GUIDE TO INDIA
You’ll find no dearth of beautiful things to buy in India, so try to keep adequate space empty in your suitcase or backpack when you’re packing at home.
Tourists can help handicraft producers at the grassroots level by shopping at cooperatives. The quality of goods here is generally higher than at other shops and the prices are Fixed so you don’t have to haggle.
Be very cautious when buying items that include delivery to your country of residence. You may be told that the price includes home delivery and all customs and handling charges, but this is not always the case.
Opening hours for shops differ across the country (many tend to close on Sunday), so check this out locally.
Unless you’re at tixed-price shops (such as cooperatives and government emporiums) you’ll invariably need to bargain, although this shouldn’t degenerate into a vicious battle.
In Kashmir, where India’s finest carpets are produced, the carpet-making techniques and styles were brought from Persia even before the Mughal era. Persian motifs have been much embellished on Kashmiri carpets, which come in various sizes: 3ft x 5ft, 4ft x 611 and so on. They are either made of pure wool, wool with a small percentage of silk to give a sheen (known as ‘silk touch’) or pure silk. The latter are more for decoration than hard wear. Kashmiri carpets generally cost from Rs 200 to 8000 per square foot with wool being cheaper than silk. The number of knots per square inch (from 200 to 1600) also affects price.
In Kashmir and Rajasthan, coarsely woven woollen numdas are produced. These are more primitive and folksy, and are consequently cheaper than the fine carpets. Around the Himalaya and Uttar Pradesh dhurries, flat-weave cotton warp-and-weft rugs are woven. In Kashmir, gabbas are applique-like rugs.
The numerous Tibetan refugees in India have brought their craft of making superbly colorful Tibetan rugs with them. A Tibetan rug will cost anything from Rs 100 to Rs 2300 per square metre, depending on the quality. Good places to buy Tibetan rugs include Darjeeling, Gangtok, McLeod Ganj and Leh.
Unless you’re an expert it’s wise to seek advice and only buy from a reputable dealer, especially if you intend spending a lot of money. Also look out for the Smiling Carpet label; this is a UN and NGO initiative to discourage child labour in the carpet industry.
This is India’s major industry and around 40% of the total production is at the village level, where it is known as khadi. There are government khadi emporiums (known as Khadi Gramodyog) around the country, and here you can buy handmade items of homespun cloth, including the popular ‘Nehru jackets’ and the kurta pyjama.
There is a truly amazing variety of cloth styles, types and techniques around the country. In Gujarat, you’ll find the mirrored embroidery of Kutch which usually features geometric designs. Kutch also produces some of India’s finest embroidery. In the same state, Jamnagar is famous for its vibrant bandhani (tie-dye work), used for saris, scarfs, and anything else that stays still for long enough. Rajasthan is also wellknown for its tie-dye, as well as its other striking textile work. At tourist centres, such as Jaisalmer, you’ll find plenty of gorgeous wall hangings, cushion covers, bedspreads and more.
Over in the Northeast States, Assam is renowned for its nraga, endi and pat silks (produced by slightly different silkworms), which are widely available in Guwahati, and more cheaply in Sualkuchi.
Orissa has a reputation for bright applique and handmade silk and cotton fabrics, with Sambalpur specialising in ikat (a southeastAsian technique which involves tie-dying the thread before it is woven). Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) is renowned for a handwoven embroidered cloth known as chikan.
Punjab produces phulkari (flower-work embroidery with stitches in diagonal, vertical and horizontal directions on cotton cloth) bedspreads and wall hangings.
Kantha, a speciality embroidery of West Bengal, is traditionally executed on cloth which is used to wrap new-born babies. It’s also done on table linen, scarves, wall hangings etc.
Batik (with an emphasis on Indian motifs and usually done on cotton) can be found throughout India, but is particularly popular in the larger cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. Stunning batik work can be seen on saris and saltirar kmneez in trendy city boutiques. Kalamkari cloth from Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat is an associated but far older craft. It traditionally emerged around South Indian temples – the designs reflect elements of temple murals and are largely used as decorative cloths during devotional ceremonies and festivals.
