Monday 2 December 2013

The Gandhi Topi

Having seen this side-cap on a lot of working men in and around the state of Maharashtra - I thought I would research and write something about what I now know to be called the 'Gandhi Topi' (or Gandhi Cap).

A dabbawala proudly wears his Gandhi Topi
I firstly thought that the cap was just part of the uniform of the Dabbawalah - the 5,000 men that gather and deliver over 175,000 tiffins in Mumbai every day (see my post here).  But then I have also seen the hat being worn by men working in the fields on the way to Goa, I saw some older gentlemen donning them on a safari in Tadoba and I've seen them worn by Koli fishermen in Worli.  The topi tops off an outfit normally consisting of white shirt or kurta and trousers (and must be a menace to keep clean!)

I asked our driver what the cap meant and why it was worn.  He replied that it is worn to show that a man is a 'proud Maharashtrian'. Upon further investigation, it transpires that the headwear is much more important than that.  Worn by Mahatma Gandhi, the cap became very popular during the Indian Independence Movement and has since become a symbol of the fight for independence, being commonly worn by politicians and political activists. Also a symbol of simplicity, Gandhi's Indian clothing (kurti pyjamas made of homespun Khadi cotton) gave a message of cultural pride and solidarity amongst India's rural masses. His trademark cap soon became part of the uniform for most of Gandhi's followers, and is still popular today amongst India's working classes - particularly in Maharashtra.

Rare photo of Gandhi-ji in his Gandhi Cap

What a lot of people don't know is that the actual origins of the cap in its current form, was part of Gandhi-ji's uniform when he was jailed for two months in a South African prison. Working as a lawyer, Gandhi was in South Africa between 1893 and 1914 and it is there where he first witnessed and experienced racism first hand. In fact, it was in South Africa where he first started fighting for the rights of other Indians, eventually being imprisoned for instigating a satyagraha ("peaceful violation of the law"!). In prison, the cap marked him out as a 'Negro' - which Indians were also classified as at that time.

Gandhi's death in 1948 gave the cap further emotional importance - being regularly worn by Indian leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru - India's first Prime Minister. The succeeding Prime Ministers wore the same cap (Shastri and Desai) and most members of the Indian Parliament continued to wear the Khadi clothing and cap.

India's first Prime Minister - Jawaharlal Nehru

Since then the cap has wandered in and out of fashion but became very popular again in 2011 after Anna Hazare - a prominent Gandhian - started an anti-corruption movement in India (yeah, good luck with that!). In August 2011, thousands of people wearing Gandhi caps amassed at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi to support Hazare on his 'fast-unto-death'.  The hunger strike led to a nation-wide protest in support of his cause. He was successful in exerting pressure on the Indian government as the Lokpal Bill was enacted in 2011 - giving ombudsmen the power to deal with corruption in public spaces. He is still alive. 

Although the Topi has now become part of the outfit of today's crusaders against corruption, its enduring symbolism is that of Mahatma Gandhi and his values. 

More from my collection of Gandhi Topi shots:

A Koli tribesman on his way to a wedding in Worli
A young Dabbawala
Another Dabbawala (immersed in music)

A group of Dabbawalas in their distinctive uniforms
This guy was part of a procession during Ganpati

These older gentlemen were on the back of a jeep on our Tadoba safari.
A lorry driver at Sassoon Docks
Group of men hanging around in Pali Naka
Above and Below: at Worli Fishing Village


  1. This was fascinating and all new to me. I love that about blogging, introducing new topics.

  2. Another interesting post ... I always learn something when I visit your blog!

  3. Very interesting- thanks for putting this up

  4. Very interesting comment- had fun reading it. thanks



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