About 20 years ago after having been a student of Oriental religion for some time I decided it was time for me to travel to the part of the world that could provide me with some teachings straight from the horses' mouth, so to speak. I decided to go to Nepal.
But, I got to thinking. Here I am, an American from the richest country in the world, going to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, to try to get something from them. It did not seem fair so I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer, and traveled to Nepal in that capacity. It took about two minutes off the plane at Tribuvan to realize that what Nepal needed most was some employment opportunities and a few Yankee dollars.
A failing kidney cut short my tour of duty in the Peace Corps, but after surgery and recovery in the US, I returned to Nepal as a private citizen determined to accomplish my mission of learning more of Buddhism and finding some way to achieve my goal of returning something to Nepal in exchange for my lessons in Buddhism. I met Yangdu and we were married. I found the answers I was seeking and became a Buddhist. I searched for a way to help the Nepali people.
Finally, I decided to try one of the few things the Nepalis could manufacture -- the khukuri. Himalayan Imports (which should have been Himalayan "exports") was born. At first we tried to deal directly with individual kamis such as Nara but found this gave us no real product line and gave us problems like scabbards. Just because a man can make a decent knife does not mean he can make a decent scabbard. And, the handles were often only four inches, made for Nepalis. We kept working.
I started to run ads in knife magazines and other appropriate spots and found they were very expensive. I had to set the price of my khukuris high to try to cover ads and operating cost. I had the reputation of the junk khukuri from India to overcome. I sent knives to magazines and newspapers here and abroad hoping for exposure. Just trying to stay alive was a major problem.
In Nepal, we were searching for a way to standardize our khukuri. We discovered a shop in SE Nepal that was making khukuris for the tourist market, down and dirty cheap, but the operator was capable of making a high quality khukuri to our specs. So, we made a "paca", a deal. We would try a joint venture, making a top quality khukuri with a decent sized handle aimed at the US and world market. We would make the best that could be made and pay the price -- and this is what we have done.
The more we sold the more I advertised and promoted, keeping the price
of the khukuris steady. I gained customers and soon many of my sales were
repeat orders. Our khukuris began to attract attention and a magazine
article would pop up here and there. My legwork began to pay off and we started
receiving orders from foreign countries -- not many, but some. More articles
and the word began to spread. We
started to show a profit. We made more khukuris back in Nepal, giving employment to those that needed it most. And, after five years of struggle we were showing a profit. I received offers from major manufacturing houses in India and Pakistan who could make a khukuri of equal quality for a lower cost. I turned them down, telling them this would be like taking the food off my own family's table.
We made a khukuri for the Canadian Army Museum which was rated the best in their collection. About 25 of our khukuris were donated to the National Knife Museum in Chattanooga by Dr. Bill Rosenthal of New Orleans. More articles. About a year ago and at the cost of a bleeding ulcer I bought a computer and got on the net. In the last couple of years we have had good press.
This may not seem like much to the big boys but to date I have invested about $50,000 in advertising and promotion and have untold hours of time invested toward making this business work. I have bent over backwards to offer the best customer service that I can. In Nepal the kamis have sworn at me because I would ask for the "impossible." It has not been easy but I am proud of our effort.
Although I have no way of proving this I am of the opinion that our years of struggle and effort have inspired US manufacturers to introduce khukuris as part of their product line and others to import khukuris and offer them.
I know that Himalayan Imports is doomed to extinction. Kami, Yangdu's dad
and the owner of HI is old, I am old, our master kamis are old and when we
go so will Himalayan Imports. But, it is my hope to last as long as we can
and continue to do what we do the best we can. My hope is that others who
cash in on our years of effort will not put us out of business before our
BILL MARTINO 3/11/99
As most of you already know at Himalayan Imports we march to a different
drummer and this is true with our pricing policy. Let me start with another
of my many Nepal stories to help you better understand. In 1988 Yangdu and
I spent two or three months in Nepal, visiting, going to our favorite temples,
and laying groundwork for what was to become Himalayan Imports --
which should have been "exports." During that period I hired a young Brahmin man named Govinda to do some work for us. When he had completed his assignment I asked him how much pay he wanted for his work. He told me the amount in rupia which converted to about $35 USD. I said that was not enough for what he had done and handed him a hundred dollar bill. He started to cry, dropped to his knees and tried to kiss my feet! Remember, this was a Brahmin and I am an untouchable. I scolded him and told him to get up that it was only money. He looked up to me and said, "It may be only money to you but to me it means medicine for my sick daughter!" This is the story of Nepal and it is a sad and desperate one.
