Dented Pride: The Story of Daura Suruwal and Dhaka Topi

Features Issue 79 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: Raj Bhai Suwal

Holding out a shabby Dhaka topi (the cap worn as a part of Nepalese national dress), the photographer asked the boy to put it on. He took the topi and peered inside only to find it dirty and frayed. Since the boy had reached the qualifying age for the Nepalese citizenship, he was in the studio to have his photo taken for the card. For that it was required him to wear a Dhaka topi. He would have to wear it and bear it for few seconds only, the boy thought, and never again, so the topi’s condition didn’t matter. He shook the topi in the air twice, patted against the palms to shake out the dust, then put it on. What he saw in the mirror stunned him. Suddenly the topi mattered, even a dirty, shabby and frayed one. His Nepali identity, buried in the recess of his subconscious mind, hit his consciousness in a flash. It reminded him who he was. His dispensation towards the piece of cloth now was completely different from the slipshod manner he handled it with in the beginning. He arranged the topi with a slight tilt on the left, covering half of the forehead on one side, and made a dent of a desirable shape at the top; the way he had seen kings, political figures, actors and commoners wearing it on television. After the photo, he took it off and placed it on the stand, folding carefully, an act that spoke of the new meaning he just acquired of the topi. Then he told himself that he was wrong in assuming he’d never wear a Dhaka topi again.

After my brush with that shabby topi in 1986, it must have topped many heads, as it was obligatory to wear a topi for the citizenship card for few more years. Since 1989, however, it is no longer compulsory. That was when the mass movement for Democracy overturned King Mahendra’s 26 year old Panchayat system of government.

Dhaka topi worn with daura suruwal, jacket and a sleeveless vest (waistcoat) completes the set forming the Nepalese national dress. The daura, also called labeda more conservatively, is worn on the upper half of the body as a shirt, but without buttons or zipper. Instead, there are four ties across; two slightly above the breast near the shoulders, and two near the waist. Suruwal, on the other hand, means ‘pajama’ in Nepali, except that when together with daura it is stitched very loose above the thighs and its huge waistband is pulled tight and bunched at the top. The suruwal tapers considerably as it flows down to fit tightly at the ankles. Given its design, putting on the dauara suruwal is, for an inexperienced wearer, a punishing trial (though not as complicated as a woman’s sari). Even for those who have been wearing it for a long time, donning the suruwal can test one’s patience.

That hardship, among other reasons, forced people in my town, as in most others, to embrace modern pants and shirt and relinquish the daura suruwal. Many older Nepalis who prefer Western style slacks and a shirt, which do not throw the tantrums put forth by daura suruwal, however, continue to wear the colorful Dhaka topi or a black Bhadgaunle topi (a cap from Bhadgaun, today’s Bhaktapur). These topis are not fashionable, nor are they trendy. And with their similar patterns, almost every topi looks the same, so they were not quite unique either. Why, then, is the Dhaka topi so popular with the Nepalese? The topi, apparently, is the last holdout for something that defines nationality and Nepalese identity.

How Daura Suruwal Became Nepalese National Dress
According to legend, when Prime Minister Junga Bahadur Rana, the architect of the Rana supremacy in Nepal, arrived in London on his travels to Europe in the late 1840s, he felt cold. He and the other Nepalese officials with him were wearing the official dress of that time (not a national dress), which included daura suruwal and a black topi. The official attire did not include a jacket or sleeveless vest or even the now popularly worn Dhaka topi. The sleeveless vest (waistcoat) in common parlance is called an ista coat, a term probably distorted from the word East, as against the term waist (coat), which sounded more like West, with which people were loath to associate during those times. On the ship to England, when Junga Bahadur saw Bengalis wearing a sleeveless vest and jacket over their dhotis, he was encouraged to try them over the daura suruwal. He borrowed a vest and jacket from the ship’s crew and when he saw in a mirror how well it looked on him he was convinced, and wore the combination of daura suruwal, vest and jacket during his entire European visit.

After he arrived back in Nepal in 1849, the Junga Bahadur ordered all his kinfolk to do the same, and made them wear a jacket over daura suruwal on all formal occasions. Though the dress was not declared the Nepalese national dress at that time, it became an unwritten code of conduct among aristocrats, upper class Ranas and other nobility.

