Textiles and Shopping
Vibrantly colored shawls, necklaces strung together on the spot, copper pitchers and serving bowls... these are a few of our favorite Indian things.
With centuries-old crafts and textile traditions preserved from province to province, it's no wonder that shopping factors heavily in many travelers' itineraries when it comes to the Indian subcontinent. And these days, knowing where to shop is as important as knowing what to buy. In many cities you'll encounter bazaars and markets lined with street hawkers, where, unless it's a specific market for garments or jewelry, you'll mostly find trinkets like miniature Taj Mahal replicas and carved-wood coasters—and at all of these you can bargain down the prices.
As an alternative, government-run emporiums source good-quality handicrafts from various regions and sell them at fair but nonnegotiable prices. These emporiums (there's one in most cities) carry a great variety of goods, making them great for one-stop shopping or for getting an idea of what you should be paying at a market.
Bargaining is customary at most markets and bazaars. Keeping a poker face while browsing will help so the seller won't see whether you're really attached to a particular item. Once you're ready to bargain, start below half the asking price: the salesperson will undoubtedly work you back up to half. If you don't intend to buy, it's best to just voice a firm no to any coaxing and move along.
Pashmina refers to the cashmerelike wool from the goats that are indigenous to the Himalayas; these days, however, not all shawls labeled pashmina are made from this special wool. Many are silk-wool blends, or man-made viscose, making it important to really understand the fabric before buying. When possible, buy pashminas from government-run emporiums or reputable stores where you can ask questions about the fabric. Many shawls or wraps will also have some embroidery along the borders—look for neatly done threadwork, which gives a good clue about the shawl's quality.
Silver and Stone Jewelry
From eye-catching stones to shimmering silver and gold, from traditional ethnic and tribal designs to chic contemporary pieces, jewelry shopping in India runs the gamut. Jaipur, India's gem-cutting capital, sees thousands of semiprecious stones passing through its gates to markets in Europe and North America. It does pay to carefully examine stones like amazonite, smoky topaz, and chalcedony, as glass beads are sometimes passed off as more precious baubles. If you find a wholesaler who will sell retail to individuals who walk in, these merchants are generally more legitimate because they're not looking to take advantage of retail customers. If you're shopping for silver pieces, look on the back for a stamp that says 92.5% sterling silver to be assured it's the genuine article.
Stoneware and Pottery
From coasters to jewelry boxes, stoneware, usually featuring floral inlay, is a popular souvenir. Merchants might try to convince you that the stone is marble, but it's more likely soapstone. Also look for terra-cotta and blue pottery, the making of which are traditions dating back thousands of years. Many blue pottery showrooms in Jaipur sell colorful, antique-style doorknobs, tiles, and platters.
Copper and Brassware
Copper-bottom pots and pans might be all the rage at the moment, but copper kitchenware has been a long-standing tradition in India. Ask for handi-style pots (similar to a wok) and serving bowls. As for brassware, you'll find stunning Ganesh statues, incense-stick holders, and other household items. Many of these can be quite hefty, so be sure to keep your airline's suitcase weight limits in mind. With locations in many big cities, the popular Fabindia brand and the slightly more upscale Good Earth carry quality household products ranging from pottery and brass to linens and beauty products.
Whether you're shopping for yourself or for convenient presents to take home, Indian textiles are a good way to go: perhaps block-printed tunics in bold hues, embroidered pillow covers, or quilted bedspreads. Established stores like Fabindia, Anokhi, and Cottons, which have locations in many cities, specialize in these types of textiles, as well as hand-woven table linens, rugs, and more, but you'll also find similar goods at markets all over the country. Look for a type of coarse cotton called khadi (popularized by Gandhi himself during the independence movement); it's highly durable but softens with each wash. Although textile traditions do vary from state to state, the most dramatic regional differences are visible in the sari, India's most iconic garment. Even if you don't want to purchase a sari, it's interesting to see how the borders or coloring change from one region to another.
From cardamom to cloves, aromatic spices seem to fill the air wherever you are in India. Head to a local spice market to stock up on turmeric or cumin seeds at a fraction of the price of grocery stores back home—most merchants will even grind the spices for you on the spot. Be sure to bring back some garam masala, as well, a basic blend of ground spices used in many Indian dishes. The ingredients can vary slightly but usually include cloves, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, star anise, and coriander seeds. A masala dabba is a traditional, round spice holder that has two lids and fits several smaller tins of spices inside, along with one or more spice spoons. These are good souvenirs, too, with or without spices included.
Soaps and Beauty Products
With its history of ayurveda, or holistic medicine, that dates back thousands of years, India has always espoused the use of natural beauty products. Look for specialty brands like Forest Essentials, Kama Ayurveda, or even Himalaya Herbals (found at local pharmacies and chemists shops). Popular ingredients and herbs include rose, sandalwood, neem (the leaves and bark from a tropical evergreen-like tree), and khus-khus (an Indian grass used as an exfoliant).
Scenes of courtship, palace living, and the pursuit of the arts are often portrayed in the miniature watercolor and oil paintings available throughout the country. You'll undoubtedly find framed miniatures like these in New Delhi and Mumbai, but the art of miniature painting originated in Udaipur, making it worthwhile to look for these paintings in Rajasthan.
Books and CDs
Whether you're in search of a copy of the Bhagavad Gita or just the latest mystery novel, English-language bookstores are ubiquitous in India's big cities. Many have generous selections of Indian fiction, so it's easy to pick up works by authors like Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Rohinton Mistry, and others for a fraction of the price you'd pay Stateside. For Bollywood CDs or Indian instrumentals, you might not need to look farther than the bookstores as well, since many of them have extensive audio-visual sections.
Antiques and Carpets
From rosewood furniture to ornate carpets, some people come to India specifically to search for top-notch furnishings at deep discounts. Since stores and dealers vary so greatly, though, it's best to employ a degree of caution when making big-ticket purchases. Getting an unbiased expert to come with you, or getting recommendations from a concierge, can help.
Shoes and Leather Goods
In general, you'll find more variety than you can choose from when it comes to sandals and shoes. From the classic Kohlapuri chappal, a thonglike flat sandal with a toe strap, to more modern wedge-heel and peep-toe sandals and shoes, Indians just love their footwear! Compared to street stalls, shoe chains like Metro and Catwalk in Mumbai or Delhi stock products of better quality and durability at reasonable rates. For other leather goods, such as wallets and purses, start by exploring the government-run emporiums or consider department stores like Shoppers Stop, which has more than a dozen locations across the country.
Although India's textile traditions continue to be preserved in provinces across the country, its modern fashion industry continues to go from strength to strength. Designers are moving forward to bring an Indian eye and aesthetic to modern-day silhouettes and garments. Several of them, including Manish Arora, Ashish N Soni, and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, have shown at international fashion weeks in Milan and New York. Whether at shopping complexes like Santushti in New Delhi or the Courtyard in Mumbai, you can find chic boutiques stocking chiffon and organza dresses, A-line skirts with delicate touches of embroidery, and accessories adorned with Indian fabrics or trimmings. Increasingly, many of these designers are also drawing on endangered traditional techniques and more eco-friendly weaving methods and incorporating them into their modern aesthetic.
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