Perhaps the most distinguishing feature that sets a Nepali man apart from all others is the cloth cap that he wears on his head. They may be in varied hues; they may be crumpled, or they may be sharply ironed, with knife-edge creases; they be of different types of fabrics (usually two types); they may be worn in different ways, some wear it crested arrogantly like a Himalayan peak, while some take great care to have the creases just exactly right, and then there are many who don’t really care a hoot; they just crumple it over their head.
Once upon a time, not many decades ago, wearing a Nepali topi (Nepali cap) was mandatory at many official functions and for gaining access to most government offices. Maybe this has not been completely done away with in some places, at least, but with the collapse of royalist power and rise of people power, along with drastic changes in the very structure of the country, the Nepali topi, once the most unifying factor among the country’s 100 and more different ethnicities, now has very little importance as a commonality to bind the people into one nationality.
However, even if the Nepali topi has less of a role in the political scenario, it is still dearly loved by millions and millions of Nepalis all over the country. What make it such a popular part of attire? Simplicity—could be the first response. Unlike the flamboyant hats of other countries (think sombrero, think 8-gallon cowboy hat, to name just two), the Nepali topi perfectly symbolizes the very nature of the typical Nepali man. One who is simple and naïve to the extreme, one who trusts without any hesitance, one who will let you know exactly what he thinks, even if you’ve never met him before. And so on and so forth. And, yes, one whose lifestyle is so simple and basic that he has no time for convoluted thoughts and shrewd maneuverings. Well, actually, if you take a Nepali topi in your hand and think about all this, you’ll probably agree that there couldn’t be a simpler mode of headwear in the whole wide world. And, if you have been here for even a short time, you’ll agree that there couldn’t be a simpler people as well!
Talking about the Nepali topi, there are, in fact, two kinds—the most popular is the Palpale Dhaka topi, while the other is the more traditional, and known as the Bhadgaunle topi. Let’s talk about the latter first, since it carries the weight of seniority. It is named after Bhadgaun, which is what present day Bhaktapur was once called. It is almost always black in color, and has quite a distinctive texture and pattern. If you happen be at a photography exhibition in town, you’ll be sure to see lots of very old black and white shots of scenes around the valley, and most certainly, all the men in those photos will be wearing Bhadgaunle topis. In fact, the Bhandgaunle was, for many years, part of the national attire, capping off, as it were, the debonair daura suruwal and the jazzy waistcoat. In today’s times, however, the Bhadgaunle can be seen mostly only on the heads of people of Bhaktapur and thereabouts. And, interestingly, it is still only made in Bhaktapur. Nowhere else!
The main reason for its decline was the rise of the Palpale Dhaka topi, which is available in a large variety of colors and patterns, so that one can choose the perfect match for the dress worn for the occasion, whatever it may be. Of course, that is not to say that the stately Bhadgaunle is not a show stopper; in fact, because of its solid black color and intricate design, it is a fitting tribute to the status of any man, be it a diplomat or a bureaucrat, a soldier or an officer of the army, a politician or a businessman. Nevertheless, one has to go with the times, and the Palpale Dhka topi is now the Nepali topi in vogue.
Palpali Dhaka topi is made out of a textile known as Dhaka that originated in Palpa in western Nepal, which is mostly inhabited by Newars who had migrated from Kathmandu Valley ages ago. Skilled artisans that they are, they established Palpa as a center of excellence in many types of handicrafts, including handlooms like Dhaka. Creative to the extreme, these Newars have introduced so many textures, so many lovely subtle colors, and so many sophisticated patterns in the Dhaka that the Palpale Dhaka topi has become, in actuality, a pretty posh part of the Nepali man’s attire. If you have attended typical Nepali wedding, you may have noticed the groom dressed in a daura suruwal made entirely of Dhaka, and with a matching Palpale Dhaka topi, to boot. You’ll be hard put to find a more debonair groom, is what we say!
Just as you’ll be hard put to find a more happy-go-lucky man than the one bending his strong back when plowing his field, the ubiquitous Nepali topi pulled tight over his head, stopping the sweat from getting into his eyes. Once in a while, he’ll straighten up, take the cap off his head, and wipe his face with it. Then, the short break over, the topi is back where it belongs, and even from afar, anyone can see that it is a Nepali man.