Hawa Mahal, Jaipur (Pic courtesy: godisha.in)

Summer isn’t the best time to go to Jaipur, or so I thought. A work trip took me there last month and I had an extra day to myself. While a part of me just wanted to huddle inside the hotel, binge watch TV and get some R&R, I am glad the other half prevailed. A little googling and I was out there to recee Jaipur. Not a big list in any way, but if you like my kind of things, is the kind who prefers gawking at beautiful things over buying them, this list is for you. And yes, do this only if you have already covered Amer fort, Hawa Mahal and Anokhi Museum.

1. P.M Allabuksh and Sons

An old place with gigantic hanging lamps, shiny brass plates and a retro world charm. I chanced this while on my way to somewhere and I stopped in my tracks, literally. Go there just for the feel of it. And when you step out with a mission to have a big enough home to fit that pendant lamp, get a lassi from one of the shops there. Lonely planet recommends just one of them, but trust me, all of them are awesome. And for more hunger, Lal Maas at Niro’s. Perfect lunch.

2. Leheriya

Leher means waves in Hindi. And the chiffon leheriya sarees are just that. Wavy, breezy, colourful. A meagre Rs.100 for a dupatta, you feel like you stepped out of Raghu Rai’s pictures. Pick one anywhere on Johari bazaar. Most of the stuff on display is very bad, but the real gems are Leheriyas.

3. Head to C scheme

Now you are in the hip part of Jaipur. Religiously check out Anokhi, Soma and Rasa. You will be bowled over with endlessly beautiful clothes and home accessories.

4. Anantaya

A store that I fell in love with. Anything you pick up here will be a piece that will up the style quotient in your home. I bought a lotus coat hanger in brass and copper. For Rs.1350, it was value for money. Trust me, I don’t say that often. After this, a quick visit to Neerja pottery on Jacob’s road to stock up on some pretty blue pottery buttons and coasters.

5. Chaisa Cafe

Now you need some chai and maggi here. Delightful interiors and perfect chai. Remember to step out and gape at the Vidhaan Sabha, a stunning piece of architecture.

6. Pandit Kulfi

Just before you end this lovely day, make sure to stop by Pandit Kulfi near Amer Road. Google it and ask a million people. It is so small that you may walk by a hundred times and not figure out the place. Have both the malai and paan versions for Rs. 20 each.

So enjoy your day in Jaipur!

Kaza Spiti Monastery, Kaza, Spiti, Thangka paintings, Himachal Pradesh, Manali
Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas

Road to Kaza, Spiti

As winters turn into summers, I still long to snuggle under the covers and wake up to a blast of cold morning air from the window. And with a recent movie that shows beautiful stretches of snow, I am longing to go back to that place. I was there last September and now I want to go there again. I guess I can start out by writing about it. I promise to cover all the beautiful crafts very very soon. But till then, do let me day dream.

In less than 24 hours, I was in Spiti. A flight from Ahmedabad to Chandigarh, an arduous bus journey to Kullu and from there a day long journey on the non-existent highway took me to Kaza in Spiti. I landed there in time for dinner and found my head reeling. I put it aside to all the excitement of the trip, the difficult terrain and most of all to my utter lack of sleep. So I dozed off under comforting covers at the cozy Sakya Abode. I woke up in a few hours unable to breathe. The harder I tried, the more difficult it was and I started to panic. The search engine in my head was trying to work out time frames before I slip into cerebral edema. Thankfully a very thoughful team member handed me an oxygen can and I took in the delicious air while staring out at the star speckled sky. I have never seen a more beautiful sight in all my life.

Kaza Spiti Monastery, Kaza, Spiti, Thangka paintings, Himachal Pradesh, Manali

Kaza Spiti Monastery

The morning after was better, though my head felt like it was made of the heaviest metal. I woke up to a grand sight of brightly painted monasteries against the barren landscape.  The starkness was breath-taking. With even slight movements giving me palpitations, I decided to take it easy for the day. A little reading, sleeping and drinking a lot of water was supposed to do me some good. But sleep evaded me.

Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas

Dorje Thangka painter

So I set out to do my usual stuff of meeting artisans, this time a Thangka painter. This monk, Dorje (as almost all the men are called) showed us the various Thangkas that he had made over a period of twenty years. And even after all this time, he did not consider himself his master’s equal. He gifted us some of his work and refused to take money as a monk does not have worldly needs. The monastery catered to his need and he was well looked after.

Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas

weavers from spiti

While walking around the market, we encountered an old lady who sang her designs! Every design was linked to a song and women sang them as they wove intricate shawls.  She was the last few of them who knew the songs and claimed that she rarely sang them and is forgetting them quickly. She created a loom out of pieces of wood that she kept stowed away in her attic.

Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas, Indian Oil Corporation

Kaza Fuel Station

As we drove out of Kaza, we refuelled at the world’s highest fuelling station. What a high!

Note: It is better to stay in Manali for a couple of days before making the trip to Spiti as it helps you acclimatize. In case you feel a little off, drink lots of water, don’t exert yourself and eat well for 2-3 days. We stayed at Sakya Abode which is highly recommended.

 

Lakhpart fort, Rann of Kutch

Lakhpat fort

Day 3 started off with another long journey. With all the craft work done, it was time to check out other sights. We traveled through huge stretches of barren landscape and crossed the Tropic of Cancer (yes, you can stop by and click a picture of yourself!) to reach Lakhpat. Once a prosperous port town, it is now a shadow of its former self. The seismically unstable Kutch region was home to rivers Hkra and Sindhu. During an earthquake, the rivers changed course, leaving the land barren. Add to it the high salinity of the soil, and all that is left of vegetation are just the hardy shrubs. According to Wikipedia, ‘the area was a vast shallow of the Arabian Sea until continuing geological uplift closed off the connection with the sea, creating a vast lake that was still navigable during the time of Alexander the Great. The Ghaggar River, which presently empties into the desert of northern Rajasthan, formerly emptied into the Rann of Kutch, but the lower reaches of the river dried up as its upstream tributaries were captured by the Indus and Ganges thousands of years ago.’

Gurudwara, Lakhpat, Rann of Kutch

Gurudwara at Lakhpat in Rann of Kutch

Nestled inside the village is a tiny Gurudwara. Guru Govind Singh had stayed here during one of the visits and the house eventually was converted into a gurudwara. We were greeted by the local caretaker and offered tea and refreshments. He told us some wonderful stories (including the one above) about the history of the place. From the Gurudwara, we walked up the Lakhpat. Owing to it’s proximity to Pakistan, the fort is guarded by military personnel. Living away from their families for long durations, these men serve in difficult conditions. From their vantage point, we could see an endless stretch of water almost merging with the sky. Some fishermen were going about their daily business.

Mandvi, ship building, Great rann of Kutch

Ship building at Mandvi, Great rann of Kutch

The trip to Mandvi from Lakhpat is a long one. But one that no-one should miss. Mandvi is a beach town and is home to the local ship building industry. A highly complex structure (architecturally speaking) is made without a single design on paper. The master-craftsman is an expert with decades of experience and his measurement using very crude tools is precise. These little ships traverse the sea all the way to Singapore, Dubai and even Africa. Over tea, the builders and the sailors were reminiscing about days spent at sea, Somalian pirates and sea-storms. I could have very well imagined to be on the sets of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. In Mandvi, do check out the palace if you find time.

Every trip has a trip photograph and we had ours! With all this done, we headed back to the hotel to pack up and leave. Another trip with loads of crafts, sights and memories!

P.S: Best time to travel to Kutch is October to February.  There are only a couple of stay options near the desert, so make your bookings in advance. Also these options are open only during season. We traveled off-season and hence used Bhuj as the base and traveled back every night. Though very exhausting, this is possible.

Also it is best to hire a cab from Bhuj as local transport is not well connected. Keep food and water handy as you will travel long stretches without scope for both. Also if driving on your own, make sure to have back-up fuel. As the Rann is close to the border, you need a permit to enter it. So make sure you stop before turning to Hodka to get your permit. 

As we woke up refreshed on day 2, we were all excited to hit the road. After all, we had crafts waiting for us at the other end. Our first stop was at Nirona, the village famous for its abundance of crafts. We stared off meeting Jabbarbhai, the youngest member of the last couple of families involved in Rogan art.

Rogan painting, Kutch tourism, Nirona, Bhuj

Jabbarbhai, Rogan artist

Rogan art (ironically) was a cheaper and faster alternative to embroidered fabrics. Embroidery is a time consuming process. Embroidered fabrics were given away as part of a girl’s dowry and hence the outcome had to be of superior quality. It is the mandatory skill that a mother passes on to her daughter as early as when she is 4 or 5 years old. The daughter-mother duo then embroider the clothes that the young bride would take with her to her marital home. So Rogan painters came up with a quick fix. Apply paint to one side of the fabric and then fold it to form a mirror impression on the other side. Lo and behold, you have a complete design and much quicker than it would taken to embroider it. Over years, this family has fine-tuned the process making this art too a highly precise one. Now some of their paintings sell for much more than their embroidered counterparts.