In big city markets (especially Delhi and Mumbai) keep your eyes peeled for decent Western fashions at competitive prices.
Shawls, Silk & Saris
Traditional wool shawls from the Kullu Valley (Himachal Pradesh) are terrific value for money. Most are produced on traditional wooden handlooms by cooperatives of village weavers. Prices range from about Rs 200 for a simple wool shawl to Rs 6000 for a stylish pashmina or angora shawl. The heavy, embroidered shawls cost as much as Rs 10,000. Also popular are the traditional caps worn by men and women from the mountain tribes. These range from Rs 35 for a thin but colourful Kullu cap, to Rs 200 for a warm woollen Kinnaur cap.
Ladakh is also known for its beautiful pashmina shawls, while in the Northeast States, particularly in Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur, vivid woollen shawls are woven by the various tribes. Gujarat’s Kutch region produces some wonderful woollen shawls, patterned with subtle embroidery and mirrorwork. Also in this state, at Patan, they practice the ancient and laborious craft of patola – fine silk saris in which each thread is hand-dyed before weaving commences.
Aurangabad ( Maharashtra ) is the traditional centre for the production of himroo shawls, sheets and saris. Made from a blend of cotton, silk and silver thread, these garments cost from about Rs 500 and are often decorated with motifs from the Ajanta Cave paintings. The exquisite silk and goldthread saris produced at Paithan are more exclusive – they range from around Rs 6000 to a mind-blowing Rs 300,000.
The ‘silk capital’ of India is Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, although Varanasi is also renowned, especially for silk saris. Kolkata is also known for its fine, handwoven cotton and silk saris, including the Berhampore silk variety.
Recycled saris are made into fashion garments for export as well as for street sale to tourists.
Virtually every town in India has at least a couple of bangle shops. They sell an extraordinary variety and you can generally expect to pay just Rs 10 to 200 for a set of 12 (made from materials such as plastic, glass, brass and wood). Many travellers buy the heavy folk-art silver jewellery that can be found all over the country, but particularly in Rajasthan.
If you’re looking for fine jewellery as opposed to folk jewellery, you may find that a lot of what is produced in India is a tad too ornate for some tastes. However, you can dig up some finely crafted rings, anklets, toe-rings and bangles. In Rajasthan, Jaipur is especially renowned for its precious and semiprecious gems. If you’re in the market for pearls, they’re a speciality of Hyderabad.
Some of the jewellery pieces on offer in Tibetan centres such as McLeod Ganj and Darjeeling are genuine antiques carried in by refugees, but most are reproductions made locally and artificially ‘aged’. If you feel like being creative and stringing your own necklace, loose beads of agate, turquoise, carnelian and silver are on sale. Buddhist meditation beads made of gems, wood or inlaid bone make nifty souvenirs; prices range from around Rs 25 for wooden beads to Rs 500 for an amber string.
As the cow is sacred in India, leatherwork here is made from buffalo-hide, camel, goat or some other substitute. Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh is the country’s major centre for leather-work.
Chappals, those basic leather sandals found all over India, are a particularly popular purchase. In Maharashtra, the town of Kolhapur is especially famous for its chappals and they can also be bought from Pune and Matheran (starting at Rs 150).
Rajasthan manufactures jootis (traditional pointy-toed shoes); those for men often have curled-up toes. These are light to carry home and come in a range of affordable prices – they make great gifts.
At craft shops in some of the larger cities such as Delhi and Mumbai you’ll find wellmade leather handbags and other items at moderate prices.
Reproductions of old miniatures are widely available. Beware of paintings purported to be antique – it’s highly unlikely.
Udaipur (Rajasthan) has some good shops specialising in modem reproductions on silk and paper. In the same state, Jaipur sells brilliant contemporary paintings by local artists (prices range from Rs 200 to 60,000). Also in Rajasthan, Usta artisans in Bikaner create exquisite miniatures.
