A Story of Oil and Traditions

27, Sep 2022 | nepaltraveller.com

Nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage Site and called a 'living museum', Khokana has much to seek out in its traditions and its mystery

In the vast metropolis of Kathmandu, every nook and cranny is special, things to discover and experiences to be had. In the southwestern outskirts of the city in the Lalitpur district lies a small town of Khokana. With a population of about 5000, the tight-knit community of Khokana with ancient temples and structures seems like any other traditional place in Kathmandu. But unbeknownst to many people, this small settlement holds a lot of socio-cultural significance and historical traditions that are not seen by many tourists and even Nepalis visiting the place. With Khokana being nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996 and being described as a 'living museum', it is no wonder that we have a lot to discover in the city of Khokana. 

When you enter  the city of Khokana, you have to begin with mustard oil. The city has the reputation of having the finest traditionally made mustard oil created  by small individual families doing hard work in their cottage-style mills. While surrounding villages and other places in the city also have communities that produce mustard oil, Khokana is by far the most popular. And the Newaris living in the community have the collective experience and expertise of forefathers for five centuries, mastering the traditional methods to extract mustard oil.

The inner workings of cottage-style mills

The contraption used to extract the mustard oil is quite simple in fact.  Made from fashioned steel that supports two wooden trunks that help in the squeezing of the mustard nut and extracting the oil into the vessels. The crushing is done with a lever that is operated manually. Hundreds of such machines are being worked in Khokana to produce such oil. And then the oil is stored in small plastic bottles in dark and dimly lit spaces so that sunlight doesn't adulterate the oil.  And then they are shipped out  all over Kathmandu to be sold to consumers as ‘Tori ko Tel’. Since Mustard Oil is used as a healthier option and for religious purposes, its consumption is notable.

In the decades past, Khokana was one of the major centres for food oil production in all over Nepal as mustard oil was the only oil to be consumed. But today with the existence of cheaper alternatives the market and demand for mustard oil has fallen a bit. Many still use and prefer authentic mustard oil over any other for its health benefits; good for the heart, glowing skin and nourished hair. The wonder oil tends to relieve high cholesterol, high blood pressure and many other ailments. But it’s best used for religious purposes in the conventional Nepali community.

Religious Significance

The most prominent use of mustard oil is during Maghe Sankranti when the youths have their heads massaged by mustard oil as a form of blessing. It is still used as a source of oil in diya and candles. During special occasions especially during the birth of a child, both the parent and child are covered and massaged in mustard oil as a celebration. A natural process undertaken by millions over centuries to heal and protect the newborn and parent. The mustard oil is a part of classical cookery and many religious activities  in communities throughout south Asia.

The village of Khokana remains still in time while the rest of the world moves ahead. It’s a living museum for anyone who decides to stroll by, witness firsthand the ways and the lifestyle of traditional Newari communities. A memory in time that may seem like hundreds of years ago. Mustard oil is still extracted here in mostly traditional ways, authentic ways that show us a glimpse of the community’s ancestors and their dedication to these traditions and practices. 

The town has proudly created an identity for themselves, their conservation and preservation efforts are commendable. Till today, we see the same lifestyle from generations ago, the quaint town of Khokana aptly fits the description of a ‘living museum’.

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