The next time you walk around the alleys of the Kathmandu Valley in the early morning, keep an eye out for a ubiquitous item of clothing for Nepali womenfolk. Both the Nepali topi (cap) worn by men and the shawls typically worn by many Nepali women are made of a fabric called Dhaka.
Dhaka is a textile that holds special significance in Nepal. It was once only made in a place called Palpa, in Western Nepal, from which it gets its name: Palpali Dhaka. Funnily enough, Dhaka is actually the capital of Bangladesh. Back when Prime Minister Junga Bahadur Rana ruled Nepal (1846-1877), his daughter Dambar Kumari lived in Banaras (Varanasi) in India. She liked to use Chamua Dhaka cloth for her clothes. This particular fabric was adapted from a textile called Dhaka that was hand-woven in, yes, Dhaka, then in the undivided Indian province of Bengal. This cloth was fine, soft and quite colorful, and Dambar Kumari loved it.
Being the daughter of a Prime Minister she was somewhat of a trend setter, and Dhaka cloth became popular among the ladies of the court, especially Rana ladies. The cloth became known as ‘Dambar Kumari Dhaka’. Very soon, women all over the Kathmandu Valley were using this fabric for their dresses, and everyone referred to it as simply ‘Dambar Kumari’.
So, how did this cloth make its way to Palpa and become known as Palpali Dhaka?
Palpa had had a reputation since ancient times for producing different types of hand-woven textiles, and so widespread was the craft that fabrics were woven in many households. The loom used was made from a type of pine tree found in Palpa known as ‘Tangsing’ in the Magar language (incidentally, the capital of Palpa district is named Tansen, which derives from Tangsing).
Fast forward to 1958, and a local weaver named Ganesh Lal Maharjan had become quite a weaving expert, having learnt to weave on a one-handed loom in India. On a training visit to the capital, he came across the Dambar Kumari Dhaka fabric. Shrewd man that he was, Maharjan made plans to produce the fabric in his hometown, Palpa.
By 1967, his product caught on as ‘Palpali Dhaka’. The attractively colored, beautifully patterned fabric began to be used widely for a range of items, including caps, shawls, blouses, daura suruwal, as well as innovative gift items.
Initially made with cotton yarn, Palpali Dhaka was later transformed into a shinier fabric through the use of acrylic yarn. While Palpa once enjoyed a monopoly as the only producer of Dhaka in Nepal, later on, other districts began to produce it too.
Top image: OXLAEY.com/Flickr