India is one of my favourite countries in the world to visit. It’s a photographers dream come true, overflowing with colour and vibrancy. You never know what stunning visual surprise is waiting around the next corner. It’s also a place where I transform from someone with little interest in shopping to an out-and-out shopaholic. I’m constantly tempted by many varied arts and crafts in India. When I first started visiting there was little restriction on how much luggage you could bring home with you and I’d come back with extra bags stuffed full of cushion covers, wall hangings, paintings and wood carvings, all of which still adorn my home to this day. One of my favourite keepsakes is a set of Kashmir papier-mâché serviette holders. All constant reminders of my adventures in this fascinating country.
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So far, I’ve only travelled to five of the 29 states in India, so I’ve asked my fellow bloggers to contribute to this celebration of traditional arts and crafts of India. Here’s our guide to the best places to see the handicrafts and art across the length and breadth of India.
What’s missing from the list? Do let us know in the comments at the end of this article.
Where to see traditional arts and crafts in India
Ancient wooden carving, Madhavmala, Andhra Pradesh
By Sandy & Vyjay, Voyager, Karnataka, India
One of the oldest art forms that has survived across the passage of history is wood carving. In a small Indian village called Madhavmala, this art assumes a divine aspect. The village is located near the famous temple town of Tirupati in South India. The proximity of temples fostered the art of wood carving in the area. Artists carved exquisite doors, pillars, cornices, idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Bas reliefs in wood, and much more.
Today, the ancient art of wood carving is relegated to the tiny hamlet of Madhavamala. Here, artisans from about 40 households still practice the skills that have been passed down through the generations. However, the art, while still retaining its traditional style, has evolved to include modern designs that are equally suited to the interiors of modern homes as they are to gracing the hallowed corridors of temples.
To help preserve this ancient art and provide a sustainable model to the village, the Government in collaboration with an NGO has launched an initiative titled Project Sanskriti promoting sustainable tourism in the village. Visitors can stay with an artisan family, try their hand at wood carving and of course, buy the exquisite products directly from the artisans themselves.
How to reach Madhavamala: Tirupati in the state of Andhra Pradesh is the nearest major city to Madhavamala. It is well connected by rail, road, and air to major cities and towns of India. From Tirupati, one can hire a cab or autorickshaw to reach Madhavamala.
Blue Pottery of Jaipur, Rajasthan
By Arv, Jaipurthrumylens, Rajasthan, India
Blue Pottery is one of the unique craft of Jaipur and has obtained GI status meaning it is unique to this region. This art is called Blue Pottery because blue is the most dominant colour used.
This art traces its origins from Persia and travelled to Delhi, where it was patronized by the Jaipur court. Today, only a handful of factories exist since imperial patronage has ceased. Maharaja Ram Singh II was instrumental in providing impetus to this art. Later, the last queen of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi equally extended big support to preserve Jaipur Blue Pottery.
The craft doesn’t use clay at all rather it is made using quartz stone powder, glass, fuller’s earth, banyan tree gum, soda bicarbonate, and water. Blue pottery is a beautiful amalgamation of China’s glazing techniques and Persian decorative elements. The items are produced using a kiln at a temperature of 800-850 Centigrade. The blue colour is derived from cobalt oxide, green from copper oxide, and white. These days many non-conventional colours are used bending to the current trends. Traditionally, flora and fauna motifs are common while over the last few years, geometric designs have also been incorporated.
Jaipur Blue Pottery offers numerous home and kitchen accessories. A few sought-after items are vases, crockery items, ashtrays, coasters, trinket boxes, doorknobs, key chains, soap dishes and essence stick stands. Ram Gopal Blue Pottery in Sanganer and Neerja International in Civil Lines, Jaipur are two good places to buy blue pottery. The first one is an award-winning artist while the latter is a famous blue pottery exporter.
How to reach Jaipur: Jaipur is easily reached by road, rail or air with an international airport.
Rogan art, Nirona, Kutch, Gujarat
By Mayuri Patel, Fernwehrahee, Gujarat, India
If you want to see truly Rural India, you should visit White Rann of Kutch and its small villages. The Kutch region in Gujarat is famous for its dying arts, colourful handmade crafts and salt flats. The region is abundant with so many art and craft forms and the majority of the community depends on it for their livelihood.
