Nepal signature block print

By Subodh Rana.


We had almost exhausted the supply of typical gifts from Nepal. These are the souvenirs we take every year to tourism fairs to present to our overseas partners. Handicrafts and weaves, tea bags and coffee sachets were gifted. Miniature Khukri the Gurkha knife, the bottle shaped like a khukri with rum in it that came out as Coronation Rum to mark King Birendra’s Coronation in 1975 and Pashmina shawls and scarves have done the rounds from Singapore to Stockholm. So what else new could be taken as gifts?

We hit upon the idea of Nepalese block printed cloth, the signature tradition that has carried on over a century and a half since it was first imported from Benaras. Even today Nepalese living from Melbourne to Montreal feel most comfortable wrapping themselves in the khasto, block printed cotton shawl hemmed in by muslin cloth on both sides. My daughter uses it inside the house in chilly London weather. The ubiquitous but humble khasto is Nepal’s preferred body warmer.


Dambar Kumari prints with Nepalese motifs

I am blogging on this as not many of us know that the cottage industry started by Dambar Kumari, one of the daughters of Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal, still carries her name to this day. What was its origin though? Kanchi Maiya Maharani 5th daughter of Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana, lived in the holy city of Benaras after she was given in marriage to Lt. Colonel His Highness Maharaj Prabhu Narayan Singh Bahadur of Benaras in 1873 A.D. Benaras was a 15 gun salute protectorate of British India and the monarchical tradition was being carried on there under British suzerainty. For the Hindu rulers of Nepal it was an important cultural and political window into British India as Benaras provided both spiritual solace and a listening post to the rumblings in British India.


Periodically the family of Jung Bahadur Rana visited Benaras and other Hindu power centers of India such as Badrinath and Kedarnath in the Himalayas. Dambar Kumari, one of the daughters of Maharajah Jung Bahadur went on such a pilgrimage at the invitation of her sister the Maharani of Benaras. After finishing her pilgrimage she decided to stay on in Benaras in her private capacity and she did not heed the call of her father the maharajah to return to Nepal. She was either passionately in love with someone she met or she was engrossed in a new hobby she had taken up. Rumour mills in Kathmandu went into overdrive. She had started living in a house of ill repute, she was a courtesan, she was shameless. Maharajah Jung started to get frantic, she asked his daughter the maharani to talk some sense into her sister. She could not continue living in Benaras all by herself! Finally Jung decided to send his youngest brother General Dhir Shumsher to Benaras to personally escort the stubborn girl back to Kathmandu. Would Dhir be able to talk some sense into her niece?

Dhir took this arduous journey with dread as he knew how stubborn his niece could be. He was always called upon by his elder brother the maharajah to executive tasks others found well-nigh impossible. He was Jung’s favorite brother. From the Kot Massacre to the Indian Mutiny, from the fabled Velayat Yatra, the journey to England, to the war with Tibet, Dhir had most ably served his brother.

Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana

When Dhir arrived and started sending his spies to see what Dambar Kumari was up to, he was surprised by what had enraptured the young woman so to make her forget Nepal. It was the ancient Indian art of block printing on cotton cloth. From Buddha’s time trade in block printed cotton cloth was carried on from India to Babylon. Varanasi was one of the famous centers of block printing. They use the ‘Tree of Life’ motif. The printing is extremely fine due to the superbly carved wooden and metal blocks. Printing is done on a padded table. The ‘Tree of Life’ pattern uses more than a hundred blocks of various designs. Dhir reported to Kathmandu.


Putali Maharani in old age

Kathmandu gets cold during the winter months, it got much colder in the yesteryear of our forebears. Besides the makal charcoal heaters there was not much else to heat the houses. Rana palaces had the fireplace, an idea imported from cold Europe. Putali Maharani was arthritic and the cold did not suit her. She did not like the coarse woolen shawls imported from Tibet. She wanted something warm and soft. Something like what Ganga Maharani the daughter of the erstwhile king of Coorg and third married wife of her husband Maharajah Jung Bahadur had brought for her as a gift from Benaras while she was still a minor wife of Jung a long time ago. It was a cotton khasto or shawl with bold prints that was very attractive to behold and soft to the touch of her cheek. She hit upon an idea.

She sent a personal letter to Dambar Kumari to return to Nepal and continue her hobby here as a cottage industry and she, Putali, would give her funds and full support. Dambar Kumari received this request, a request she could not afford to brush aside lightly. Her step-mother Putali Maharani was the favorite wife of Jung Bahadur today. She had to keep herself in Putali’s good books to curry favor from her father! Dambar Kumari resolved to come back and start an industry that would give empowerment to women of less fortunate background who had taken to the brothels of Benaras. The tradition of block printing in Nepal is alive and well and carries her name to this day.


Maharajah Jung Bahadur with Maharani Hiranya Garva Kumariand two daughters given in marriage to Crown Prince TrailokyaIn the background (ringed) is daughter Damber Kumari Devi


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