In Kerala and to a lesser extent Tamil Nadu, you’ll come across vibrant miniature paintings on leaf skeletons enclosed on a printed card depicting domestic and rural scenes, as well as deities. In Andhra Pradesh you can buy paintings on cloth called kalamkari. In Orissa, Raghurajpur has a reputation for its patachitra (paintings on specially prepared cloth).
Bihar’s unique folk art is the sublime Mithila or Madhubani paintings, created by the women of Madhubani. They’re most easily found in Patna.
In Mumbai and Kolkata, contemporary original paintings can be bought at various outlets: expect to pay over Rs 1000, even for a small one.
In Himachal Pradesh, at Leh. Manali and McLeod Ganj, you can find lovely Buddhist thangkas (Tibetan cloth paintings). Expect to pay between Rs 300 and 8000 for one, depending on the size and the intricacy of the work. It’s advisable to buy a new thangka rather than an antique one, which, if genuine, should not be leaving the country anyway.
This Kashmiri craft is widely found in India, particularly in North India. The basic papier-mache article is made in a mould, then painted and polished in successive layers until the final detailed design is produced. Prices will depend upon the complexity and quality of the painted design and the amount of gold leaf used. Items include bowls, containers, jewellery boxes, letter holders, coasters and trays. A small, simple bowl might only cost Rs 40, whereas a more intricate item will cross the Rs 1000 mark.
Rajasthan (especially Jaipur and Jaisalmer) is the place to buy colourful papiermache puppets – they make great gifts (prices range from Rs 30 to 1000).
Bronze Figures, Stone-Carving, Pottery & Terracotta
In the south, delightful small images of the gods are made by the age-old lost-wax process. A wax figure is made, a mould is formed around it and the wax is melted and poured out. The molten metal is poured in and when it’s solidified the mould is broken open. Figures of Shiva as dancing Nataraja are among the most popular. The West Bengalese also use the lost-wax process to make metal Dokra tribal bell sculptures.
In Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu) craftsmen have revived the ancient works of Pallava sculptors; these can be bought from around Rs 300 (for a small piece) to 400,000 for a massive Ganesh.
Kolkata is known for its terracotta ware, from little bowls to large decorative figurines, while terracotta images of gods and children’s toys are also made in Bihar.
Jaipur (Rajasthan) specialises in blueglazed pottery which usually features floral and geometric motifs.
In the south, images of deities are carved out of sandalwood. Rosewood is used to carve animals – elephants in particular. Carved wooden furniture and other household items, either with a natural finish or lacquered, are also made. In Kashmir, finely carved wooden screens, tables, jewellery boxes and trays have a similar pattern to the decorative trim of houseboats. Sandalwood carving, often very intricately carved, is one of Karnataka’s specialities.
Wood-inlay work is one of Bihar’s oldest craft industries and you’ll find wooden wall hangings, tabletops, trays and boxes decorated with inlaid metals and ivory.
The carved wooden massage wheels and rollers available at many Hindu pilgrimage sites make ideal presents – they’re inexpensive and light to carry. Woodcarvings (particularly chaam masks and the Buddhist eight lucky signs) are a speciality of Sikkim and Darjeeling.
Metalwork & Marble
Copper and brass items are popular throughout India. Candle-holders, trays, bowls, tankards and ashtrays are made in Mumbai and other centres. In Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh the brass is inlaid with exquisite designs in red, green and blue enamel. Bidri (a form of damascening) comes from the Bidar in northern Karnataka, where silver is inlaid into gunmetal. Hookah pipes, lamp bases and jewellery boxes are made in this manner. Many Tibetan religious objects are created using a similar technique, inlaying silver into copper. Prayer wheels, ceremonial horns and document cases are all inexpensive purchases. Painted cast-metal statues of Tibetan deities are heavier but will look stunning back at home. Prices start at Rs 350 for small figurines.