I have seen children some as young as six toiling in cement and brick factories,
their little bodies white with dust, only the eyes not dusty white, peering
sadly out of the ghostlike forms. I have seen boys ten years old working
in hotels 15 hours a day, seven days a week, cleaning, mopping, washing dishes,
sleeping on the cement floor at night and happy to receive a couple of plates
of dalbhat and a cup of tea per day and maybe five dollars per month. This
is also true of the more commercial "aruns",
blacksmith shops. You will see a poor child gathering charcoal, pumping the handle on the forge, sitting on the dirt floor filing and sanding a blade, perhaps even trying to hammer some hot steel for a master kami who himself may be too old to work but does anyway because it is either that or starve.
The last order I placed with old Kancha Kami was for six pieces of his
Sherpa style which we had nicknamed the Kancha special. The price he asked
amounted to about fifteen bucks per knife. I told him that I wanted him to
take his time and do an
especially good job for which I would pay considerably more per knife. Kancha was very poor and sometimes had nothing, not even a potato in the house to eat. He was most grateful.
Because of these deplorable conditions in Nepal, I know that I pay more than is necessary for our khukuris, try to employ errand boys, people to wrap and pack, and do odd jobs that are primarily "make work" efforts and I charge accordingly. I could get the khukuris for less, (much, much less if I were to use one of the major shops in India or Pakistan who have the capability to make our khukuris to our exact specifications and have offered to do so, telling us that we could claim the khukuris were made in Nepal and nobody would be the wiser -- except me!) reduce my price, sell more and make more because of volume but I choose not to do this because I like to be able to look at myself in the mirror when I shave. If I were to beat the kamis down to bottom dollar, toss out the little guys who help in between the shop and here, I would be contributing to the exploitation of some of the poorest and most desperate people in the world and I simply refuse to be a part of that.
BILL MARTINO 3/99
My Gorkha brother who is the owner of shop 1 with whom we established the HI partnership said it best in a letter he wrote to me. He said, roughly translated, the following:
The khukuri is the symbol of Nepal and it represents not only our country but our people and our culture. It is our national treasure.
Because we had no choice due to the prices dealers pay us we have had to make khukuris that did not represent Nepal, our culture, or our true ability -- this just to stay alive. What choice do I really have? Many of our workers would go hungry if I did not provide employment for them.
Although we still have to make these other khukuris, the high quality khukuri we make for you is what we really want to do. The khukuri we make for you represents Nepal, our culture and us. What you have done has allowed us to show the world what we can really do. Not only have you and Dai (big brother -- Kami Sherpa) given us money for our work but you have given us back our pride. All our kamis and I want to thank you for this from the bottom of our hearts.
BILL MARTINO 5/4/99
The resident village kami program along with models that are now appearing
at shop 2 brought in by village kamis or pals delivering for them has given
us an infinite number of varieties. I think we will be seeing a never ending
supply of "new and improved" khukuris.
I'm delighted with it -- and, yes, we seem to be selling everything we get.
The greatest benefit that I see is some of the kids are getting to work with real master kamis and are learning a lot. If we can keep them busy my fear of the old skills dying off may have gone for nothing. I am very pleased about this. BILL MARTINO
Kami told me this story and it along with the other stuff mentioned below
broke my heart but I'll share it with you anyway because it has a happy ending.