Much later, in 1885 AD, when Bir Shamsher Rana became Prime Minister, the daura suruwal was declared to be the national attire, and it was ordered that common Nepalese should wear it for all formal occasions. Until that time, it is said, commoners were restricted from wearing a suruwal in order to keep the class distinction.

An old woman in New Road market gave a rather funny account about how common people finally got to wear a suruwal. During the time when her husband worked as a construction labor inside Rana’s palaces, she said, the workers wore daura and a cloth, instead of suruwal, to cover the lower half of the body. The cloth was wrapped or tied around the waist like a skirt or kilt. The Ranas found it inappropriate because their wives and other women folk, while ambling around the palace, could see the workmen’s sensitive body parts as they clambered along the walls high overhead while painting and renovating the buildings. So the laborers were ordered to wear the suruwal, after which the restriction imposed on common Nepalese too had to be withdrawn.    

The Tale of Two Topis

Bhadgaunle Topi
Kalo topi Bhadhaunle mero siraima dhalkeko
Ek jodi Khukuri hera talalala talke ko
Ma hun Nepali babu made in Nepal
The black Bhadgaunle topi is tilted on my forehead
See the pair of Khukuris shining on it
I am a Nepali boy made in Nepal

These song lyrics, from a super-hit Nepali film called Nepali Babu, touched the popular chord when it was first released. The whole song raves about all that the Nepalese are proud of, beginning with the Bhadgaunle topi, a unique emblem of Nepalese identity. That black topi, and not the popularly worn and more colorful Dhaka topi, is a part of the Nepalese national dress. Even today, the black topi is made only in Bhakatapur. Since there was a huge demand, at one time almost every household in Bhaktapur had someone making them, yet it was hard to meet the demand. The Dhaka topi had not yet arrived on the scene, so the black Bhadgaunle topi was worn as a part of the national attire by everybody from kings to commoners, soldiers to government officials; some with pride, others under pressure.

The arrival of the Dhaka topi and abolition of Mahendra’s Panchayat
System, under which the black topi was compulsory for senior government employees, resulted in a gradual decline in the demand for Bhadgaunle topis. Whatever demand there is for the black topi now, it is said, is taken care of by cap makers among prisoners and Bhutanese refugee in the camps of Jhapa. The only hope of reviving the traditional Nepali cap industry, some say, is by making the topi mandatory again for government officials and for the masses to wear at all formal occasions of national importance. One topi maker said that the government is pursuing disastrous policies of levying tax on the import of raw materials while letting in the finished products, including topis from the other sides of the border, virtually free of cost. He lashed out at the governments of past and present for not only neglecting the industry, but also blamed them for literally killing it.

Dhaka Topi

Palpali Dhaka: The Genesis
The term ‘Dhaka’ is used to refer to both the fabric and the geometrical patterns of varied designs and colors, its unique essence. Some say the fabric is called Dhaka because it is fully covered with the pattern, from the Nepali verb dhaknu, ‘to cover’. Others say that a more credible version is that the term comes from the name of the capital city of Bangladesh. The geometrical Dhaka pattern is apparently quite similar to the pattern found in a highly popular jamdani cloth traditionally woven by Bangeladeshis in villages in and around Dhaka. But how and when the jamdani-type design found its way into Nepal is difficult to track.
According to one account from the mid-19th century, white muslin with floral jamdani designs, worth 80,000 was ordered by the rulers and nawabs of Moghul India at Delhi, Lucknow, Murshidabad and in Nepal. A century and a half ago, when the Ranas took the reigns of power in Nepal from the Shahs, they mimicked many things they had seen in India. They loved to travel and were fond of imitating others whom they considered to be of superior stature over commoners. It is quite possible that in a visit to India or Bangladesh some influential Rana noticed nawabs wearing jamdani cloth; then, fancying himself in it, he placed an order, and thereby introduced Dhaka cloth to Nepal.