A sizable cottage industry has sprung up in Agra – marble souvenirs inlaid with semiprecious stones. The inspiration for most pieces comes from the pietra dura inlays found on the Taj Mahal and other monuments. Expect to pay about Rs 200 for a jewellery box and Rs 1000 upwards for a detailed wall plaque.
Quality Indian musical instruments are predominantly available in the larger towns, some with divine inlay work. Although prices vary widely nationwide generally, the higher the price the better the quality.
The cost of a tabla and doogi (drums are traditionally paired – the tabla is the long drum with tuning blocks and the doogi is the broader metal drum) is generally upwards of Rs 1000. Ornamental souvenir drums cost as little as Rs 100, but the quality of fabric and sound are inferior. Sitars can cost Rs 3000 to 15,000, but you’ll find that the better-quality ones start at 20,000.
Note that certain types of wood with which some sitars are made may warp in certain climates, adversely affecting the sound of the instrument.
Attar (essential oil) perfume shops can be found in various places including Mumbai (expect to upwards of Rs 150 a bottle). Mysore is famous for its sandalwood oil, which is best purchased at the government production factory for quality assurance (a 10ml bottle is Rs 550).
Indian incense is exported throughout the world and Bangalore and Mysore are major producers. Incense from Auroville, an ashram near Pondicherry, is of high quality. Nag Champa is another very popular incense and is produced by devotees of Sai Baba. It has a sandalwood base yet has a distinctive fragrant scent drawing from a variety of sources. But beware – due to lack of copyright enforcement there are many counterfeit copies of the famous brands.
Specialities of Goa include cashew and coconut fini. This head-spinning spirit, which often comes in decorative souvenir bottles, cost from around Rs 30 to more than Rs 1000. Another speciality of this area is the traditional clay pipe chillums and hookah pipes (smoking and possessing drugs is illegal but buying the paraphernalia is not!). Darjeeling and Kalimpong ( West Bengal ), and parts of South India are good places to pick up aromatic tea.
An interesting speciality of Bihar is the tapper mats of the Palamau district. Tapper is a durable material derived from the sun hemp plant-bags made from the fibre were once used to transport grains and other heavy loads. Nowadays, tapper yarn is dyed in various colours and available in various forms, such as handbags.
Meanwhile, in Bhopal, jari shoulder bags are a specialty. Made of cotton, they sport colourful designs and can be purchased for as little as Rs 40. Meghalaya, over in India’s Northeast States, is particularly noted for its beautiful hand-woven baskets.
Jodhpur (Rajasthan) is famed for its antiques, and has numerous large showrooms selling all sorts of ~k-indow frames, ornaments and furnishings. The shops should be selling copies of antiques, so you’re not carting off a piece of India’s architectural heritage. Bikaner also has antique shops sprinkled around the old city, some selling fascinating old photographs.
In Buddhist areas of North India, keep an eve out for ‘Buddha shops’, which sell relieious objects such as prayer flags, wall hangings, trumpets, drums, singing bowls, hand-bells, prayer wheels and thangkas, all of which make excellent souvenirs. McLeod Ganj, Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling are also good places to search for these.
Pondicherry (Tamil Nadu) is known for its fine handmade paper, batiks and kalamkari (similar to batik) drawings.
You can get a wide range of music CDs featuring Indian artists and these are terrific value for money. For instance, bhajans (devotional songs) CDs start at just Rs 90; CDs featuring Western artists tend to fall in the Rs 360 to 600 range.
Antiques & Wildlife Restrictions
The export of any object more than 100 years old is prohibited, making the required export clearance certificate difficult to obtain. If in doubt, contact Delhi’s Archaeological Survey of India (Tel: 011-23017443, 23792949, fax 23019487; open 9.30am1.30pm & 2pm-6pm Mon-Fri) in Janpath, next to the National Museum.
The Indian Wildlife Protection Act bans any form of wildlife trade. Please don’t buy any products that further endanger threatened species and habitats – doing so can result in heavy fines and even imprisonment.