Three or four weeks back a kami showed up at shop 2. He was a middle aged fellow, obviously in pretty poor shape. He said essentially this:
"Pala, I have had no work for some time. I am a good kami but there is little work for us and the work that is there pays very little. To tell you the truth I am hungry and so is my family. If you could just give me a little work I would be ever so grateful. Just a day or two would help me so much. I hate to beg but I am not begging for food or money or anything else, but only for the chance to do some work for you."
Kami Sherpa gave the man 1500 rupia (more than most kamis make in a month), told the man to go buy food for himself and his family and to show up for work the next day. The man did just this and has been working steadily since and is doing a good job.
This man sent me the following note which was delivered by Pala:
"Respected American Brother, you and Pala are like gods to me and my family. We pray to you and for you each day. You have no idea what you have done for us. Having enough food to eat, a warm place to sleep in the night, and some clothes to wear is a wonderful blessing. I and my wife and children all thank you from the bottom of our hearts."
And this was not the only message I received. As I suspected, none of the kamis can read or write so they got together and hired a young student who knows a little English to pen their letters to me. All the letters were essentially the same as the one from the hungry kami.
And, they sent gifts to me -- a cheap topi, a little book, a Nepali calendar that costs ten cents in Nepal, a traditional Nepali isticot (vest, maybe a dollar), and a couple of other small items.
They sent what they could but what they sent was sent with love and gratitude. When I looked at those small presents and read the letters they had written I sat down and cried like a baby. The kamis have no way of knowing this and would not understand even if I told them but their words and actions justified my existence in this world and there is nothing more valuable they could give me. In the final analysis, I am in their debt, they are not in mine.
Here's how it works. Let's say the US government or any do-gooder government
for that matter sends a couple of hundred thousand dollars to Nepal or any
third world country for another matter to do something like improve crop
production via pest control and fertilization. It works the same everywhere
but we will stick with Nepal for the example.
This must be done as either an NGO or HMG project. Run by Nepalis. Of course, the project manager is a very kush and political job. He who plays his cards right gets the job. The first thing he does is set up an organization, all manned by relatives and friends -- they all get handsome salaries and generally do very little. Then he must equip the organization with a nice office, good equipment, and of course a couple of motorcycles and vehicles which for all practical purposes become the private property of the project people. They take nice vacations into rural areas to do their research. They have meetings in the restaurants of five star hotels. They may have to take a trip abroad for research purposes. By the time they are ready to buy some bug killer and nitrogen there is no money left. I have been personally involved with a couple of these do good projects and was appalled at the greed involved.
As for commodities. I routinely saw the USDA cans (olive green and marked not for sale) and bags of rice, etc., sold in the bazaars in Kathmandu and other places. I never heard one person say they got any commodities free.
In the Solu Khumbu some government crooks tried to sell the Sherpas commodities which the Sherpas knew were gifts for them. The Sherpas, Buddhists though they were, became so infuriated over this they killed the crooks and took what was rightfully theirs.
Of course, I wrote many letters to Washington revealing all this and nobody really cared.
When I say we are doing it the right way I am speaking with the voice of experience.
I am not saying this to brag. Please understand this. I am saying this
because it is true. Our shop pays at least twice the wages of any shop in
Nepal and we offer fringe benefits that other shops do not. The word has
spread quickly throughout Nepal and every morning I have four or five kamis
asking for work. My great regret is I do not have enough work for all of
them but I am trying my best to change this.
Shop 2 is making some pretty good progress. They now have ten people working
and the hurry problem has vanished and the tang problem is solved -- the
oldest kami is 70 years old, straight from the village, youngest is 18, a
strong apprentice who can swing a 12 pound sledge with the best of them and
8 more in between.
The priority has been developing methods to produce the best quality blade possible and they are just about there. The Gelbu special which was ser. 96 as I recall was one of the best blades I have seen made in Nepal. A combination of old village kami skills and "high tech" equipment has produced some fine results.
The second priority is handles and fittings. Make them the best possible. But without a good blade to fit them to they are useless so that is why the blade takes first priority.
