A part of several traditional ensembles, such as the ghagra-choli and the salwar-kameez, the dupatta is a long, unstitched scarf-like fabric with versatile uses. In Sanskrit the word du means “two” and patta refers to a strip of cloth, thus denoting a doubled cloth or shawl. Used in the medieval period as a headdress, the dupatta has been known by several other names such as odhani, pichhauri, dukul, nichol, uparna, uparaina, uparaini and anchal. Though the garment was historically worn by both men and women, it is now popular mostly among the latter. The present-day version normally measures between 2 and 2.5 m in length.
Though it is difficult to ascertain when the dupatta became prevalent, a similar veil-like garment has existed since the Vedic period. Words used for such a garment during this period include avagunthana, niringi, nirangika, mukhapata, shirovastra and yavanika among others. Sanskrit and Pali literature mention the uttariya, a veil or shawl worn over the head and shoulders, which could possibly have been the precursor to the dupatta. Further, sculptures from the Gandhara and Mathura schools also show evidence of the existence of such a garment in that period. Scholars believe that the dupatta might have been a pre-existing Indian dress that was adopted by the Mughals upon their arrival in India. During the medieval period, dupattas made of fine, translucent muslin were used both to veil the face and to cover the head and shoulders. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the dupatta became a part of the men’s clothing as well, appearing in the Mughal courts alongside garments such as the jama, paijama and turban. This dupatta was worn draped across the chest, with both ends of the cloth hanging at the back.
Though the use of the dupatta as a headdress and a symbol of modesty continues in several regions, it is often worn as a fashion accessory as well. In some communities, the dupatta – since it is an uncut, unstitched garment – is an important part of the puberty rituals for young girls. In parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, it is worn over the head and tucked into the ghagra in such a way that it covers the bare back. It is also often used by women to cover their heads before entering a place of religious worship. More modern functions of the garment include using it as a protective garment against heat and pollution by covering the face, head and mouth.
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