Copper bells, Nirona, Kutch, Bhuj, Rann of Kutch

Salimbhai, copper bells making

After a long chat over a cup of chai and haggling over a painting, we overshot our schedule by a good hour. We then proceeded to the copper bell makers. I am not dwelling on the process in this post, if interested you can read it here. The bell makers graciously show us the process of making a bell. A bell is known to be one of the most complex acoustical instruments to make. To see these artisans with minimal tools shaping out these wonders in multiple numbers is a wonder. You can buy bells in 13 sizes, bells made into interesting wind chimes and a lot more here.

Wood turning, lacquer, Kutch, Khamir, Rann of Kutch, Bhuj, Nirona

Wood turning and lacquer, Kutch

The bell makers accompanied us to the lacquer artisan Bhaiyyabhai’s home. Just while we were there, a bunch of foreign tourists walked in. As is the case always, we were asked to wait till the guests leave. We helped the artisan by explaining the process in english and at the end of it, we were family! We bought some little take-aways ourselves.

Wood carving, Gandhi nu Gaam, Khavda, Shaam-e-Sarhad, Kutch, Rann of Kutch

Wood carving, Gandhi nu gaam

With a whole lot left to do for the day, we quickly wrapped up our conversations and headed to Gandhi nu gam. Here we met Aacharbhai, the village head and wood carver. His beautiful geometric designs were converted into furniture. Personally I wish he’s not ‘varnished’ the wood. It was too glossy for my liking, but I did make a mental note on the designs for future use. At the end of this, we realized that we did not have any lunch options. We decided to check out Khavda, where we found the hidden gem-Qasab. The centre there is similar to Shrujan, though the focus in embroidery was much more local. They also had some interesting info on different musical instruments. On lunch, we saw some tourists (who had made prior arrangements for lunch) have their delectable Gujarati thali here. They wasn’t any left for us, so we had to scout for another place. Of course, not before hoarding beautifully hand-crafted bags and pouches. Word of advice- When in Kutch (and traveling without a local guide), carry your own food. Though the hospitable locals may offer food in their homes, it is better to have an option in your bag.

Shaam-e-Sarhad, Hunnarshala, Rann of Kutch, Hodka, Kutch, Bhuj

Shaam-e-Sarhad eco-resort, Hodka

Hodka is the best of all Kutch villages. Shaam-e-Sarhad is in season is the place to stay. If by any chance you happen to visit Kutch during winter and miss out on this experience, I would count it as life’s biggest regret. The food here is par excellence and the hospitality addictive. Designed by Hunnarshala, built and run by the locals, this place is a perfect example of the outcome of the marriage between design capabilities and local skills.

Dhordo, Rann of Kutch, Lippan Kaam, mud and mirror relief work

Lippan Kaam-mud and mirror work artisan

From here  we rushed to see the Rann before the sunset. Though the local folk strongly suggested that we’d be wasting our time as the Rann is still inundated, we decided to take a chance. And we are glad we did! We reached dhordo, the last village near the border. Here we met the local sarpanch (village head) Mia Hussain who introduced to a famous artisan and Sufi singer- Mutva Mehmood Iliyas. We found the artisan working in a tiny room with his television tuned into Sindhi channels aired from the neighbouring country! Though partition was a difficult time for people living in the border, they still have relatives on either side making the geographical demarcation almost meaningless. With me were friends whose families had crossed over to India during the partition in 1947. It was almost a re-union of sorts for them. Mehmoodbhai rendered a Sufi song for all of us.

With our hearts filled with love for our new found friends, we decided to culminate the day with a visit to the Rann. The border personnel were kind enough to let us in considering there were no other tourists. The Rann was filled with water on all sides, as far as the eye could see. The salt was crystallizing in the dried up areas creating a white sheet on the surface. We were spellbound. Nothing could have prepared us for this wonderful sight.  Like little children, we trampled all over the gooey sand, tasted salt fresh off the water and let our minds focus on our irrelevance in the larger scheme of things. We were but a tiny speck in this universe. Word of advice-Please remember that you need to take a permit at the military checkpost (at the turn to Hodka) to visit the Rann.

On the way back on this long day, one thing that stood out was the strong familial bonds. Be it the Rogan painters, the bell makers or the lacquer artisans and even Mehmoodbhai who looked forward to meeting his relatives on the other side, every person in the family was part of life and work. So family matters, the most.

For more pictures of my Kutch trip, please click here and here.