On the way to White Runn of Kutch, you will come across the small village of Nirona known for its famous ‘Rogan art’. The art originated from Persia around 300-400 years ago and it was widely used to make bridal dresses back in that time. The Muslim community preserved this art form from one generation to the next with works of art being gifted to many VIP guests including Mr Barack Obama. Today, just two households are the only surviving custodians of this art in the village.
‘Rogan’ means oil and the paint is made with castor oil by boiling it for two or three days. As the residual forms, natural colours are added. They are kept in earthen pots with water to keep them moist.
The craftsman dips a wood stick or metal rod into the paint and uses this to draw fine lines on the cloth. The designs are generally created on one half of the fabric which is then folded to create a mirror image on the other side.
Image: Rizwan Khatri demonstrates the art od Rogan
After drying, the Rogan painted cloths are used to make decorative wall hangings, pillow covers, handkerchiefs, purses and tablecloths with peacocks and the tree of life being popular themes. Rogan art is a natural process and unique art form that machine produced prints can’t compete with. To help Rogan art craftsmen and to reach more people, the government has started offering incentives to Rogan artists. And the families have started to train other people to meet the increasing demand for this art form.
How to get to Nirona: Nirona is 25 miles from Bhuj and can be reached by car as local transport is scarce. It is mostly visited on the way to Rann of Kutch. Bhuj is well connected by air with the all major cities of India.
Masks of Majuli, Assam
By Amrita and Agniswar, Tale of 2 Backpackers, West Bengal, India
Majuli, the largest riverine island in India is also known for its traditional art and handicrafts in the form of mask making. Mask making of Majuli in Assam is inexorably connected with the practice of Neo-Vaishnavite culture started by Sri Shankaradeva that took Assam by storm almost 600 years back. These masks were initially used for Bhaona, a traditional song and dance displays. Today, the masks are used for decorative pieces as well as performances.
The masks are made from a local variety of bamboo, fabric and clay. The process is an elaborate one. Colours are then used for beautification of the masks. These masks usually denote characters from Hindu mythology like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
A fabulous place to see the process of mask making is at the New Chamaguri Satra in Chamaguri village of Majuli – Satra are Vaishnav monasteries started by Sri Shankaradeva. Here, you can learn about the characters that these masks depict, join a class of mask making and, of course, buy masks as souvenirs.
How to reach Majuli: The nearest airport is Jorhat. From Jorhat, you have to take a ferry from Nemati Ghat and reach Majuli. At Majuli, you can hire bikes, motorcycles and cars to explore Majuli and visit Samaguri Satra.
Red and black pottery in Auroville, Tamil Nadu
By Wendy Werneth, The Nomadic Vegan, Lisbon, Portugal
Tamil Nadu is famous for its red and black pottery, and the best way to experience this tradition first-hand is by going on a village tour. Not only can you purchase the pottery directly from the source, you can also meet the potters and watch ythem at work. These village tours are organized by a cultural centre called Mohanam, which means “Harmony” in the Tamil language. Located within the territory of Auroville, an experimental township that aims to be a universal town, the centre’s aim is to harmonize the international culture of Auroville with the rural heritage culture of Tamil Nadu.
I joined this village tour as part of a week-long vegan tour of Bangalore and Pondicherry, where we had many opportunities to visit grassroots projects, meet local activists and learn about the many great initiatives in the area. Our group watched a few different potters at work and were able to ask them questions about their craft.
One thing we found interesting was that the potters working at the potter’s wheels were all men, while the women sat outside polishing the finished pieces. The pieces that had already been polished were on display and available for sale at quite reasonable prices. Purchasing gifts or souvenirs directly from the villagers is a great way to keep alive the local, rural Tamil cultural heritage.
How to get to Auroville: Auroville is about 9 miles from Pondicherry, and plenty of buses run between the two. Though most foreigners find it easiest to take a rickshaw, which should cost 250 to 300 rupees.
Bagh printing on textiles, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh,
By Kristin Henning, TravelPast50.com, Minnesota, USA
Bhopal, India, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, fairly glows with its combination of shimmering textiles and the reflection of important mosques and palaces in the city’s large lakes.
This is the centre of textile arts of India, representing both big businesses and developed individual craftspeople. Handloom weaving goes back centuries when saris and turbans were produced here for the royal family. And the region’s printed fabrics represent long traditions. Even contemporary designs draw on ancient motifs inspired by the natural area and native Gond tribal people: rivers, birds, animals, and the geometry found in local architecture.