When Dhaka cloth was first imported from Bangladesh, it was very expensive, well beyond the means of common Nepalese. The topi made out of Dhaka, therefore, remained exclusive to the aristocratic Ranas, the royals, and to other rich people for many years. The ‘for privileged’ tag ostensibly attached to Dhaka cloth was turned into a household name by Ganesh Man Maharjan, the man credited for making Palpa district a hub of Dhaka weaving inside of Nepal. Maharjan had gone to India in the early years of 1950s hoping to earn some money. He worked in a factory and also learned to weave Dhaka cloth. After a few years he decided to return and start his own weaving industry in his village. In 1957, when he came back to Nepal, he brought one spool and one hand-operated taan (a loom, or charkha) with him and toiled along with his wife to make Dhaka cloth at his home in Palpa District. Almost all the people who run a Dhaka producing unit in Palpa, it is said, were trained and supported by Ganesh Man Maharjan.

Dhaka Topi’s Arrival on the National Stage
Since Dhaka was already very popular with the elite class, after awhile people from the lower rungs of society fancied themselves wearing dresses and topis made out of it too. So, demand for the cloth soon skyrocketed, along with the demand for daura suruwal, due to the rule imposed by the government under King Mahendra’s reign. During Panchayat times, all high-ranking officials were required to be in the national attire and all other office staff had to be wearing at least a Nepali topi. According to a retired government official, those among the lower category of staff who did not want to buy a Dhaka topi could lease one for one rupee from one of the nearby stalls selling cigarettes and beetle-nut. Then they’d wear it during the office hours and return it back at the end of the day.

The nationalist fervor attached to the daura surwal and Dhaka topi was at its peak during Mahendra’s rule (1955-1972). During those days, a popular slogan could be heard:

Hamro Raja hamro desh,
pran bhanda pyaro chha,
hamro bhasha hamro bhesh,
pran bhanda pyaro chha.

Our country and our King
are dearer to us than our lives,
our language and our dress
are [also] dearer to us than our lives.

Though people knew it was a royal gambit to rake in the support of the masses, many could not completely ignore the slogan because it simmered with popular nationalistic sentiment.

The charged up atmosphere gave the much needed momentum for the growth of Dhaka industry. Since it was promoted as an indigenous product, it was high on the national agenda. The Nepalese showed their support to the Dhaka movement by wearing the colorful Dhaka topis, in place of the older style black ones. Unlike Bhadgaunle topi, which was produced only in Bhaktapur,  the Dhaka topi cloth was being woven, and caps made, in some of the more far flung districts of Nepal, therefore making it cheaper and more easily available. With the Dhaka topi gaining currency among the masses and receiving their tacit approval as a part of national dress, the black Bhadgaunle topi was eventually sidelined. It is now seen relatively rarely.

Nepali Dhaka Industry’s Challenges: Then and Now
Finding weavers of Dhaka cloth is not easy. There is too much rigor involved that it takes time and patience. Even when topis made of Dhaka were most popular, it was hard to find the weavers; or, when found, to keep them going for long, given of the frugal earnings they earned for all the work it took. When the industry was at its prime, the wage for weaving one meter of Dhaka cloth varied from 10 to 30 rupees, depending upon the design. That was a measly wage. It takes one month for an expert weaver working 12 to 16 hours a day to weave just four or five meters. There were various schemes floated in those days, by owners, to keep weavers hooked on to the job. For example, it seemed that one egg and 250 gm of sweet jeri per day, plus the small salary, was enough to entice many weavers to the factories. By 1973, Ganesh Man’s Swadeshi Vastrakala Palpali Dhaka Udhyog (factory) bustled with around 350 workers engaged in production. There were so many workers that the management had to hire special sweet-makers from India to meet the demand!

Though bringing in the jeri cooks helped fuel the boom in Dhaka cloth production, in the long run it served a devastating blow to the industry in Nepal. Lured by the growing prospects of the Nepalese Dhaka industry, people from India frequently visited Palpa on the pretense of meeting the sweet-makers. Over time they learned everything about the industry, from design to marketing. Then, back home in India, they began producing identical looking cloth, and soon inundated the Nepal market with it, thus drowning out the indigenous cloth.