The third priority is then scabbards and frogs. They are still experimenting in this area.
Things are getting crowded and we may have to take an adjoining room to expand the shop.
We are now offering a "visiting resident kami" program to village kamis who want to come in to the shop and make a few khukuris and then return to their village. This is another win-win-win situation.
These village kamis make an incredible variety of khukuris so styles and sizes will be ever new and the quality will be tops. We supply shop, equipment and materials plus all the strong young men the kami might need to complete his project. We give him room and board while he is working. We assist him in using power tools with which he is unfamiliar. And he earns more than he has ever earned in his life for the making of a khukuri. We win, the kami wins, and our customers win. It is the best of all worlds and I am very proud of and happy with this new program.
Kami tells me he has invested more than 4 thousand US dollars in the shop which is about 30 times Nepali per capita income. I suspect shop 2 is the best equipped shop in Nepal now. We will use all the old world methods and procedures but power equipment will help speed it up and make it easier. A hand drill is easier to use than a bow and string drill, for example, but the hole will be the same. And, of course, the blessing of the khukuris stays in effect. They won't leave home without it! BILL MARTINO 8/26/99
The kamis in shop 2 have reverted to a method of forging that was used
by their grandfathers. I don't think this method of manufacture has been used
in Nepal for maybe 40 years except in rare instances in the villages when
they were trying to make a top notch khukuri. It involves rubbing the blade
with some kind of "magic" stone during the forging process. What this stone
is I still don't know but I'm trying to find out. My guess is it is some
type stone that imparts small grains of sand or some other material to the
blade which is pounded into the steel during the forging -- maybe a higher
silicon content or carbon content is the end result of the "magic" stone.
I'm just not sure right now. However, the kamis swear this insures the blade
will never break under any circumstances. And, who am I to argue with kamis
who have a four or five hundred year tradition of knife making to their credit.
Kami tells me these are the best lot of khukuris he has ever seen so I have
to believe they are something special.
The khukuris from shop 2 are also blessed with a slight Buddhist variation. Rather than the blood letting, Kami Sherpa breaks an egg as a sacrifice to Kali. Being an 8 year Gorkha vet he is qualified to impart the Gorkha blessing to the khukuris. I will have to find out if the kamis spill a little of their blood on the blades.
Since the six master kamis in shop 2 are all village kamis who have come to Kathmandu to get rich they want to make some village knives right in shop 2. They estimate they can make 10 per day of various styles and sizes. When everything goes absolutely right they can produce a single HI khukuri in a day.
BILL MARTINO 6/1/99
I thought it might be of interest to you to learn how I pay my men. I
will use the Kumar Bishawkarma Special as an example.
Kumar came to me and said, "Pala, I want to make a khukuri out of this old file."
I said, "Kumar, that file is not big enough for a khukuri."
Kumar said, "Pala I want to make a different design, a lightweight khukuri that is fast and quick and well balanced. Maybe your American customers will like it. It is worth a try."
I said, "All right, Kumar. What is a fair price for this khukuri?"
Kumar named his price which was reasonable so I paid him. I always pay in advance. Not like here in the US where a man must first do the work to be paid. I do it backwards, pay the man and then he must do the work.
If the quality of his work is poor he must do the job again for no additional pay. If the quality is to the standard that both he and I know it should be another assignment is given him and he is paid again. If the quality is exceptional (Kumar went to extra effort on this knife, doing the fine hatchwork on khukuri, karda and chakma, and did a very good job overall) as it was on the Kumar Special he will get a bonus.
In addition to the pay, I give food, money, clothes or whatever might be
needed to kamis who might be having troubled times. If a kami gets sick I
send him to the doctor or hospital and get medicine for him (our health insurance
plan). I often loan money to kamis who might need something extra like tuition
and books for children's school. In short, I look after the kamis as though
they were my own children and perhaps this is why all of them call me Pala.
I think some of them do not know my real name.
