Shopping for Textiles, Jewelry and Crafts in India

Shops and stalls line a street in Jaisalmer (Credit: MCArnott)

Shops and stalls line a street in Jaisalmer (Credit: MCArnott)

There was only one way to deal with temptation: Give in!  Not that I wanted to ignore the tempering influence of the elephant deity Ganesha (the symbol of wisdom, his wooden statuettes and paintings were everywhere), but the laughing Buddha seemed to agree with me. Besides, if I had resisted buying something in Delhi, it would tempt me all the way to Agra, the last city we visited on our train tour through Rajasthan. India is a unique shopping paradise, thanks to quality crafts as diverse as the 2,000 ethnic backgrounds of its skilled artisans.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Shopping in India is a cultural experience.
  • What you buy from a street vendor helps his family and community.
  • For tourists, travelers and indulgers.

Delhi: Textiles and Wood Art

Conference Folder Bound with Printed Silk and a Cotton Case (Credit; MCArnott)

Conference folder in printed silk with a cotton case (Photo credit: MCArnott)

I felt like a toddler prevented from getting into trouble. As soon as we walked out of our Dehli hotel, one shop-scouter “guide” after another stopped us. He knew which bazaars and markets we should go to, he said. It’s exactly what we didn’t want. Never mind, we ended up crammed on a rickshaw for an unforgettable initiation to India’s street life. I clutched my husband’s arm all the way to the Bazaar of Cottage Arts located on an unexpectedly quiet lane. We continued our shopping trip on to the boisterous streets of Chandni Chowk where prices are said to be the cheapest in India.

In India, cotton is as traditional as silk, and is of excellent quality. It has even been used as a cultural symbol of rebellion in a movement instigated by Gandhi against the influence of the Raj. Cotton is still widely used in Rajasthani clothing such as turbans for men and flared lehenga skirts for women.  As for silk, I discovered more kinds than I knew existed — fine, Jamabar, raw, spun, Tussar, crush and organza — and more color variations than I could name.  The choice appeared endless, which is why Delhi is the best place to shop for textiles:

  • Clothing material and home furnishing fabrics
  • Saris, shawls, scarves
  • Cotton khadi wraps — worn in a way resembling bibs
  • Cotton bed covers with silk embroideries
  • Bed and kitchen linens
  • Carpets (silk or wool)
  • Handbags and clutches (embroidered) in all shapes and styles.

Dehli has the best selection of Indian wood arts, sold everywhere in Rajasthan:

  • Carved animals
  • Indian deities
  • Hair pong
  • Beads
  • Chess-sets
  • Colorful bookmarks (to display as a collection in a box frame!)

Jaipur and Chittorgarh: Jewelry

An artisan makes bangle bracelets (Photo credit: MCArnott)

The legacy of Indian royalty is ingrained in the refinement of its ethnic jewelry and in the use of semi-precious stones. Indians love gold jewelry and buy a lot of it, especially on Goddess Lakshmi Day — the Buddhist symbol of wealth and prosperity. In fact, India represents 32 percent of the global demand for gold. Indians see gold as the best of investments, and wear it as a measure of social status since the abolition of the caste system.
Among the largest pieces is the thewa style, an intricate filigree-work on 23 cts. gold set on colored glass. But, inexpensive multihued glass bangles found in bazaars, or jewelry made of fabric or silver had a charm of their own.

Jaisalmer: Camel Hair and Leather Goods

I chose a miniature painting depicted Laila and Majnun (the legendary unfortunate lovers). My husband chose a painting of the elusive Indian tiger (we didn’t see any tiger in Ranthambore National Park). There, crafts and arts are taught in heritage skills centers sponsored by INTACH, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and develop traditional crafts. During our camel ride in the desert, our path crossed locals riding to a festival. I imagined some of them creating beautiful crafts in the quietness of their sandy environment:

  • Camel hair blankets and rugs
  • Embroidered camel leather and fabrics
  • Miniature paintings

Jodhpur: Puppets, Antiques, Footwear

The introspective stare of wooden puppets in bright ethnic costume and heavy make-up reminded me of  a young girl with whom I had my picture taken at a festival in the Thar Desert.

Antiques hunters will come upon architectural fixtures such as carved moldings, doors, and metal objects.

I also admired the leather juthis footwear: Nicer and pricier than at street markets, but better made as a result of a United Nations’ program sponsoring the revival of shoemaking. 

Udaipur: Dyes, Teas, Spices, Stationery

A knot-dyed turban wrapping demonstration in Jodhpur (Photo credit: MCArnott)

By the time we got to Udaipur, I had filled almost every nook and cranny of our Palace on Wheels train accommodation. Instead of shopping, I browsed in the workshops adjacent to the City Palace Museum store. There, I observed craftsmen crushing minerals to make dyes, and artists delicately stroking handmade paper.

Vials of Ayurvedic oils, tea, and spices were space-minding buys, and would leave an exotic whiff in our luggage. Indian stationery products are particularly attractive especially photo albums and conference folders (with inside pockets) bound in colorful printed cotton or silk.

Agra: Marble

Our very last stop after visiting the Taj Mahal was a marble shop: Colorful in-laid tabletops were remarkable, and heavy.

Practicalities

  • Use wisdom! Unless excess luggage or shipping expenses are not an issue, you can buy from specialized websites what you didn’t get on your trip.
  • Beware of gypsies selling low quality merchandise! Mind your pockets and purses!
  • Most cities sell the same products, but prices and choices are better in the towns where products are made.
  • Government-sponsored emporiums offer a large choice under one roof, but prices are fixed.