Even today the Nepalese Dhaka industry faces setbacks, not because of quality but because of the speed at which it can be produced in India. The Indian producers can meet demands of any size at any time with the use of a special jacquard machines, while Nepalese producers still tend to favor the slower hand looms. The Indian cloth is also comparatively cheaper, while the purely hand made Palpali Dhaka is more expensive. According to Nepalese entrepreneurs, there are than 200 Indian traders producing Dhaka cloth south of the border in the towns of Gorakhpur and Sunauli. Their export to the Nepal market is distressing to both the established and aspiring Nepalese entrepreneurs on this side of the border. If the government wants our industry to survive, the traders say, it should impose high tax on the import of Dhaka cloth from India and, at the same time, remove the tax on the import of thread to Nepal.

It’s not a profitable business making or selling Dhaka any more, says an owner of a shop at Indrachowk that has been in existence for 30 years. You hardly see new people entering into the business. He points out that the fabrics used to make the Dhaka designs are imported from India, as are the threads and color dyes. It takes a few months to perfect a new design, then three to five days to make the pattern on the cloth required for a single topi. If you want to order 1000 meters of cloth with a new Dhaka design, you have to place your order a year in advance. And if you know how much you earn for the whole effort, you’ll understand why weaving Dhaka is not high on the list for youngsters to want to become involved in. The shopkeeper points out that handmade Dhaka topis from Palpa or Terhathum are very popular and that those with an eye for good topis will never buy the machine made ones from India. They lack the superior craftsmanship of the handmade designs; but the rigor involved in handmade designs has slowly undermined its own survival.

Another shop owner remembers selling caps for as high as 500 to 800 rupees. Today’s inferior caps, he says, are available at prices under 50 rupees. Most people can’t distinguish a good topi from the cheaper ones. Those who have seen the labor that goes into making handmade Dhaka topis, however, understand and appreciate the hard work and don’t hesitate to pay the real price. An Englishman came to his shop one day and paid 500 rupees for a topi that normally sells for 50, the shopkeeper says. The customer told him that the same topi costs 4,500 rupees in the five star hotel where he was staying, or 2,500 rupees in the shops of Thamel. “I don’t mind paying you 500 rupees for the topi,” the foreigner said, “as I have been to the villages where they are made by hand, so I know how laborious it is.”

The shopkeeper tells his customers the difference between the real, handmade Dhaka topis and the others, he says. “It’s not that I want to push the sales of the topis with higher price tags”, he insists. He’d rather sell machine made topis, as they are cheaper, easily available and can be ordered in bulk. “I want to promote the livelihoods of thousands of women and girls in remote villages,” he goes on, “by selling the topis made by them, for I don’t think they are suitably compensated. But,” he concludes, “it is better to have something over nothing,” summing up the bleak state of the indigenous Dhaka cloth industry.

Surviving Jeans, T-shirt and Cap:
Young generation and Nepalese National Dress
Though not very apparent, the infatuation that Nepalese have for the daura suruwal and topi is perceptible in more ways than one. There was a time when Nepalese men wore this attire only at weddings or on formal occasions. Now, however, many have graduated from just showing a token appreciation for the national dress to donning it as regularly as possible. The staff at Himalayan Bank turn up to the office wearing daura suruwal and topi once each week. Students of Shubahtara School wear it as a part of their uniform; it is required every Tuesday.

Other people contribute in their own small ways to ensure that the generation that loves wearing jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps are reminded of what their parents and the generation before them felt proud to wear. Namuna College of Fashion Technology, the only college in the country to offer a degree in fashion studies, trains students how to stitch daura suruwal in their very first semester. At a fashion show that the college organized in at the Soaltee Crown Plaza Hotel in 2005, a whole sequence was dedicated to clothes designed using Dhaka cloth.

Miss Sujata Joshi, the only student from her batch to submit a project report on Palpali Dhaka for her final semester, says the Dhaka industry is dying not because of low demand but due to the lack of a consistency in production that fails to meet the high volume of orders from all over the world. In her report, she points out that there is a high demand for Dhaka from the US, the UK, Canada and many European countries, where it is used in garments, accessories and home furnishings, among other things. She, too, thinks that in order to promote the Dhaka industry, daura suruwal and Dhaka topi should be respected as our national dress as it has become a symbol unique to our culture.