Bagh printing – an indigenous woodblock process using natural dyes and organic shapes applied to treated cotton – stands out. Traditional reds, browns, and blacks are derived from local minerals and vegetables. The intricate patterns can be found on decorative cloths and on utilitarian items like shirts, dresses, bags, and scarves.
In Bhopal, visit The Tribal Museum for a great overview of local arts and culture. Or check out one of the Mrignayanee showrooms to shop a whole cross-section of traditional crafts. This state-owned emporium, based in Bhopal, is devoted to the preservation of traditional and non-traditional crafts and craftspeople.
How to get to Bhopal: Bhopal is easily accessible by air via flights from Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities, as well as by rail. Visit Kristin & Tom’s blog for more about visiting Bhopal.
Images: Mohammed Yusuf Khatri demonstrates his work. Photo by Tom Bartel, TravelPast50.com
Ajrakh Print, Ajrakhpur, Gujurat
By Mayuri Patel, Fernwehrahee, Gujurat, India
If you are visiting Rann of Kutch and Bhuj, don’t miss visiting nearby arts and crafts villages, because Kutch is all about its handicrafts!
The ancestors of the Muslim Khatri community have adopted the art of Ajrakh Block Print. The families migrated to Kutch from Sindh province of Pakistan in the 16th century. After the 2001 earthquake, the craftsmen forcefully relocated to Ajrakhpur with the help of NGOs. There are more than 100 families in Ajrakhpur who generate their income from Ajrakh print.
Ajrakh print is a block-printed textile that is resist-dyed using natural dyes including indigo. The Ajrakh Print made by Khatri Community of Gujarat is distinguished by its red and blue colours, floral motifs and geometric patterns.
‘Ajrakh’ name is derived from Persia which means ‘Blue’. Ajrakh Print is done with wooden blocks, pounded on the clothes with heavy force. Then the cloth is dyed with a base colour and left to dry. The process is repeated until beautiful colours and patterns emerge. There are 14 to 16 stages of dying with the printing taking two to three weeks to complete the whole process!
Ajrakh Print is one of the oldest techniques of resist printing in India and one of the most complex processes of printing. Traditionally indigo, red, black and white colours were used to make Ajrakh Print cloths. As high use of water is threatening dyeing and printing practices, many NGOs are helping with water management systems in the dry regions of Kutch and to save the dying craft!
How to get to Ajrakhpur: Ajrakhpur is about 10 miles from Bhuj and you can easily reach via auto or hiring a car. Bhuj has good rail and road connections, as well as flights from within India.
Warli Painting of Maharashtra
By Nisha and Vasu, Lemonicks, Maharashtra, India
Warli painting is believed to be one of the oldest forms of art practised by the indigenous Warli tribe of Maharashtra. It is said to be over 5,000 years old when human beings had already come out of caves and could make other forms of shelters. The Warli tribe inhabited the Sahyadri mountains and plains of North Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat too. Although modernized to an extent, many of them still live in these areas or as close to nature as possible and create their awesome Warli art.
The paintings are intricate using geometric figures to depict men, women, animals, birds, daily farm life and other aspects of nature in general. The figures are often repeated many times to show social gatherings, dancing, festivals, and group activities. The most used patterns are triangles, circles and lines (for hands and feet).
These paintings are often made on the walls of their dwellings as white figures against an ochre background. More recently these painting styles are also used on interior decors and apparel too.
Since some of these tribes live close to Maharashtra capital, Mumbai (as close as less than a couple of hours), their ware is easy to find in handicrafts markets of Mumbai. Many resorts on the outskirts of Mumbai have frequent workshops for their guests, taught by members of the Warli tribe.
How to get to Mumbai: As well as excellent rail, road and domestic air connections, Mumbai has an international airport catering to around 50 million passengers every year coming from every corner of the world.
Pattachitra Painting, Odisha
By Abhinav Singh, A Soul Window, Odisha, India
Pattachitra is an ancient Indian art which originated in Odisha. Today, in the village of Raghurajpur near Puri in Odisha, all the Pattachitra artists live together in a community. Every home in this village has at least one Pattachitra painter, some of whom have won national awards for their art and excellence.
I visited the village with a local expert, Ajit Swain, and was amazed at the sheer amount of work this village produces. He helped me go to the right homes, including the orphans who he supports by training them as Pattachitra artists. You can also see a very unusual Gotipua dance here where male kids dress as females and perform classical dance.
