history of palpali
Birth of an industry
In the late 1950’s, Ganesh Man Maharjan of Palpa returned to his hometown from Bengal having learnt how to weave the khadi cloth. But he found khadi too simple, too bland to catch the eye. He experimented with weaving small geometric patterns inspired from the Dambar Kumari Dhaka into the khadi with colourful cotton threads, giving a whole new appeal to an otherwise plain fabric. Making a bold new statement with its geometric motifs in red, black, yellow and green, this fabric became a trendsetter for its era and came to be known all over Nepal as Palpali Dhaka.
An instant hit with the Shah dynasty and Rana aristocracy, wearing Palpali Dhaka became a status symbol and a fashion statement. The fabric lived its glory days during the regime of King Mahendra, when Dhaka topi was declared as the national cap of Nepal and made it an icon for the Nepali identity.
Since it’s inception, Palpali Dhaka has contributed to creating an entire cottage industry and thousands of jobs along the way, employing more than around 2,000 weavers from all over Nepal and supplying to over 36 districts during its heydays.
A Difficult Decade
In the decade of the Civil War (1996-2006), many dramatic political events destabilized Nepal and had its economy reeling. No industry escaped the impact of the war, least of all Palpali Dhaka. Many weavers fled their towns and villages for safer prospects. Looms were abandoned, and the sound of the shuttles faded into oblivion. With no weavers in sight, most factories closed their doors, while the remaining functioned in radically downsized capacities.
While Nepal entered its fledgling era of peace and trade picked up again, there was not much of an industry left to accommodate it. Many had migrated abroad during the conflict period in search of greener pastures, leaving industries facing acute labour shortages. Palpali Dhaka was in demand again, but weavers were too few and far in between. This gap in the industry was met by cheap, low-grade, imported fakes which flooded the market, diluting the image and integrity of the original hand loomed fabric.
Interest in the authentic fabric dwindled. It had lost its momentum and with it, its potential appeal as a trendsetting fabric. Dhaka’s status was slowly reduced to a ceremonial fabric that the Nepalis adopted for cultural necessity and national pride.
Seeds of hope
Heritage conservation was a much discussed topic of discussion after the earthquake of 2015, bringing the focus back to valuing and reviving the gems within our own cultural heritage.
In Palpa, Ashok Kumar Shahi, the Mayor of Tansen Municipality, wanted to revive the Palpali Dhaka sector as it was the heritage of the region, but the scattered and competing remaining workshops presented a challenge tough to resolve.
The light-bulb moment happened during one meeting when the workshop owners of Palpali Dhaka and the सीप team, together with Finance Secretary Madhu Marasani, put their heads together and had a lengthy discussion on the multitude of problems the industry was facing. Eventually, it was agreed that joining hands to tackle their issues would stand to benefit them all, and the idea of forming an association to collectively orchestrate a structured revival effort was born.
The idea gained momentum with the collective enthusiasm and support of the Tansen Municipality, Lumbini Province Government and Palpa Chamber of Commerce leading to the establishment of Palpali Dhaka Association in 2019. Prioritizing skills enhancement of artisans, innovating fabrics and products around a brand, and working with progressive designers and buyers to chart a new future, the Palpali Dhaka Association has been setting an example for a revival project designed and delivered right, with UKaid सीप support.