The sentiment to ‘preserve Dhaka’ is also felt by a large number of Nepalese living abroad, particularly of the younger generation. As many young Nepalese migrate to foreign lands seeking greener pastures or to study, they realize for the first time why one’s traditional national identity matters. One of the first things they hanker for, while searching for their identity, is the daura suruwal and Dhaka topi. Otherwise, why does a doctor returning from the UK or an engineer coming back from America insists on wearing the daura suruwal and a Dhaka topi on his wedding day? (Daura Suruwal made of Dhaka are specially worn by bridegrooms during weddings.) Why should a Nepalese studying abroad, on a holiday visit back to Nepal, make it a point to carry a suit of it back when he returns abroad? The love for things that define one’s Nepalese identity, however, does not arise out of some sort of disgust towards foreign cultures. Rather, what nudges Nepalese living abroad to yearn for their identity through a traditional style of national dress is the respect that their hosts in other countries show towards our culture and its national symbols.

A quick read of a discussion on national dress among Nepalese students studying abroad, on the website of the Worldwide Nepalese Student’s Organization (WNSO), endorses the claim that Nepalese outside of Nepal yearn for the daura suruwal and Dhaka topi. The one who started the discussion is currently studying in Madhya Pradesh, India. He writes that “Our National costumes are really good and attractive. I never wore it before, but now I know the value of our national costumes. I am away from Nepal since last two years and during that period I have put on Nepali national costumes many times at the functions organized by our college.”

Responding to that post, another student who is studying law at University of Sheffield in the UK, regrets that he never tried wearing national dress at his college functions back home. “I quite like it”, he writes. “But pity on me, I haven’t got one yet. Actually it is a shame on me that I haven’t put on our national dress even once. I am being asked to do so in many programs, but sadly I have haven’t got it made. I hope I will get one soon and write about the experience.”

The strongest observation on the website, however, comes from the most unexpected quarter. Dhiraj Kumar Sah, currently studying in Uttar Pradesh, India, is from Janakpur and is a Madhesi by origin. Some people belonging to the Terai Madhes community have shown more than just apprehension about wearing daura suruwal and topi, which is often equated with the culture of the hills. His post reads: “I am proud of my national dress. All my friends in Nepal call me Madeshi. But when I wear my national dress at the college functions, my Indian friends give me a stunned look and say, ‘Hey, are you Nepali?’ So what if my Nepali friends call me Madhesi, at least Indians recognize me as a Nepali when they see me wearing daura suruwal. I am proud of the fact that among all the populations of the world, my country’s national dress stands me out as a Nepali.”

There are many who still wear daura suruwal, but, ironically, they are far outnumbered by those would love to wear it, but don’t. For the latter, the burden of carrying on the tradition is heavier in the wake of fading national sentiments and pride associated with national dress; changes in the dressing sense in modern times adding to their anxiety. With caps designed to fit the polo t-shirts and jeans, the Dhaka topi does not make the right style statement for the younger set. Though the Dhaka topi has survived and is worn with nice slacks and a dress shirt, it can be frustrating to even think that it can hold out against jeans and t-shirt.

The Nepali topi and daura suruwal may not be the first things those familiar with Nepal will recall when they hear about the country, but when they see the dress, they  undoubtedly think of Nepal and Nepalese before anything else. That is what the boy in me realized standing in front of the mirror inside the photo studio. And, it’s the same for Dhiraj Kumar Sah of the WNSO discussion forum, and other expatriate Nepalese and students. Nepal’s national dress is unique to the identity of the Nepalese, and will remain so if more and more people wear it with pride.

I would like to thank Mr Ekaram Singh, Mr Pitambar Shrestha, the faculty and students of Namuna College of Fashion Technology, Mr Hera Bahadur Shakya of Rashtriya Daura Suruwal and Mr Rakesh Tandukar, a shop owner in Indrachowk, for their valuable inputs to this story. The texts from the WNSO Internet discussion forum have been modified slightly to fit the magazine’s style, but the essence of the original text has, as far as possible, been retained.