The ordinary headgear of the Muslims of Sri Lanka in the olden days was a white skullcap. However the head-dress usually worn by the more affluent Muslims was an altogether different type of head-gear. It was a costly multi-coloured, truncated conical brimless hat or cap made of straw or silk and often adorned with tinsel.
The earliest reference to such a cap is perhaps that of John Capper (Old Ceylon. 1877) who, writing of a Moor shopkeeper of Colombo in 1848, says that his remarkably well shaped head was surmounted by a “little colored cap, like an infantine bee-hive” while Mrs. Arthur Thompson (A Peep into Ceylon. C.1870s or 1880s) refers to some Moormen seen at Hindugalle as “two very fine dignified looking men, with high silk hats of all colours”. Osborn B.Allen (A Parson’s Holiday. 1885) observes that “The Moormen shave their heads and wear a high cap made of fine grass plaited in colours”. William Wood (Sketches in Ceylon. 1890) refers to the Moormen wearing “strange beehive-shaped hats of plaited straw”. C.F.Gordon Cumming (Two Happy Years in Ceylon. 1892) says that the shaven heads of the Moormen are crowned with “high straw hats made without a brim, and these are often covered with a yellow turban”. Henry Cave (Picturesque Ceylon. 1893) refers to Moormen with shaven heads “crowned with curiously plaited brimless hats of coloured silk”.
The Monthly Literary Register of March 1894 refers to the Moormen of Colombo being distinguishable by their “tall hats glittering with tinsel”. J.C.Willis (Ceylon.1907) says that the Moormen shave their heads completely and wear some kind of distinctive hat, usually the “beehive” which is made of silk of different colours and woven into various patterns. These hats, he says, come from Calicut in South India where they are made. He also notes that owing to their cost (Rs.14 to Rs.25 at that time) they are specially affected by the well-to-do men. Similarly, Alfred Clark (Ceylon. 1910) tells us that the distinguishing features of the Moormen are their shaven heads and curious hats, one type of which was made of coloured plait, brimless, and shaped like a huge thimble. William T.Hornaday (Two Years in the Jungle. 1922) describes the headdress of the Moors as “a tall, rimless straw hat, resembling an inverted flower-pot suffering from an overdose of decorative art”.
An illustration accompanying the description of a Moor shopkeeper in Capper’s Old Ceylon (1877) clearly shows him wearing this kind of cap which is described in the text as being like “an infantine bee-hive”. A fair representation of such hats is also found in John Van Dort’s sketch of Arabi Pasha’s arrival where several Muslims of Colombo waiting to receive the Egyptian exile are depicted wearing these hats along with their long robes (Published in the Graphic of Feb.24.1883 and reproduced in 19th century Newspaper Engravings of Ceylon. R.K.De Silva.1998). So does a group photo of Ceylon Moors taken in 1901 on the occasion of the Birth Anniversary of Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey reproduced in the Souvenir of the Moors Islamic Cultural Home 1977- 1982 (1983) where we find as many as ten individuals wearing this kind of hat though many are also seen to be wearing the fez.
As for the name by which this hat was known, we have the evidence of both A.H. Macan Markar (Short Biographical Sketches of Macan Markar and Related Families. 1977) and Dr.Tayka Shuayb (Arabic, Arwi and Persian in Sarandib and Tamil Nadu. 1993) that it was known as the Sūrat Toppi. Markar refers to the multi-coloured cap that was the fashionable headgear among the Moors before the introduction of the fez as the ‘Surat Thopee’ while Shuayb also refers to these Surat Toppi which he says were made of straw “the outerpart of which is covered with velvet-type multi-coloured threads woven into various designs. Its inside was covered with leather and had a purse-like cavity to preserve important documents and even cash”. A consideration of the above accounts leads us to the conclusion that the hats worn by the Moors, especially of the higher classes, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a tall brimless hat shaped very much like a thimble, beehive or an inverted flower-pot. They were multi-coloured and made of straw and plaited silk and not uncommonly adorned with tinsel.
The hat though also manufactured elsewhere probably took its name from Surat, a port-city in Western India that gave its name to the soft twilled silk fabric known as surah for which it was renowned. There is no doubt that the Surat toppi was of Indian origin, and probably originated from Surat itself. This is borne out not only by the etymology of the term, but also by a reference to a similar headgear known as alfiyyah (An Arabic term meaning ‘One thousand’) by Richard Burton (The Lake Regions of Central Africa. 1860) who describes it as “the common Surat cap, worked with silk upon a cotton ground” which was known in Africa at the time and imported from India. He gives three types, the vis-gol or 20-stitch, the tris-gol or 30-stitch and chalis-gol or 40-stitch. These numeral terms, belonging as they do to the Gujarati language, would suggest an origin from Surat which was situated in Gujarat.
The Surat toppi was however not to last long and was gradually replaced by the fez beginning from about the last decade of the nineteenth century.