The Dhaka topi is a part of the Nepalese national dress, and a symbol of Nepalese nationality. It became popular during the reign of King Mahendra, who ruled between 1955 and 1972, and made wearing a Dhaka topi mandatory for official photographs for passports and documents. Dhaka Topis are given away as gifts during Dashain and Tihar festivals. Dhaka topi is also worn by government officials as a part of the national dress. In the times of king Mahendra Dhaka topis for rent was available near the Singha Durbar (literally Lion Hall) in Kathmandu. The badge of kukri cross is worn on the cap largely by officials in Kathmandu or when a Nepalese visit the Palace, and not the lay Nepali.
Although Dhaka clothing no longer dominates Nepalese fashion, it remains an integral part of the society and Nepalese identity. While many Nepalis now seldom wear a cap unless they are attending some cultural programme, many other men and women still wear costumes made from Dhaka on a regular basis, as it remains common sight on the streets of Kathmandu. Dhaka cloth still play a role in rituals, such as weddings and funerals of many ethnic groups living in the valley. Despite many hand-loom establishments that producing it, they still struggle to meet the constantly increasing demand for Dhaka topi. According to Tejeswar Babu Gongah, a columnist, cultural activist and cultural expert, "The topi which is round at the base, with a height of 3 to 4 inches, indicates the mountains and the Himalayas of the country. The Dhaka topi is said to represent the mountain after the melting of the ice. The melted ice enables the growth of greenery and vibrantly coloured flowers in the lower regions of the mountain."
International Nepali Dhoti and Topi Day is an day celebrated by Nepali people globally on 1 January to keep Nepali traditional fashion alive. Nepalis of Madhesi and Tharu ethnicity wear Dhoti, while all Nepali people wear Dhaka and Bhadgaunle topis on that day. Though topis are more prevalent in the day than dhoti, Madhesis have taken the opportunity to promote their distinct identity. Madhesis and Sikhs in Nepal are often discriminated against because of their refusal to wear Dhaka topi.
Dhaka, the hand-spun cotton inlay-pattern weaving used to make intricately patterned, colourful panels for Dhaka topis, is the most remarkable and visible cotton textile in Nepal. Pre-dyed cotton is imported from India and weaved by master craftspeople into intricate patterns using only a few colours. The fabric is also used for a type of blouse called Dhaka ko cholo, literally meaning a "blouse made of dhaka fabric", and shawls for women. Some farmers and weavers have made preliminary trials of a silk Dhaka topi cloth with limited success.
There are different myths about the origin of Dhaka fabric. One story tells that a minister returned from Dhaka, Bangladesh with idea of such a topi, which eventually replaced the traditional black cap in popularity. Another story tells that name is so because the originally cloths and threads for Dhaka topi used to come from Dhaka, often resembling Dhakai muslin (fine cotton of Dhaka). It is also possible that Hindu weavers settled in Nepal to flee Muslim invasion of Bengal. The method of pattern weaving practised around Dhaka, called Jamdani, is considerably different from what is currently practised by Nepalese weavers. A few fragments of Dhaka fabric in the collection of the National Museum of Nepal are assumed to be from early 20th century.
The most popular legend attributes the introduction of Dhaka weaving to Ganesh Man Maharjan, who worked in an Jamdani factory in 1950s. He was inspired to learn it when he noticed Dambar Kumari, Shree Teen Junga Bahadur Rana’s daughter, wearing Dhaka clothes she brought back from Benares. Upon returning to his native Palpa his wife and he established a factory to produce Dhaka cloth in 1957 with one spool and one hand-operated Charkha spinning-wheel bought from Kathmandu and local weavers trained by Mahajan. His operation flourished because of the high price of superior quality imports. As the Shah dynasty government showed a preference for Dhaka cloth and topis made out of it, other weavers started following Maharajan. By early 1970, his own factory Swadeshi Vastrakala Palpali Dhaka Udhyog had grown to employ some 350 workers. At that time Jaishanker Textile Industry, Khanal Textile Industry, and Nabin Textile Industry were the major producers of cotton yarn used to make Dhaka cloth.
Despite booming business and government incentives, most weavers were poor. An expert weaver worked 12–16 hours a day for a month to produce 4–5 metres of Dhaka cloth. But, their wage was a measly 10-30 Nepalese rupees, one egg and 250 grams of Jeri. In 1970s, the Dhaka weaving industry in Palpa changed significantly as it was introduced to Jacquard loom and easily available shiny acrylic fiber. Jacquard looms made it possible to produce several meter a day, instead of the average 9-inches on a hand-loom. Many weavers lost their jobs, Palpa lost its near monopoly and Dhaka caps lost some of the intricacies of its patterns.
Now weavers in capital Kathmandu, Palpa District in the middle mountains area, especially its headquarters Tansen municipality, and Tehrathum District in the East are the main producers of Dhaka cloth. Limbus and Rais from the middle mountains are famous for the Dhaka cloth they produce. Tansen, the most renowned source of Dhaka topis, is colourful town with Magar, Brahmin, Chhetris with Newars who came in the 19th century to seek their fortune. Apart its famous Dhaka fabric for topic, cholos and shawls, Tensen is also known for its metal craft including Karuwa mugs, jars and other items. It is a custom to buy Palpali Dhaka fabric products as souvenir while visiting the area, including topis, shawls and thailo purses that has two pairs of drawstrings to open and close the purse. A Dhaka topi industry has been established in Darjeeling by Indian Gorkhas.
The traditional outfit of Nepali men features Daura-Suruwal (Nepalese shirt and trouser suit), Patuka (cloth wrapped around the waist instead of a belt), ista coat (the Nepalese sleeveless half-jacket) and a topi, while Gunyou Cholo (a ghagra-kurta style women's dress) is the dress for a woman who generally wore no topi. Various ethnic groups wear their own constituent traditional dresses. For instance, the Tamang women wear distinctive headgear with an added cotton or woollen wrapper is also worn over the cap. Some Buddhist Tamang women wear Bakhus which are ethnic to the Tibetan people.
The once mandatory topi of a Nepali man can be either black (called bhaad-gaaule or kalo topi) or multicoloured (called Dhaka or Nepali topi). Bhaad-gaaule topis are similar to Dhaka topi but they are black in colour given the fact that they are not made from Dhaka. Before the Nepali government started promoting Dhaka topis, Bhaad-gaaule topis largely made in Bhaktapur were the popular Nepali headgear, especially common to Newaris. These kalo topis (blacks caps), once preferred by Rana dynasty elites, are now making a comeback, particularly among the youth. Milliners of Bhaktapur, once almost put out of business by the advent of Dhaka topi, were making as many as 600 kalo topis a week by 2015. Besides Dhaka and kalo topis there are a number of other topis made and worn in Nepal including chuclie topi, birke topi, karchupe topi and cap topi.
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