Even as the capital’s swelling population threatens to fill the Kathmandu Valley in lot after lot of detached, blockhouse, commuter concrete, the Jyapus, indigenous Newari farmers, continue to live in huddled-up, brick-built towns, digging their fields by hand in the time-honoured fashion: with a distinctive two-handed spade called kodaalo (ku in Newari). The valley’s soil repays such labour-intensive care: it is endowed with a fertile, black clay called kalimati, a by-product of sediment from the prehistoric lake, and is low enough in elevation to support two or even three main crops a year. Rice is seeded in special irrigated beds shortly before the first monsoon rains in June, and seedlings are transplanted into flooded terraces no later than the end of July. Normally women do this job, using their toes to bed each shoot in the mud. The stalks grow green and bushy during the summer, turning a golden brown and producing mature grain by October.
At harvest time sheaves are spread out on paved roads for cars to loosen the kernels, and then run through portable hand-cranked threshers or bashed against rocks. The grain is gathered in bamboo trays (nanglo) and tossed in the wind to winnow away the chaff, or, if there’s no wind, nanglo can be used to fan away the chaff. Some sheaves are left in stacks to ferment for up to two weeks, producing a soft food known as hakuja, or “black” rice. The rice dealt with, terraces are then planted with winter wheat. Unfortunately, for tourists, the period of planting, when the soil looks bare and brown, coincides with the peak tourist season. The wheat is harvested in April or May, after which a third crop of pulses or maize can often be squeezed in. Vegetables are raised year-round at the edges of plots or, in the case of squashes, festooned along fences and on top of shrubs and low trees.
Most Kathmandu Valley farmers are tenants, and have to pay huge proportions of their harvests in rent. But their lot has improved in the past generation: land reform in the 1950s and 1960s was relatively diligently implemented near the capital, helping to get landlords and moneylenders off the backs of small farmers, and the Maoist government has also forced landowners to break up and sell off larger holdings. However, the traditional Newari system of inheritance, in which family property is divided up among the sons, means that landholdings actually get smaller with each generation. That presents a contrasting problem: farms that are too small to make mechanical equipment worthwhile, necessitating labour-intensive methods and keeping productivity low.