The fact that a machismo icon like Sean Connery sports a kilt with pride whenever he visits his Scottish homeland is testament to the fact that attire is symbolic of one’s ethnic heritage, and there is nothing effeminate about a man in a skirt especially if the goal is to dress for comfort or national pride. As it is, each geographical region in the world has its own signature style of dressing depending on the culture, the climate, and what is widely accepted as the norm. To me the Dhoti is more than just a comfortable item of clothing; it is symbolic of my cultural self-awareness.
In Malaysia, for instance, the men wear the “Baju Melayu” which is a loose tunic worn over trousers and usually accompanied by a large length of fabric called a “Sampin” which they wrap around the hips. In parts of Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Brunei, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, the Horn of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula they wear a “lungi” which is a traditional garment worn around the waist; in the Indian state of Kerala, it is called a “Kaili”. This fabric around the waist is especially popular in regions where the heat and humidity create an unpleasant climate for trousers.
Punjab & Dhoti
Now, let’s put this into context. I am Punjabi and extremely proud to be one. Punjabi is a derivative compound of two Persian words “Panj” and “Aab”; “Panj” meaning Five, and “Aab” meaning Water or River. Thereby, Punjab is the sub-continental Asian region which is situated in and around five famous rivers: the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas; all tributaries of the Indus River, with Chenab being the largest. In this part of the world, we refer to that same long fabric worn around the waist by the word “Dhoti”, or the “Lacha” by some.
As long as I can remember, my father wore Dhoti. At times, he would adorn a vest over it while shirtless on occasion, especially if the weather was harsh. That image of him wearing that fabric around his waist with it hanging slightly below his waistline is the image that I associate with the personification of fatherhood. There was always something inexplicably reassuring about him walking around the house in that attire at times fixing us something to eat, at times fixing himself something to eat, at times catching a brief siesta, while at other times watering the plants in our garden, or watching catchy music videos on TV, at times supplicating prayer, and so on.
Adornment of the Traditional Garb
To me, my father’s adornment of that traditional garb was a subtle reassurance that things were in order with the man of the house up and about. In my desire to follow in my father’s footsteps in every way possible, I also tried sporting the Dhoti every once in a while, although I’ll be honest, there were times when the desired outcome was not quite achieved and rather than exuding a persona of masculinity, I ended up embarrassing myself on occasion. For example, the first time I tagged along with my Dad to visit our agricultural land in Southern Punjab, my cousins and I decided to take a dip in the village tube well which is a great stand-in for a swimming pool; the high pressure of the water that flows in from an extremely deep well below the ground makes the running water refreshingly cold and a dip in that well-water has the potential to breathe new life into a person during the excruciatingly hot summer days. The pressure of that water is a little too strong though, for no sooner had I jumped into the water with my Dhoti loosely tied around my waist that the forceful impact sent my Dhoti flying over the ledge, and there I stood in the middle of the well with my masculinity in plain view of the chuckling villagers, embarrassingly open to public commentary.
I learned that day that the knot has to be really tight otherwise this light fabric can come flying off in a jiffy! As I grew older, I surely got more adept at tying it up. My personal opinion is that there is nothing more comfortable than the Dhoti as an item of clothing, especially during the extreme heat of the Pakistani summers. But, to me as a Punjabi kid who grew up watching a majority of my male relatives regularly sporting the Dhoti, and especially my father, it is not just a dress. It is the visual embodiment of how I remember my Dad; the caring father, the doting friend, the loving husband; the Dhoti-wearing man in charge.