A thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. Sometimes that step leaves a little something on your shoe.
Vijender Shekhawat’s big break came while visiting a shrine near the Amber Fort in Jaipur, as he glanced down at the pile of elephant dung he had just failed to avoid. A struggling maker of handmade paper, he noticed that the texture of the plant-eating animal’s manure was a lot like wood pulp.
Eureka! he thought. Pachyderm poop paper.
His family thought something else: He was stark-raving mad. Shekhawat, 29, came from a storied warrior caste of bejeweled rulers and decorated generals. Sure, the lineage had slipped a bit, but what would the neighbors think?
‘We came from a dynasty that used to sit on thrones,” said his mother, Kaushalya Kanwar. “All we could think was, ‘How far have we fallen?’”
His principal buyer was also skeptical.
“This is too strange,” Mahima Mehra, head of papermaker Papeterie Co., recalls thinking. “It’s bizarre.”
But Shekhawat persevered despite early failures. At 100% dung, the paper didn’t hold together. At 50% dung and 50% cotton, it was too brittle. After many months, he settled on a 75% dung-25% cotton mix and he was on his way. (Don’t worry; the dung is washed first.)
Mehra also warmed to the idea after researching it and finding that it was made in Thailand, Sri Lanka and South Africa, among other places.
To counter cynics, they referenced Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu god, arguing that there was no harm in recycling divine waste.
“Religion runs everything in this country,” Mehra said. “Suddenly, scores of people wanted to work with the stuff.”
Shekhawat’s next challenge was securing enough droppings. Sure, 4-ton behemoths produce hundreds of pounds of excrement a day. But the giants aren’t exactly on every corner, no matter what the Incredible India campaigns suggest.
Fortunately, tourist-friendly Jaipur, the capital of the northwestern state of Rajasthan, is a magnet for elephants and their mahouts, or caretakers, keen to overcharge foreigners for a ride. Shekhawat initially collected the dung wherever he could find it, but soon the wily mahouts realized that their once-worthless waste now held value. Paying them became prohibitive.
So Shekhawat altered course.
He provided the elephants’ food, pleasing the mahouts. The beasts ate better, pleasing the elephants. And higher-quality dung emerged, pleasing Shekhawat. “Before, keepers skulked around dumping it at night,” Shekhawat said. “Now they’re delighted.”
His partner, the New Delhi-based Mehra, initially entrusted the marketing to a German company, which featured the paper at a trade show. That flopped. Being, well, German, she figures, they approached things a bit too seriously.
“You can’t be stodgy, you gotta have some fun with this stuff,” she said. “We decided to market it ourselves.”
“Made from the finest elephant dung in India,” the earthy packaging boasts for Haathi Chaap, or “elephant print,” brand products.
“It’s unique,” said Tanvi Sharma, 26, buying an elephant-poo board game. “Then again, I just paid $8 for animal [dung].”
Reactions have exceeded expectations, Mehra said.
“A few say ‘eek’ and refuse to touch it,” she said. “But most laugh and, almost without thinking, smell it.” (There’s no discernable smell.)
“Once we explain how it’s made, they quite like the idea.”
Although business is going well, Shekhawat hasn’t had it easy. In the beginning, he spent a lot of time knocking on doors, trying unsuccessfully to sell handmade cotton paper. Just as hopelessness set in, he met Mehra. The quality wouldn’t cut it, she said, but she lent him bus fare, gave him some samples and promised deals if he picked up his game. A few weeks later, he returned with paper that was higher quality than her samples.
Shekhawat, who believes he was India’s first elephant dung papermaker when he launched the venture eight years ago, uses 3,300 pounds of droppings a week. The dung is first washed, then boiled with baking soda and salt to reduce the smell, beaten to a pulp, forced through a sieve and flattened into sheets. Drying takes a day to, during rainy season, a week.
At one point, Shekhawat fed the elephants turmeric hoping to create yellow paper. That failed. Now he adds organic dyes late in the process, including beet juice for red paper, dried pomegranate skins for gray and the castor oil plant for green.
He now produces 2,000 2-by-3-foot sheets a week, which sell as far afield as the United States and Europe.
Shekhawat has always had a charitable bent — as a boy he gave his lunch to beggars, his mother said — and his next dream is to help villagers by moving his workshop to a rural area and providing jobs, especially for women who often don’t have much chance to leave the house, and serving as an example for wannabe entrepreneurs.
“Call it God or good luck, a lot fell into place and I feel blessed,” he said. “Before, they thought I was a bit of a fool. Now they think I’m a genius.”
Anshul Rana of The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.