 

Rann of Kutch, White desert, Kutch handicrafts

Rann of Kutch

When you step into the Rann, the first thing that strikes you is the expanse. The white desert that extends in each direction as far as the eye can see. Mirages, white sand, crystal salt and a little water on the surface is all that’s visible. No human, no animal, no life at all. It is a sort of catharsis, purging all the crowded thoughts. Suddenly, the mind’s lens refocuses into the most important thing in your life. In a short span of time, your mind is all cleared out and formatted.

Kutch, Rann of Kutch

Clothes worn by Kutch people

This land of whiteness is a backdrop to a million colours. The brightly dressed women gleam with their little mirrors all over. Kutch is a melting pot of various cultures. The blend of the local Gujarati culture with the adjacent land of Sindh is vivid in every aspect- food, language, cultural practices. I had a whirlwind tour of Kutch a couple of months ago. In an effort to cover the whole of the region in 4 days, we relentlessly travelled across the largest district in the country. Bhuj has a local airport with flights from Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Or you could take a night train/bus to Bhuj from Ahmedabad (about 7 hours away)

 Day 1: We landed in Bhuj at 7 am. Bhuj is a quiet little town that shoulders it’s responsibility of being the gateway to one of the best tourist attractions very well. A motley of new budget friendly hotels have sprung up all over the place to accommodate tourists with all kinds of pockets.

Bhujodi, durrie, woolen kutch shawls

Bhujodi durrie weaving

After breakfast, we headed out to the local Bhujodi, a local market with a host of shawl weavers. Make sure you pick up a warm shawl for the cold winter nights here. On the way to this place, make sure you check out Shrujan. This beautifully done up craft centre is the place of work for women embroiders from various communities of Kutch. These women interact with designers here creating masterpieces. Prices are certainly on the higher side, but owning such an impeccably crafted piece is definitely worth it. The plan was to head to Ajrakhpur next. But we had spent too much oogling at the beauty of these fabrics.

Hunnarshala, Vernacular architecture, craft based architecture

Hunnarshala, vernacular architecture

We headed to Hunnarshala, the mecca of eco-friendly and vernacular architecture research. Hunnarshala is a heavily guarded secret. One look at the place and you will desist coming back to your steel and glass home. You will crave for the practicality and earthiness of the vernacular architecture in your home. They are now training the local craftspeople/youth in carpentry and masonry techniques. So next time, you are looking to redo/built your home, please look them up.

The evening was spent strolling along the local market. We tasted some roadside samosas (hot pockets filled with potato/lentils and deep-fried), khakra and various pedas (milk-sweets). The market is also home to a variety of silver jewellers. But we were too exhausted to explore any further.

Stay tuned for more and do check out my co-traveller’s blog for an indepth exploration on Gujarati food all over the state.

 

 

It is a New Year  and I wanted to start the year with a promising note. We hear about dying crafts everyday. Here is one such that has stood the test of time due to exposure and patronage. A family of craftsmen who migrated from Karnataka to Swamimalai during the Chola dynasty. The king invited them to set up a workshop. Since these craftsmen are heavily dependant on the soil quality, they settled down here on the banks of the river. They found the right kind of soil here and established themselves. There has been no looking back ever since.

Everything is Tamil Nadu starts with paying obeisance to the local deity. We did the same at the local temple and started to find the idol makers of Swamimalai.

We found the workshop located quite centrally. Around 20 craftsmen were working under the guidance of the Sthapathy brothers. In the picture, you can find one of the brothers at the end of the line.

The Sthapathy family can date their ancestors back to the Chola dynasty and their genealogy proudly hangs on the wall of the reception area.  The craft has been carefully passed down over generations and the quality of the product is unmatched and even gets better with passing time. The demand is also similar with orders for the next whole year.

The craft owes its upkeep and success to patronage from the local community. The walls are adorned with black and white photographs of eminent personalities who are patrons of this craft. The family has a National Award winner in every generation!

Owing to the growing demand, the family has employed more people in this craft. But the secret of creating the perfect wax model lies entirely with the family. The model is made of wax and it’s proportions conform to the fundamental principles of Shilpashastra (ancient science of making sculptures). The various body parts and the ornaments are carved on the model based on this science. A strip of moistened coconut leaf is used as a base of measurements.

The wax model is then covered with alluvial soil taken from the river bank. A few slots are cut out to drain out the wax during the heating process. The model is then sun-dried to remove excess moisture. This process is repeated till the whole structure has an even layer of soil coating. The model is further wound with steel wires to avoid breakage.

