What is a Dhoti?

Sarah Denson

A dhoti is a rectangular piece of cloth, customarily white or cream in color, that is five yards long worn by men in India. Although there are more than 60 ways of wearing a dhoti, it is typically adorned by wrapping it around the waist and legs, and then securing it with a knot at the waist. The dhoti is often viewed as a strong affirmation of Indian culture and is worn for formal occasions, such as performances, weddings, and important governmental events.

India's Mahatma Gandhi often wore a dhoti.
India's Mahatma Gandhi often wore a dhoti.

Each region of India has different standards as to how the dhoti should be worn. In the Northern regions of India, the garment is commonly worn with a loose-fitting shirt called a kurta. In Southern India, men typically wear it with an angavastram — an unstitched cloth that is draped over one of the shoulders. It is not uncommon for men in this region to shorten the cloth by folding it more at the waist, thereby leaving their knees, calves, and feet uncovered. This way of wearing the dhoti comes with restrictions, though, because it is considered socially disrespectful to speak to women or superiors with the legs uncovered.

Dhoti is customary worn by men in India.
Dhoti is customary worn by men in India.

The religious sect Hare Krishna has aided in popularizing the dhoti in the West. This sect requires its followers to adhere to a strict dress code that includes wearing the cloth in white or saffron yellow. Most people also associate the cloth with Mahatma Gandhi — an Indian spiritual leader and activist who wore it often to honor his heritage.

To wear a dhoti, a person first wraps the cloth around the waist in the middle of its length. Instead of holding the cloth at the corners of each end, a person then holds the sections on each side that are more inward and closer to the waist. The rest of the cloth can be allowed to then fall to the ground.

A knot is then made using the inner part of both sides of the cloth near the stomach to tighten the fabric. It is then tightened enough so that the hands can be free. The end of the right side of the cloth that has fallen to the ground is brought up between the legs and pulled upward in the back so that it can be tucked into the waistband. The same is then done with the end of the left side.

Although this garment does not have pockets, many men use the folds in the fabric at the waist to carry important personal items, such as identification cards and money clips. The dhoti is not commonly worn with undergarments, either. This generally is the rule because it fully covers the legs and midsection of the body.

The kurta, a type of long shirt, is a common article of clothing in India.
The kurta, a type of long shirt, is a common article of clothing in India.

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