Gangtok: Travel through Sikkim, and it is impossible to miss prayer flags. The state is dotted with prayer flags and khadaks (polyester scarf), and while they give a distinct identity to the region, it is also one of the largest pollutants in the trans-Himalayan region. Across the Himalayas, from Mount Everest to the lower regions, khadaks are a way of paying respect to ancestors, departed souls, and Lord Buddha and other mountain deities. 

While there have been several initiatives to clean the region around and below Mount Everest and other Himalayan regions, is there a permanent solution to reducing/eliminating polyester flags?

Sikkim entrepreneur and product designer Sonam Tashi Gyaltsen believes so. 

Gyaltsen believes his unique cotton-made Khadaks can go a long way in tackling the problem. But he also thinks that releasing such a product makes sense only after checking its feasibility.  

On World Environment Day, speaking with EastMojo, the Balipara foundation Naturenomics Winner for 2021 shared, “I think us Buddhist people are the biggest polluters across the Himalayas. Prayer flags and khadaks are common across all Buddhist-populated regions starting from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh and even in Nepal and Bhutan. We carry out cleanliness drives every year and talk about how Everest is now so polluted. It made me think about how we are shifting away from Lord Buddha’s biggest message of impermanence by adding permanent polluters like polyester in the Himalayas.”

The idea of cotton khadaks dawned on Gyaltsen in 2015 during a site visit at Lachen Resource Recovery Center for World Wildlife Fund along with Lachen Dzumsa. Almost 70-80 per cent of the waste that they collected from Lachen to the Gurudongmar lake were polyester khadaks.

In the ancient times, khadaks were made of silk and until recently, they were considered expensive gifts, given rarely to people, and only out of respect. But with the advent of polyester, the practice of garlanding someone with khadaks became much more common. Khadaks are used instead of prayer flags: in marriages to garland the bride and groom as well as the guests, in funerals as a form of last respect to the deceased, at government functions garlanding VIPs, and even during welcoming tourists and other people in the Himalayas. 

Khadaks come both as printed and plain in different shades. What Gyaltsen’s ‘La’ has branded are one metre-long plain khadaks for funerals and two-metre-long printed khadaks for marriages and auspicious occasions priced at Rs 50. 

Unlike polyester, cotton and silk khadaks are biodegradable. Photo courtesy: Pankaj Dhungel

For Gyaltsen, it’s been a saga of trial, error and success. “Seeing and knowing about the polyester pollution, I got into consultation with Lachen Dzumsa who agreed to the idea of cotton khadaks. Given my design background, I could try block and screen printing as best I could aid with. I even considered conducting a pro bono workshop…knowing the technology for printing, I got into consultation with a few friends and launched it in January 2020 from the hands of Lachen Rimpoche.”

Eco-friendly khadaks the only way forward

But even after the launch, Gyaltsen and his brand La faced several hurdles mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were left with a lot of inventory. We couldn’t retail, as they would add 5-10 per cent for the Goods and Service Tax (GST). We were selling cotton khadaks at Rs 18 for the shorter plain khadaks against the polyester ones, which were priced at Rs 15. We didn’t promote the khadaks for retailers as it would bring down margins they make, and why would they sell our products at a lower rate?”

La, which has grown as a sustainable brand, initiated the plain khadaks during Gyaltsen’s grandmother’s funeral by distributing them at the funeral procession. “I didn’t want to promote my project, but more to spread awareness on why we should be using perishable khadaks. No part of the world uses more polyester khadaks than us in the Himalayas.” 

Polyester khadaks and Lungtas (prayer flags) have a sound market in Kalimpong, where people from Sikkim go to buy in bulk. If one were to find the ancient silk khadaks, they would be charged as high as Rs 2,000 for one metre of silk. Moonga silk as used commonly across the country would also be expensive. 

Even the plain white khadaks are bleached to make them white. However, Gyaltsen’s khadaks, made of cotton, have no chemicals, are not bleached and have an off-white shade. Gyaltsen has refrained from copyrighting the cotton khadaks as he believes in promoting the sustainable way of offering khadaks over adding value to his product. Even the Directorate of Handloom and Handicrafts in Sikkim has started producing cotton khadaks keeping it specific for government machinery and VIPs. 

Gyaltsen is also a believer that eco-friendly is an attitude, a system, rather than being definitive of a fabric or material or even a product. He shared how recently, at a stall in MG Marg during one of the fests, the tourists flocked the stall convinced about getting “Cotton scarves for Rs 50 without even knowing the purpose of khadaks. If the tourism department markets the khadaks, we feel there is huge potential for its growth as part of a sustainable Himalayan economy. It will help in the reduction of polyester bags,” he said.  

Former bureaucrat and sustainability practitioner Ganden Lachungpa from Sikkim was one of the first to review the product. “The cotton khada that I found recently has been a more-than-twenty-year itch, and I felt like buying the whole lot with a vengeance. Because of its non-availability, I couldn’t participate in the many occasions that had come and gone. And offering the synthetic ones just does not appeal to me,” he said.  

He further added on his social media, “The cotton khada is biodegradable, natural, non-poisonous, eco-friendly and soft and it is now available right here in Gangtok! The sales person at the counter assured me that it will be made available everywhere else across the Himalayan belt in the near future too. They are available in the vegetable dye, traditional prints and plain and also in embroidered forms. This is refreshing as I can now proudly flash and trail out my cotton khada and attend and participate in fun occasions’.”

Lachungpa shared, “The synthetic khada—plasticky and non-decaying eyesore—is even more toxic when they eventually get burnt and emit polychlorinated biphenyls, fluoranthene, dioxins etc. Research findings on emissions from burnt synthetics show even more scary and toxic effects. Simply put, the emission is just not good for you nor your neighbours or animals. An article was written more than twenty years ago in a local newspaper on the harmful effects of discarding and burning used/worn out synthetic khada, dhaja, lungta (flags) etc and also on the potential of cotton khada-making as a business venture. This feels like my twenty-odd years dream for cotton khada is finally fulfilled.”

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