One of Nepal’s premier handicrafts, dhaka has earned a place in many hearts.
Language, food, and attire identify an individual, a society, and a nation. People have been altering their fundamental language, food, and attire in line with developments in society so as to give themselves a separate identity. Today, if we were to go to any corner of the world, we can identify that region by its language, food, and dress. Nepalis have their own language, Nepali; we eat our own food, daal, bhaat, tarkari; and daura sulwar, topi, and gunyo cholo are dresses worn by Nepalis. Due to this, wherever Nepalis go, they are identified as Nepalis.
From ancient times, Nepal has a tradition of weaving cloth. With regard to Palpa, cloth was weaved here since the Magarat era. At that time, cloth used to be weaved in every household, because of which, such cloth was called ‘home-woven’. Today, the custom of making such ‘home-woven’ cloth has disappeared in the vast ocean of history. The loom used to make ‘home-woven’ cloth was made from one type of salla tree (pine tree) that is known as ‘Tangsing’ in the Magar language, and which is to be found in plenty in Palpa district. That is why its district headquarter was called Tangsing in Magar, which went on to become present day Tansen.
Regarding the question of when cloth started to be woven using handlooms in Palpa, while ‘home-woven’ cloth was seen here and there as far back as two to four decades ago, in the course of time with modern advances, weaving cloth using the innovative handlooms probably began around 1984/85 B.S. Tulsi Meher, who had been sent by Shree Teen Chandra Shumsher at his expense to Varda in India to learn how to make khadi, returned to Nepal after doing so, and as per Chandra Sumsher’s wish, established the Çhandra Kamdhenu Charkha Pracharak Mahaguthi in 1983 B.S.
Since the government had a favorable view of the charkha, the Mahaguthi established branches in Kathmandu, Kirtipur, Panga, Bhaktapur, Banepa, and other parts of the country. At this time, Devi Prasad Pradhan of Palpa, who had come into contact with Tulsi Meher, took the initiative to bring in four handloom workers of Kathmandu, and so began the weaving of cloth in Palpa. However, because the cloth was woven on thicker looms, and the investment costs were high due to less production, they could not compete with the more finely woven cloth from outside. Thus, the locally produced cloth could not get the market, and cloth weaving work came to a halt.
In 2015 B.S., the beginning of cloth weaving using one-handed loom by Ganesh Man Maharjan, who had returned to Nepal after learning to weave cloth in India, became a milestone in Palpa’s textile industry. But this, too, could not be sustained, because in addition to market problems, raw materials had to be brought in from India, and they had to compete with imported textiles of finer quality. In 2019 B.S., Maharjan, who had gone to Kathmandu for training, observed that Shree Teen Junga Bahadur Rana’s daughter, Dambar Kumari, who lived in Banaras, used ‘Chamua Dhaka’ adapted from a colorful, fine, and valuable textile called ‘Dhaka fabric’ that was woven in a place called Dhaka in the then undivided State of Bengal.
It was famous as ‘Dambar Kumari Dhaka’ and was used by Rana families and other wealthy classes. His attention was drawn to the ‘Dambar Kumari Dhaka’. With the thought whirling in his mind that it would be good to adapt this technique, Maharajan returned to Palpa, where he introduced the technology to weave ‘Palpali Dhaka’. Although success did not come as hoped for in the beginning, from 2024 B.S. onwards, overcoming the challenges of inconvenient transportation facilities, market problems, less production, etc., the attractively colored and patterned ‘Palpali Dhaka’ succeeded in establishing its own identity all over the country. Gifts and mementos in the form of shawls, blouses, and caps made of ‘Palpali Dhaka’ helped to establish ‘Palpali Dhaka’ throughout the country by developing a common bond of Nepali identity with the people.
Along with the daura suruwal, the topi is an important part of the Nepali attire, something that is not seen in other countries. Wearing the topi is a tradition, whether at a religious ceremony, or a function, or a gathering. While there is no documented record of when this tradition first started, it was very prevalent during the Rana era. In fact, wearing a topi was an undeclared order. It was unthinkable not to wear a topi when going outside. According to old-timers, in those days, people without a topi were mocked as ‘mudula’ (bald). During the Rana era, high ranking government employees wore ‘chartodha’ in the office and at functions, while at other times, they wore malmale printed topis with makkhi and pan leave patterns, just like the common man, as well as the black Bhadgaunle topi.
One used to be highly respected if one wore a topi when going to an office, or elsewhere. Till recently, it was compulsory to wear a topi when going to a government office, and generally, it is still a custom. It is also compulsory for men to wear a cap for the citizenship photo. While there has been growing social acceptance of the need for Nepalis to wear a topi at festivals, religious ceremonies, and other occasions, foreigners, when they come to Nepal, like to wear a topi at festivals and fairs, and they are also presented with a topi at functions. In addition, foreign dignitaries are also presented with topi, muffler, waistcoat, shawl, etc. made of Palplai Dhaka as tokens of love.
The cap on the head that bestows the Nepali identity has been taken over by the Palpali Dhaka topi. Five decades hence, Palpali Dhaka, and the topi made out of it, has enamored one and all. Additionally, interest has grown in blouses and shawls made of Palpali Dhaka, and among wealthy families, Palpali Dhaka sarees. Similarly, there is a growing trend among the younger generation men at celebratory events like marriages and bratabandhs to wear daura sulwar, waistcoat, topi, and shoes made of Palpali Dhaka, and for women to wear attractive blouses and shawls. New styles of shoulder bags and purses have also made their way into the market.
Palpali Dhaka, which initially was made with cotton yarn, transformed itself from 2034 B.S. into a more shiny form with the use of acrylic yarn. Jaishanker Textile Industry, Khanal Textile Industry, and Nabin Textile Industry used to make Dhaka from cotton yarn, and in later days, when acrylic yarn began to be available easily, Dhaka began to be made from these. France’s Leon Josef and Marie Jacard invented the Jacard technique, which introduced big changes to the Palpali Dhaka that was once woven on handlooms by delicate hands, with great skill, enthusiasm, and effort. Dhotis, shawls, bedspreads, sarees, etc. of Palpali Dhaka began to be made with fine patterns at the edges using the Jacard technique. This technique also made it possible to produce many more meters in a day than the approximately nine inches that used to be woven on the handloom before.
Because they could not meet their daily needs due to increasing inflation, loom workers began to look for alternative work. The absence of human resource resulted in a decline in the production of Palpali Dhaka. The Jacard technique reduced investment costs because of higher production, and middlemen were more benefitted than the industrialists. Since it was produced by hand, Dhaka had supported the creation of local employment, but this was undone by weavers coming from across the border.
To state the truth, handloom-woven Palpali Dhaka once enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Now, Dhaka is made in many other districts using the Jacard technique, and just as it is difficult to differentiate when touching ice and heat in winter, similarly, it is difficult to differentiate between Palpali Dhaka and Dhaka produced elsewhere. On top of this, nowadays, the problem has become all the more severe because of low quality Dhaka from across the border coming in without any hurdles.
Facing all the problems bravely, in a situation when one’s own identity is at risk, Palpali Dhaka has not only succeeded in earning a place in Nepalis’ hearts, but also made a place for itself among foreign guests. Just as it is the responsibility of all concerned parties to protect and promote Palpali Dhaka, there is also dire need for support from the State. Palpali Dhaka is waiting for just that.
(The author is a Palpali who has been writing on history, culture, tourism, and development. )