Sometimes, the simplest things are the most beautiful and this is true of the grass that grows around small ponds and water bodies, especially in the beautiful Kumaon region of Uttarakhand and some parts of Uttar Pradesh. This grass, which sprouts here, wild and free, is used to make pretty baskets, stools, chairs and other products that are sustaining livelihoods for communities in the region.
Fashioning items of daily use from Moonj grass is a traditional occupation and also has cultural significance for the communities that make them – these items are a part of their daily lives and also form a part of a bride’s trousseau, woven by women for their daughters.
In India, baskets are traditionally woven out of bamboo, reed, cane and other natural fibres, and the raw material depends on the culture and location of the communities. In West Bengal and Odisha, for instance, locally grown Sabai grass is used to handcraft a range of products, including baskets.
The tools and technologies employed in the weaving process also vary with region and the kind of fibre used. In ancient times, nomadic food gatherers used to weave reeds together to prepare baskets that could hold their food as they plucked, cut and foraged for it. Over the years, basketry evolved into items of daily use and for ritual purposes.
– The Tharu community in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand weave beautiful baskets and other products out of Moonj grass.
Not much is known about the origin of this craft but it has been practised for generations, especially by women. The most widely crafted product is baskets. Places like Naini, near Allahabad, Behraich and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and the forested regions of Terai and Bhabar in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, are known for Moonj basket-weaving.
These baskets are used to store items in the house, especially flour, grains, fruits etc in the kitchen. Crafting these baskets is a community activity for women, who even make special baskets with shell tassels for their daughters’ weddings. Some other decorated baskets are also used for religious rituals and festivals. While the baskets used for special occasions are decorative, the ones used to store everyday items are simpler and smaller.
Baskets woven from Moonj grass vary in their designs, from region to region. Those made by the Tharus of Behraich are known for their bold forms and stylized animal and human motifs. The women of Gorakhpur make large, beautifully patterned circular baskets called ‘maunis’. They usually have a large opening and convex bottoms. These baskets hold a special place for brides, who take them laden with sweets, grains and other presents gifted by their families when they leave home.
The process of crafting products using Moonj grass is tedious and interesting. Saccharum munja, commonly known as ‘munja’, is found in arid areas and along river banks in India. Sometimes, women travel long distances from their villages to harvest this grass, which might not be available in their vicinity as it grows near water bodies.
Harvesting the grass involves a special skill because only the stem needs to be picked, not the entire stalk. The harvested grass is left out in open, under the sun, to dry for a few days. After it is dried, it turns lighter in colour and is ready to be processed. In Allahabad and the surrounding region, the skin of the grass is separated and made into small knots for storage, locally called ‘balla’.
Next, the grass is cut, shaved and dyed in different colours and left out to dry again. After this initial preparation, which takes a few days, the grass is ready to be crafted into beautiful products. The grass is braided, twisted, coiled and knotted according to the design of the baskets. Various motifs are woven onto the basket, using a combination of coloured grasses.
Traditionally, colours weren’t used very often but now artisans use bright colours, which are usually natural dyes. While the most popular product is baskets, a variety of other items such as table mats, containers, curtains or screens, and even accessories like neckpieces, earrings and clutches are made.
Ecofriendly, biodegradable and handmade, Moonj grass products are perfect for daily use. On the digital platform Peepul Tree, you can find beautifully curated Moonj grass baskets and trays made by the Tharu community of Uttarakhand.
It is amazing how something mundane as grass evolved into a craft that not only sustains the communities who work with it but also adorn homes in cities across India.