Symbol of Nepalese Nationhood

By Subodh Ranah.


Dhaka Topi

It was at St. Xavier’s Godavari School that I first got acquainted with the Nepali state’s aspirations to nationalism. Ironically it was our mainly American Jesuit priests who mandated that on Sundays we could speak only Nepali and wear Daura Suruwal (also called Labeda Suruwal in more refined circles) our national dress. I really do not know where this idea originated but we all accepted it, at first with awkwardness bordering on trepidation, but in time it became de riguer. Imagine suddenly speaking to friends in Nepali when we had spent already a few years together in school speaking to one another only in English! Instead of the white trousers with light blue shirt and tie emblazoned with the school logo now we had to wear the funny looking dress, perhaps for the very first time for some of us! The school knew that giving a good education in various disciplines wasn’t nearly enough without a dose of nationalism to create responsible and enlightened future citizens. The daura suruwal was soon worn with great élan by us the students and often times by the faculty too! Eventually the ethnic diversity of the school body converged into Nepali nationhood in a proud display of our national dress capped by a Dhaka topi. Intrinsically we knew that we were all Nepalis whether we hailed from the east or west, north or south.

Wedding Daura Suruwal

Outside the school King Mahendra’s Panchayat polity propounded a system of guided democracy with sovereignty vested in a Hindu monarch who embodied the Nepali statehood of a diverse nation of four races and 36 ethnic groups. Multi-party democracy we were taught would force the nation asunder. From the time of the unification of Nepal by King Mahendra’s forebear King Prithivi Narayan Shah the language of the Khas people had developed into the lingua franca of Nepal called Nepali, just as their dress the daura suruwal and gunyo cholo for women evolved into the national dress of Nepal. From 1960 on it became mandatory for government civil servants to wear it during office hours.

Ottoman Empire Bosnian

One often wonders where the daura suruwal originated from. If one looks at the national dress of the Greeks, to those in the Caucasus and eventually to Persia we definitely see the proto-daura suruwal: the long gown worn over tight leggings. The Mughals of India too had similar dresses no doubt brought from their ancestral home in Central Asia if we were to glean from the many portraits of the Mughal emperors from Akbar to Aurangzeb. When the first wave of the displaced Hindu princelings and their cohorts made their way to the Himalayan mountains fleeing from the often draconian zeal of the Mughal rulers to convert them to Islam, these dresses made way into the mountains of Nepal too. Much like the tongues, rituals, manners and mores of the Hindu states of India these dresses slowly replaced the costumes of the native tribes of Mongoloid and Tibeto-Burmese descent in the Nepalese hills. During this period too the daura suruwal made its foray into Kathmandu Valley. One can see early pictures of the Newars of Kathmandu wearing the Jama gown.

Maharajah Bhim Shumsher

How did religion come into play to popularize this dress as divinely ordained for us Hindus? The daura or the gown has symbolic 8 strings to securely tie both ends of the gown after wrapping it around the body. The figure eight in Nepalese mythology is symbolic of the Asta-matrika or eight mother goddesses offering us protection and longevity. The closed neckline it is believed symbolizes the mythical serpent coiled around the neck of Lord Shiva.

Jung Bahadur Rana

The daura suruwal further evolved when Nepal started to interact with British India. It is said that when Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana made his official visit to England in 1850 A.D. he found it too cold to move about without wearing the European waist coat and jacket as fashionable then on top of the daura suruwal and covering his head with either his bejewelled coronet on state occasions or at regular times the Dhaka cap, a head cover made from the special cotton weave imported from Eastern Bengal during Jung’s time. He brought back with his retinue a new fashion to the court of Nepal that was to soon become a symbol of Nepalese nationhood and which stood distinctly apart from his contemporaries’ courts in India and China. Not until Nepal opened up to the outside world after the fall of the Rana oligarchy in 1951 A.D. would this tradition of our national costume change. 

Nepalese youth started aping western dress codes after the exposure to early tourists of the sixties and the ubiquitous hippies of the early seventies. Nepal was no different to the rest of the world in this respect where traditional costumes have been replaced by the more comfortable and casual shirts and trousers. In cities and towns across Nepal Daura Suruwal is now mostly confined to festive occasions, for wedding receptions and the all-important Dashain Tika when families gather together for blessing from the elders. 

Will the Daura Suruwal still retain its pride of place in the newly federated Nepal? I recall the first vice president of the new Republic Paramananda Jha taking his oath of office in Hindi wearing his Madhesi lungi and was promptly ridiculed and, amidst street protests, forced by Parliament to take a second valid oath in Nepali wearing a Daura Suruwal. If the present state of affairs in the Terai region of Nepal is any indication, in future only the hill people may own this cultural heritage. However, today the Daura Suruwal has taken a new meaning outside the borders of Nepal where Nepalese nationalists in Indian Darjeeling and Sikkim proudly wear their heritage and aspire to nationhood. Quid pro quo.

Me and my Labeda Suruwal


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