality goods. Today these items are exported to a company in Finland and are a leading source of income for many households. But its journey from discovery to a sustainable product was not without its own challenges.
Making baskets from water hyacinth grass
A Women-Only Industry, Powered by Women
Varalaxmi is the hero of my story. She was amongst the first women who started working with the founder, Shama Pawar, in building the local handicraft industry. She told me everything about her 25-year association with Kishkinda Trust and her work with “madam” in bringing more and more women into the fold. She had the commitment of steel and the excitement of a child. She walked excitedly from workshop to workshop, heritage home to heritage home, showing their work like a proud mother. I could see a hint of pride in her voice as she talked about her journey. She remains unmarried and devoted her life to uplift a village that sat neglected for years.
I learned how, when Shama Pawar came to Hampi almost two decades ago, her decision to call this place her home was almost natural and intrinsic. Since then, she began regenerating the community through her own efforts and that of other women in the village. Thus began the work of reviving its local community and empowering its people economically.
A child plays as the mother works
Today, there are as many as 50 women who work from the workshop and more than 100 who work from home. I spoke to Nasira, one of the workers, and asked her about her experience. She looked at me shyly and told me that she works 6 days a week and takes home enough to supplement the family income. Equipped with little knowledge about the NGO, its founder, and the work they do in general, I set out to look for more.
Not an Easy Road
Even though the workshop is now over 100 women strong, it was not the case 25 years ago. India has been patriarchal for far longer than we remember. This small village in South India’s Gangavati Taluk was no different. Varalaxmi was enthusiastic to share about their tumultuous past and how difficult it was to convince families to send their women out to work.
Amongst the first ones to start this venture, Varalaxmi received no formal training for developing banana fiber handmade goods. She learned from experience and passed that knowledge on to her subsequent trainees, training them in the process.
The trickiest was to get Muslim women on board. Their families, despite reeling under financial pressure, did not permit them to go out and work.
Women at the workshop
Pawar and Varalaxmi had to go from home to home, convincing families about the work they were doing, creating awareness about the craft, and educating them to allow their womenfolk to work. They also had to take responsibility of the women who came to work for them. More have started joining in, taking charge of their financial freedom. Today, the village is sustainable, with sizeable working population and thriving on its own resources, be it heritage sites or waste banana stems.
From Anegundi to Finland
We parted with a smile and a promise that I will glorify their work and help them find the coverage they need to grow in the world outside of their tiny village. I'm honoring that promise.
1.Take a bus from Hippie Island to Anegundi or rent a scooter to self drive.
2. Days can be very hot so carry ample water and apply sunblock cream.
3. Immerse yourself in the raw culture of the temples and ruins of Anegundi and Hampi.
4. Meet Krishnadevaraya, the last surviving descendant of the Vijaynagar Empire. He is very welcoming and loves to share about his family’s decorated history.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Kanika Gupta
Photographs by Kanika Gupta