दौरा सुरुवाल

The evolution of Nepal’s official dress

For the decades that he was an underground guerrilla commander, and even when he took his oath of office after being elected prime minister in 2008 and 2016, Pushpa Kamal Dahal never wore Nepal’s official dress. 

But that changed in 2022, during his third swearing in. He came in a daura suruwal and black Bhadgaunle topi, an attire that Dahal himself described as a symbol of Nepal’s feudal past and a national identity foisted on the country’s ethnic minorities.

Since then, he has pointedly refused to wear anything else during official events, and even when he attended Indian prime Minister Narenda Modi’s own third oath-taking as prime minister last month.

Considered national attire for men until 2011, the dress was removed from its title along with gunyo cholo for women by another Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in 2012, saying Nepal was too ethnically diverse to have a national uniform.

But the daura suruwal is back. Most senior politicians and bureaucrats wear it with a grey Western-style jacket and black topi to work, even though it is neither suited for the heat of the Tarai nor the freezing cold of the high Himalaya. For the public, the dress is a go-to fit for marriages and social gatherings. 

Daura suruwal page layout NT

No one really knows when the dress originated, or why it looks the way it does. Most agree it originated during the Malla era in Kathmandu Valley. Others say it is geopolitically fitting that Nepal’s national dress has suruwal bottoms that resemble Jodhpur riding pantaloons from India, and the daura is similar to bhoto shirts worn in Tibet. The western jacket and waistcoat were added during the Rana era.

“Examining sculptures and rare photographs of the Malla era show that the present day daura suruwal has its roots in dresses worn at that time,” explains historian Tri Ratna Manandhar. “There are photographs of Newa merchants in Bhot (Tibet) wearing similar clothing during the reign of Pratap Malla.” 

In bronze sculptures at the National Museum in Chhauni, Malla kings are also seen to be wearing dresses that look like the daura suruwal. The only difference seems to be that the kilt-like skirts that the daura evolved into were longer then. The kings also wore the pagadi headgear similar to what Rajput royalty in India wore.  

“It was during the Rana regime  that the dress became official,” Manandhar continues. “When King Surendra died and his grandson Prithvi Bir Bikram (father of King Tribhuvan) ascended the throne in 1881, the official invitation had an order to wear jama (similar to daura), suruwal and pagadi.”

Daura Suruwal Illustration
Illustrations: LAXMI TAMANG

The famous photo of a garlended King Tribhuvan emerging from a plane after his exile in 1950 is the exact version of the present day daura-suruwal. History professor at Tribhuvan University Purushottam Lochan Shrestha says culture is constantly evolving, and the dress has changed accordingly.

“The officialisation of the dress took place during Tribhuvan’s reign  and ministers started wearing the daura suruwal,” says Manandhar.

Although the daura suruwal was worn by ordinary people in Kathmandu Valley, it also became the official attire of the ruling class with the western-style waistcoat, jacket and belt added. 

King Mahendra’s slogan ‘Ek Raja, Ek Desh, Ek Bhasa, Ek Bhes’ (One King, One Nation, One Language, One Dress) became the rallying cry for symbols of Nepali nationhood during the Panchayat. 

Daura suruwal with waist coat (called ‘istakot’ in Nepali) also became semi-official in summer, but today is mostly the uniform of restaurant servers. When it is hot, some officials are even seen in half-sleeve daura (also called labeda).

King Tribhuvan Daura Suruwal
King Tribhuvan wore a version of the present day daura-suruwal.

“Back then, everyone in Kathmandu would wear daura suruwal with istakot and black topi,” recalls Hera Bahadur Shakya of the Rastriya Daura Suruwal Tailors shop, which has been stitching the dress for the past 70 years. Most people made one daura and two or three suruwals to last them the whole year. 

The attire has evolved with modernity. The second inner suruwal has been mostly abandoned, the pants have elastic waistbands instead of strings, pockets have been added, and some even have flies with zippers.

“The choice for fabric has also changed,” says Moon Prajapati of Namuna College of Fashion Technology. “Traditional suruwal were loose fitted and roomier around the waist so it would be easier to work in the fields. But today they are tighter.”

The daura suruwal today is worn mostly by state officials, or during marriage and other festival rituals, and by Nepalis who want to make a national statement 

These needs have kept some tailoring shops open, even though many others have closed, either because the skills have died with their dressmakers, or the lack of demand.  

The Nepali Babu Fit

Daura Suruwal model NT
Model: AAYUSH RAI / Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

King Mahendra wanted the daura suruwal to be a symbol of Nepali nationhood, but it was the song 'Ma hu Nepali Babu, Made in Nepal' of the movie Nepali Babu that celebrated the dress as something that should be proudly worn.

But while the dress retains some of these sentiments, many find it is an obsolete vestige of an outdated past, and does not reflect Nepal’s ethnic and cultural diversity. 

Daura NT
Suruwal NT
Coat NT
Istakot NT
Patuka NT
Topi NT

Bharat Basnet, Tourism Entrepreneur

Bharat Basnet
Photo: THE EXPLORE NEPAL

You won’t catch tourism entrepreneur Bharat Basnet not wearing a daura suruwal. At social gatherings, at home or work, and even during visits abroad, he proudly dons his trademark attire.

Born in Khotang, Basnet grew up wearing kamiz suruwal which is still his regular preferred home wear. But as he got older and expanded his businesses, he grew fond of daura suruwal.

“In the tourism industry, we talk a lot about preserving our culture but we wear western clothes,” says Basnet, 66. “So, after a while, I got tired of the hypocrisy.” 

A staunch fan of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s legacy, Basnet’s shift to daura suruwal was a strategic move. Nepal’s founding king wrote the Divyopadesh as advice for his young kingdom which highlighted the importance of self-reliance.        

Basnet’s daura suruwal are all made of handwoven Nepali fabric, even the jacket. Basnet feels the dress is the most practical and comfortable day-to-day wear. He says, “For me the daura suruwal reflects who we are as Nepalis, and makes us truer to ourselves.” 

Bhusan Dahal, Media Personality

Bhushan Dahal NT
Photo: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

Although a more occasional wearer of daura suruwal, Dahal considers the dress “fantastically comfortable wear”. He began wearing the national dress in his early twenties when he started working at Nepal Television.

Except for formal events, the dress was not a compulsion back then, but Dahal preferred the attire.

“Whenever there’s an invitation that requires formal clothing then I tend to go in a daura suruwal in a sober colour,” says the 57-year-old Dahal, who now hosts the Bravo Delta Show on YouTube. 

Sometimes he wears a suit, but finding a matching shirt, tie, and pocket square is a hassle. In the case of daura suruwal, if it is pressed and hanged, it is wear-and-go.

Dahal says the dress gives him an identity, it is recognisable and unique. For the complete look, Dahal prefers a Nepali printed dhaka topi, which he wears even with the kamiz suruwal.

He says, “I have developed a fetish for the topi.”