Nepali ‘Dhaka’ fabric is not just a fabric!

Nepali elderly with dhaka topi

When one reminisces about Nepal in older times, one also remembers black & white and sepia photographs of one’s forebears clad in Dhaka topi (Hat) or khasto (Shawl).

Headcover, Dhaka topi has represented Nepal in international communities, made famous by our diplomats, monarchs, and dear politicians. Sadly, today, we can see Dhaka fabric being worn only by old generations.

For the young generations, it is reserved for special occasions such as wedding ceremonies where the groom wears daura suruwal (tunic and leggings), topi and slippers made from dhaka fabric.

Dhaka is cotton fabric weaved in a treadle (foot) loom made up of wood or bamboo. Red, green, white, yellow and black are prime colors to make this fabric. The inspiration of designs come from flowers (rhododendron), butterflies, geometric patterns such as diamonds and zigzags. 

The origin of Dhaka fabric remains a topic of debate. There are stories and facts that Damber Kumari, one of the daughters of Jung Bahadur Rana brought the skill and art of block printing on cotton cloth to Nepal from Banaras (Varanasi). Her step-mother, Putali Maharani supported and funded Damber Kumari to start cottage industry in Nepal.

She employed underprivileged women for the weaving. That was the beginning of block printing on the cotton shawl in Nepal which we know by the name ‘Khasto’. But there seems to be a blurred line between Damber Kumari’s industry and the introduction of Dhaka fabric. 

Most people claim that Dhaka weaving in Nepal started from a village called Terathum in eastern Nepal. The hundred years old traditional craft started by the Rai and Limbu women has continued today across Nepal.Dhaka patterns were traditionally used in the ends of sashes and waistbands.

In 1958, a Palpa weaver, Ganesh Lal Maharjan who learned weaving in the one-handed loom in India and started the production in Palpa. Today, it is famously known as ‘Palpali Dhaka’. 

Palpa has become a hub for Dhaka weaving and trade and had five large Dhaka fabric manufacturing units with between 30-50 looms each mostly jacquard looms in 2010. The units may have grown by now.

Little trivia: The loom used for weaving was made out of one of the pine trees (Salla in Nepali), called ‘Tangsing’ in the Magar language, abundantly found in Palpa. The present day name of the district headquarter of Palpa, Tansen, came from ‘Tangsing’.

Source: Palpa- Land of Dhaka by Pramin Manandhar

The demand and popularity of Dhaka fabric peaks during every Dashain and Tihar festival season. As it is a Nepalese custom to put on Dhaka topi (hat) to receive and offer tika (paste of red vermilion, yoghurt, and rice), Dhaka topi is most sought for the day of Dashami & Bhai Tika. 

Nepalese Dhaka fabric is not just a fabric, it is a piece of history, culture and tradition that represents the pride of our nation.

Most of the domestic tourists who visit Palpa district take home souvenirs made from Dhaka fabric, shawls, bags, coats being new additions to it. The Dhaka traders in Palpa say that their sales increase five times during the festival season. Each year Palpa sells Dhaka products worth Rs 100 million.

Dhaka topi’s domestic demand in the hills and along the East-West highway continues in the winter season till Falgun/March. During the summer and monsoon (Chaitra-Bhadra/April-September), the demand is low and it is considered to be a slack season. 

Source: Palpa- Land of Dhaka by Pramin Manandhar

Majority of the Dhaka produced goes to the domestic market than is exported. In 2008/2009, Nepal exported Dhaka products worth Rs. 3.2 Million, the top export being to countries, US, Netherlands and Germany. Today, dhaka products are sought by NRNs living in Gulf countries, USA, Europe, & Australia.

Jacquard looms have been adapted as an alternative to traditional looms which increases the efficiency in manufacturing and has scaled up the Dhaka production.

Dhaka weaving is highly labour-intensive work, 57 per cent of the total direct cost in labour cost. Cost of Yarn (raw material) constitutes from 42.8 per cent of the total direct cost in fabric to as high as 55 per cent of the total direct cost in shawl weaving.

Export can be increased if new Dhaka product lines are created and promoted such as curtains, cushion covers, table linen, curtains, bed linen, bags, shoes. Dhaka weaving is still done mostly by small businesses and women.

Buying Dhaka products will ensure that the old tradition and craft is kept alive and passed on to the upcoming generations while sustaining the lives of skilled women weavers.

To check some of the Dhaka collections please click the button below:

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