Since time immemorial, the ceremonial pomp and glamour of Rajput weddings, coronations and gatherings have been complimented by the sheer diversity of royal attires and jewellery adorned by their attendees. Family heirlooms have been carefully preserved, inherited and displayed on these varied occasions whereby various ensembles convey historic tales of their own.
Amidst the native jugalbandi of Jodhpuri safas, Gujarati patolas, Marwari poshaaks and zardosi achkans, one often spots kinsfolk in a coat-shelled daura suruwal and a Nepali cap, flanked by elegant figurines draped in red saaris, whose necklines are accentuated with beaded poteys. These scions and scionesses represent the familial heritage of the Ranas, who continue to remain one of the most notable dynasties to have walked the land-locked kingdom of Nepal. For centuries since their establishment, the Rana clan has contrasted the dressing style of their Indian contemporaries with sheer grace and simplicity. Their ancestors have been historically known to have established a cultural legacy of cosmopolitanism in a style that was well ahead of its time. There are detailed accounts of Rana forefathers having had travelled halfway across the world back in the days when going overseas was considered a taboo in the Hindu social system. Their outward-oriented system of cultural orientation as well as a deep patronage towards the British Raj bears great resonance in Rana couture trends, which have been pursued through the changing eras. Alternating between Victorian and traditional clichés, Rana dressing styles have retained their iconic stature while subtly narrating the historical complexities of a bygone time.
In its debut fashion column, Rajputana Collective collaborates with Parakram SJB Rana, an upcoming fashion-blogger to elaborate upon the historical relevance of his ancestral couture.
The Ranas of Nepal bear a common ancestry to Maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana of Kaski and Lamjung, who famously served as the eighth Prime Minister to the Shah dynasty of Nepal. A military leader of Sisodiya ancestry, Jung Bahadur founded the Rana autocracy as a result of the Kot massacre in 1846. Throughout their regime, the Ranas are known to have had a close association with the British in order to fortify the kingdom of Nepal and Jung Bahadur is known to be the first king/ prime minister in the region to have been awarded state honours from the court of Queen Victoria in 1850. Thereafter, the deep association that would mature between the British and Jung Bahadur’s descendants came to bear a significant reflection in the latter’s ceremonial outfits.
In olden days, Rana men traditionally sported the dress of a British military chief, focusing on medals that glittered against their red attire. Conventional male headgear comprised of rich crowns, helmets, top-hates and bell caps. This colonial appearance of theirs was pleasantly interrupted by the traditional sirpench or crown that had been entitled to every Rana male by his direct family. Adorned with rare precious stones, the sirpench is fountained by a plume belonging to New Zeland’s exotic bird of paradise.
Rana regalia in more contemporary forms comprises of a variant of the kurta known as a daura suruwal, which was formerly the national dress of Nepal. When worn by one of the Rana ancestors- Bir Shumsher on his official visit to the United Kingdom, the daura suruwal was further enhanced with an additional coat. Other historical records bear evidence of Bir Shumsher being gifted a coat by the Queen of England, which popularised this pairing in the rest of Nepal for the times to come. Even today, the daura suruwal and coat is incomplete without a cap known as the Dhaka topi which, like the daura suruwal, is worn by folk from the accompanying Himalayan areas of Sikkim and Darjeeling. Finally, the daura suruwal is complimented with a beaded necklace, referred to as the kantha, which is a well-known men’s accessory in the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
The simplicity of the daura-suruwal is complimented by a series of extravagant outfits associated with Rana women, who are usually clad in vermilion drapes and the popular potey, which is a long glass bead necklace with a large golden clasp called the tilahari- a traditional ornament worn by married women. During conjugal ceremonies such as the swayamwar and griha pravesh, Rana brides are made to dress in ornate velvet gowns accompanied by tiaras and rich jewellery.
Even though the bejewelled red saris and gowns made their way into contemporary dressing choices amongst Rana women, their ancestresses were known for their prowess in the art of sari draping in ways that produced a compelling rendition of the Victorian ball gown. Chiffons and silks were carefully pleated in voluminous layers with the pleats being tucked at the back, contrary to mainstream saree-draping culture in the subcontinent. Moreover, the saree border in this typical style was flaunted as a decorative stole. Several historians credit Peshwa Nanasaheb’s wife for having introduced this saree style to Nepal, popularly hailed as ulto saree or murga saree, similar to the Marathi kashta saree, which is draped in similarly reverse fashion.
It could be said that jewellery was the most important factor in the opulent garb of Rana heiresses.
Particularly distinctive in the ornamental collection of Rana women were bespoke diamond tiaras and motifs, which were designed and crafted in exotic warehouses of Europe or closer still, in Calcutta. Amongst the motifs, star and moon pins were two of the most popular designs, which symbolised the respective ancestral royal houses such as Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi. Traditional necklaces comprised of glistening pearls laid out in nine strands, amongst other precious gems.
When it comes to necklaces, legend has it that famous naulakha haar (translating into the necklace worth nine lakh rupees) was brought by the illustrious Peshwa Baji Rao for an exorbitant sum of nine lakh rupees in the nineteenth century. Studded with the finest emeralds, pearls and diamonds, this necklace was procured by Jung Bahadur Rana from Peshwa Nanasaheb for a fraction of the original price in 1857. However, a century later, Jung Bahadur’s descendants were destined to part with the necklace due to an urgent need of funds. Dhir Shumsher reluctantly sold it off to the Maharaja of Darbhanga, who was a renowned owner of the third-best jewellery collection in post-independent India, after the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Gaekwads of Baroda respectively.
Similar tales and folklore around exquisite heirlooms await narrative excavation as contemporary royals and nobles stride across social avenues in their splendid fineries. The value of these alternative narratives becomes crucial at a time when the known abundance of impeccably collected and accounted historiographies have begun to attain a phase of exhaustion. Hence, a closer cultural examination of regal attire promises fresher historical outlooks that are derived from the fervent aspects of lifestyle. Speaking in the same logic, this column just about suffices to form a humble speck in a cauldron-full of bedazzling fashion history.
A passionate fashion curator, Parakram SJB Rana hails from the Babbar Mahal lineage of Ranas from Nepal. He has recently launched a highly trendy fashion & lifestyle blog can be accessed via www.thestyleversatile.com. Alternatively, his Instagram handle is @thestyleversatile.