The origin of Pattachitra can be traced back to the holy city of Puri. Traditionally, it was a scroll-based cloth painting but today artists also make such paintings on paper, glass bottles, coconut shells, palm leaves and whatnot. Mostly folk stories and Hinduism related images are depicted on these paintings. This 1,000-year-old art form is kept alive by self-motivated artists, the best of which can be found in Raghurajpur.
Staying true to its original form, only natural mineral and vegetable colours are used, made by the artists themselves, such as black from burnt coconut shells and white from conch shells. It takes a lot of patience to produce an original piece of art. A visit to Raghurajpur not only allows you to experience the art form closely but you can also interact and buy from the artists directly. Discover more crafts of Odisha on Abhinav’s blog.
How to get to Raghurajpur: There are good road and rail links to Puri while the nearest domestic airport is Bhubaneswar Airport about 33 miles away. From Puri take an autorickshaw or local bus to Raghurajpur, about 7 miles away.
Banarasi Silk from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
By Mariellen Ward, India for Beginners, Uttarakhand, India (originally from Canada)
Oh Varanasi! One of the oldest cities on earth, it’s an intense deep-dive into the soul of Hindu India. Varanasi is famous for the 84 ghats that line the city’s banks along the Ganga (Ganges) riverfront, and the cremation fires that burn night and day. To devout Hindus, to die in Varanasi will help them achieve moksha, and break the cycle of life-death-rebirth. But the ancient city is more than a religious pilgrimage destination, it’s also a cultural centre known for music, the arts, culinary specialities, and textiles.
In particular, the city is known for Banarasi silk, and saris made from this opulent fabric. Varanasi, also known as Benares, has been an important weaving centre since time immemorial. Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) loved zari work — embroidery made from pure gold or silver threads — and during his reign, this skill was popularized. Though there are actually four distinct varieties of Banarasi silk saris, the pure silk ones with heavy zari work are the most renowned.
When I was in Varanasi with a group several years ago, we went to a shop that specialized in Banarasi silk saris and I fell in love with a black one finished with silver zari work. After much haggling, we agreed on a price and I left happy — I wore this sari to a friend’s wedding. I have also been to workshops where they are made.
Real Banarasi silk saris take time and effort to make; plus, the gold and silver threads are expensive. The cost of these treasures can range from $100 up to $3,000. Unfortunately, you do have to be careful and make sure you don’t buy a fake — where copper alloys are used instead of gold and silver. Buy from a reputed source and look for a Geographical Indication (GI) certification.
How to get to Varanasi: From most locations in India, Varanasi is best reached by flight or train. There are overnight trains from Delhi — check out the Rajdhani, a top-class train. Or you can rtravel from Khajuraho, another spectacular, though much smaller, destination in incredible India.
Cheriyal Scroll Paintings, Telangana
By Meenakshi J of PolkaJunction, Hyderabad, Telangana (now Delhi)
Cheriyal, a village near Hyderabad in the south-Indian state of Telangana, is home to the ancient, 15th-century miniature scroll painting called Nakshi. Often mistaken to have had its origins in Usta art of the Mughals, its name got corrupted over the years under the Nizam rulers, and is now popularly known as Nakashi or Cheriyal paintings.
The Nakash scrolls started as a visual prop for the ‘Kaaki padagollu’ community, the yesteryear bards, to entertain various hamlets in the absence of technology, somewhere in the early 15th century. Each scroll was painted as a narrative with up to 50 frames, depicting important scenes from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as local folk traditions.
Image by Shree Vaikuntam
In the creation of a Nakashi, elegant strokes complement a colourful palette while an intense red background blends effortlessly on an organic canvas. This art is indigenous to the region with distinct Telangana manifestations in their form and depiction. Historically, pastoral themes have been a favourite rendition of the Cheriyal artists while more recently Telangana festivals such as Bonalu and Sankranthi do make their presence felt.
Over the years, this art form has seen a decline. However, Cheriyal paintings have in recent times found newer and larger canvasses in the form of street art in Hyderabad and murals across railway stations.
Today, there is just one family in the world that retains the expertise in Cheriyal paintings , namely the Vaikuntams, in Hyderabad. Thankfully, this family is now teaching others in the original village of Cheriyal.