I have a young son of a kami, Prakash, who is an assistant to me and Gelbu who lives with me. One of his duties is to open the shop every morning at 7 AM and he has done this everyday since we opened and has not missed a day or been late a day. I look after him like he was my own son. He saves his extra money and gives it to his parents who are old, frail and not very well.
I open the shop everyday at 7 and close at 6 -- seven days per week. If the kamis want to work the shop is there for them to work. If they do not want to work they do not have to. Interestingly, all the kamis are waiting every morning for Prakash to open the shop. They never miss a day except for perhaps a wedding or a funeral. They are very happy they are able to work and earn a little money and I am very happy that I can offer them this opportunity.
Shop 2 is now meeting the needs of about 60 people and these are people
who might be hungry without the work they do in shop 2. It is not my doing
that they have food, clothing and shelter. It is your doing, my customers,
so to you all our kamis say DHERI DHANYABAD and I can tell you they mean this
Pala (Kami Sherpa) 9/21/99
In six months, shop 2 has gone from zero to the best equipped shop in Nepal
which is producing the finest khukuris I've ever seen made on a regular basis
in the country. Of course, when you turn the finest kamis in Nepal loose
in the best equipped shop in the country I suppose this is what you might
logically expect. And, paying the highest wages plus unheard of employee benefits
has to help, too. Combining great skill and care with the modern equipment
has cut production costs so it is the best of two worlds -- quality up and
Of some interest to me, and perhaps you, is the fact that our shop gets a great number of visitors everyday. These are Nepalis who come to see the khukuris we make and how we make them. They cannot understand how we make the high quality that we do -- until they see it done. Gelbu says this is one of the major problems he has to face -- dealing with all the visitors.
Over the years, once in a great while I would see a village model of extremely high quality but that was a great exception. Now, almost every khukuri coming out of shop 2 is of astounding quality. HI customers who own both shop 1 and shop 2 khukuris will no longer purchase shop 1 offerings even though I have them in stock and can ship immediately. They would rather wait two months for the shop 2 khukuri. That tells a story. Very soon shop 2 will become the Himalayan Imports shop -- period.
Finding kamis to work is no problem. Gelbu tells me five or six show up every day asking for work. The downside is we can't hire them all and this is very sad because those who come sorely need the work. The upside is we can take our pick of only the best of the best.
Gelbu has purchased a computer so email communications will be much faster and easier and not subject to loss. And, he is searching for a larger facility so he can hire more kamis and sarkis. Things are improving daily.
Bill Martino 11/99
Some of you may recall me mentioning a young man we financed for his first semester of college. Well, here he is.
This is Ramasor, Sgt. Karka's oldest son, and a delightful boy he is. He came to Pala's deera to personally thank me for helping him get though his first semester of college His father, Sgt. Karka, has been severely thwarted in his career in the Nepal Army due to lack of education and it is a loss for everybody. Sgt. Karka would have easily risen to the rank of Col. had he been better educated. Both Sgt. Karka and his son know the value of education. I promised Ramasor we would continue to assist him with his education. His gratitude was embarrassing considering that the 10,000 rupia we gave him for school expense amounts to about $150 USD. This along with some old college books Gelbu gave him did the trick. We will get this boy educated one way or the other.
As usual, Uncle Bill is with beer and cigarette in hand. You can see Gelbu in the background in a bedroom wandering around doing something. That bedroom is his, serves as his office and also is the home of his ancient computer.
Many kids have to drop out of school at a very young age or never attend school at all due to lack of funds. Nepal is still only 20 percent literate.
The payback of Ramasor is when he reaches a position in life where he is able to help somebody he must do the same for them as was done for him.
Copyright (c) 1999-2001 by Howard Wallace / 2002-2003
by Himalayan Imports,
all rights reserved. maintained by Benjamin Slade.
This FAQ may not be included in commercial collections or compilations, or distributed for financial gain, without express written permission from the author. This FAQ may be printed and distributed for personal non-commercial, non-profit usage, or as class material, as long as there is no charge, except to cover materials, and as long as this copyright notice is included.