The model is then heated in a chamber using dried cow dung as fuel. The wax melts and pours out from the slots provided. This is called the ‘karuvu’ (chamber) and is filled with a liquid mixture of copper, brass and lead. This is done with the karuvu buried in soil in an upright position.

Once the sculpture is cooled, the outer soil coverings and steel frame are broken.

A rough metal image emerges which is chiselled, filed and engraved to get the final figure.

The Sthapathy family have taken measures from their end to preserve this craft. They have a website and are almost always cordial to visitors.  In case you travel to the Thanjavore temple, this craft abode is a must visit.

Pattachitra artisan Dilip

Pattachitra artisan Dilip

I have known ‘Dilip Kumar Prusty’ for a year now, but had never met him in person. Going by his highly talented work and the average age of skilled artisans in our country, I expected him to be at least 60 years old. When I finally met him during this trip, I was surprised to meet a chirpy 30 yr old, with a lot of interesting ideas and dreams for the future.

Pattachitra Borders

Pattachitra Borders

As someone who has explained the process to complete strangers a million times, he clearly detailed out the process for us. Pattachitra is drawn on a special paper. The paper is made with multiple layers of old fabric treated with a concoction that consists of tamarind seed paste, a completely eco-friendly concept. A final coat of a limestone mixture is spread on the paper, which is then polished to provide a smooth canvas.

Colours in coconut shells

Colours in coconut shells

(Photo courtesy: P Sindhuja) On this paper, the basic sketches are drawn. The colours that are used are also derived from natural sources like Conch shell (white), soot from lamps (black), Geru (red), etc. The colours are stored in empty coconut shells.

Brushes for Pattachitra

Brushes for Pattachitra

The brushes are made with animal hair based on the thickness required, with the finest one being made from squirrel hair! Mythology is the central theme of most paintings. Most crafts in our country have evolved to support the various rituals performed in temples (or the other way round!). Patta paintings are used in the place of idols in the Puri temple during a specific period of the year. During this period the gods are supposed to be sick and are not fit to offer darshan to their devotees.

Painted home exteriors

Painted home exteriors

Pattachitra is just not limited to a single canvas. Walls painted with Krishna’s Raas-Leela, his life’s story and Vishnu’s ten avatars abound in Raghurajpur.

Woman artisan Raghurajpur

Woman artisan Raghurajpur

(Photo Courtesy: P Sindhuja) Traditionally done by men, women have also taken to this craft. Initially, they were involved only in the process of making colours. Nowadays they are formally trained in this art by their family members.

Pattachitra artisan Narayan

Pattachitra artisan Narayan

 

Though I would have loved to visit all the 120 families in the village, it is impossible to cover everything in a day. So I restricted my visit to two homes, Dilip and his neighbor Narayan (the one in blue shirt).

Pattachitra artisan Dilip adding his signature to his painting

Dilip adding his signature to his painting

At the end of it, we insisted that Dilip sign our purchase. He had never done it before and took a lot time to write his name on the painting.

Please click here for more photos of Orissa Rath Yatra and Crafts.

Terracotta from Pokharan

Terracotta from Pokharan

I always knew Pokharan only as the first underground site where India tested its nuclear weapon detonation. So when we stopped over there on our way to Jaisalmer, I was surprised to see a typical bustling town. Dotted with jewellery stores selling the beautiful kadas (bangles), old men smoking their bidis and soaking themselves in the winter sun, we walked through a busy market selling fresh vegetables. We passed by beautiful havelis (most of them in very bad condition and close to ruins) and reached the potter’s place. The potters stayed in a colony of sorts. I had just enough time to pick up a few souvenirs from this place, before hitting the road to Jaisalmer. Asharam’s home was the first one on the street. This (picture above) is what I found! A whole lot of his products. Though terracotta is such a common material that we encounter in our everyday lives, it never fails to fascinate me.

Terracotta artisan Asharam from Pokharan

Terracotta artisan Asharam from Pokharan

Asharam has a very serious look when he works. His deft hands give the finishing touches that make the whole thing seem so real.

Handmade Giraffe pot

Handmade Giraffe pot

A giraffe pot for plants. Asharam also makes other interesting pots with bulls, elephants, even birds!

The process of making a Giraffe pot

The process of making a Giraffe pot

The process of making a Giraffe pot! Here are some designs.

Animal collection of pots from Pokharan

Animal collection of pots

Terracotta urns

Terracotta urns

Clay storage in the backyard

Clay storage in the backyard

 The entire household is built around his work. The clay is stored in the backyard and offer a wonderful play area for his children.

Asharam's children

Asharam’s children

A smile for the road! For more pictures, please click here..