How to get to Cheriyal and Hyderabad: Hyderabad is well connected by rail, road and air links including an international airport. There are frequent bus services from Hyderabad Jubilee Bus Station (JBS) to Cheriyal and it takes close to 90 mins. Although there are craftsmen still dwelling at Cheriyal, the master craftsman has shifted his base with his family to Hyderabad.
Stone Carvings and Inlay of Agra, Uttar Pradesh
By Suruchi Tashi from AllGudThings, Uttar Pradesh, India
The city of Agra in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh is home not only to Taj Mahal but also to many skilled stone craftsmen. They are experts in two types of carvings. Firstly, stone tracery (also known as Jali or Jaali designs), and, secondly, inlay designs (also known as the craft of the Taj Mahal).
Jaali is perforated stone, designed ornamentally with delicate and intricate floral and geometrical patterns. These designs are often replicated and repeated on a single unit or are designed in a sequence of steps to develop the screen in the form of a symmetrical pattern.
The inlay designs are the fine designs of semi-precious stone inlaid in marble.
Both crafts are believed to have been introduced in the 17th century by Persian artisans brought by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. During this medieval time, the Jali was used for decoration as well as for ventilation which was a necessity to beat the harsh climate of north India.
Historically, carving was done with the use of a diamond-tipped stylus whereas today it is done both manually as well with the hand-operated, electric tools. After carving, the product is buffed on an emery wheel to smooth its surfaces and edges.
There are 100’s of individual artisans and small scale industries where you can see stone carvings in Agra. Popular items they make include nesting animals, lamps, tabletops, containers, tiles, bowls, boxes, vases, paperweights, idols, and figurines.
How to reach Agra: Agra lies 137 miles from Delhi and is well connected to all the main cities of India by flights, trains and buses. The nearest airport is Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi whereas the railway station is at Agra itself.
Rajasthani paintings of Shilpgram, Rajasthan
By Neha, Revolving Compass, Bihar, India (now Karnataka)
Rajasthan is a very vibrant and culturally rich state of India. Rajasthanis love colourful art. And it is well evident from the colourful fabric and patterns in their traditional dresses, the blue pottery, the puppets, painted clay pots and wooden handicrafts and a lot of other art & crafts in Rajasthan. But what particularly caught my attention while I was spending a 4 days vacation in Udaipur, was the paintings that are done in natural colours.
These colours are extracted from plants, flowers, vegetables and spice. And then the painting is made on fabric using these colours, applied with brushes made of camel hair. All natural and yet so vibrant!
The paintings generally depict the Rajasthani culture – a scene from a village, a celebration of a special festival like Gangaur or the possessions of kings. Or, else, they depict scenes from ancient Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. And they are very intricately done.
I had a chance to interact with the artists themselves at Shilpgram – the platform that is provided by the government of Rajasthan for the artists to display their skills. And I also observed some of the colour extraction process here, which was really interesting. So beautiful were the paintings that I couldn’t help myself from buying a few. I hope this natural form of traditional art gets more and more exposure around the world.
How to get to Shipgram: Shilpgram is located right inside Udaipur City, a couple of kilometers from Fateh Sagar Lake”.
Tie-Dye in Bhuj, Gujarat
By Leticia, Travel and Culture, Rajasthan, India (originally Brazil)
The term tie-dye comes from English and refers to a process of tying parts of the fabric and dyeing it in different ways. The final print can only be seen at the end of the process after the ties are released.
It is found in different countries around the world, and is an important type of craft in India, present mostly in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In India, there are several names to address this beautiful craft, which change according to the way the fabric is tied. In Bhuj, Gujarat, near the Pakistani border, we found skilled tie dye artisans, that have been practising this art for generations.
Salman and Juned are two brothers who work with their father, an award-winning artisan. They have a facility in their homes, so when you visit them, you will meet the whole family, one of the best parts of the experience. Juned can be contacted directly on Faceboook. Bhuj is an amazing place for the arts and crafts lovers, so when in town, don’t miss the opportunity to meet this lovely family!
How to get to Bhuj: The best way to arrive in Bhuj is by train. You can either fly to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, and take a train from there, or go directly from other cities in India. From Jaipur, where I live, it is a 20 hour journey.
This is but a few of the various wonderful forms of arts and crafts that can be found in India. What others are not-to-be-missed and where can people find them? Let us know in the comments below.