Indian crafts include metalwork, wood work, cloth, textiles and fabric, jewelry, terra cotta objects, pottery and objects made from cane and bamboo. Some crafts such as woodwork, painting and stonework are featured as architectural elements and as objects of art. The oldest crafts are those produced in prehistoric times and by the Indus civilization (See Indus Civilization). Some of the most elaborate were created under the great Mughal shahs in 16th and 17h centuries.

Each region has its own craft specialties and styles of crafts. Works of folk art are often produced to mark births, holy festivals, seasonal changes and events to honor Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance, fertility and prosperity.

India is famous for its woven rugs, silk clothes, brassware,chikan embroidery, colored silks, Mughal miniatures and silver jewelry. Among the other interesting items you can find are small lacquered boxes, shawls, paintings, sandals and tribal jewelry. India is a large exporter of textiles and visitors can buy a wide assortment of traditional Indian clothes (saris and kurtas). Durries, floor coverings usually made from cotton, are found all over India. They come in a variety of patterns and colors.

Famous Indian crafts include enameled brass from Jaipur; objects inlaid with gold and silver wire from Hyderabad, wool durries and kilims from Rajasthan; inlaid stone work from craftsmen working in Agra near the Taj Mahal; and flower petal arrangements called athapoovidal produced by women in Kerala. Indian craftsmen for famous for their small details. Artisans write on grains of rice.

Regional Crafts from Different Parts of India

Different parts of India are famous for different kinds of crafts. Agra is known for its low priced leather goods, chikan work fabrics, Mogul-style jewelry made with semi-precious stones and marble trays, vases and other items inlaid with floral designs made with semi-precious stones. Varanasi is noted for for trinkets, carpets, lingams (phallic-shaped statues honoring Shiva), jewelry, metal bowls, enamel boxes, delicate silk saris with gold and silver thread, brocades and embroideries. Lucknow is famous for perfumes.

Rajasthan jewelry features minakari (enamel work) and kunankari (inlays with gems), which is found in rings, nose rings, necklaces, bracelets, boxes and turban ornaments made with gold, silver and a variety of precious stones. Rajasthan is also a good place to shop for gemstones, jewelry, enamelware, marble statuary, woolen carpets, cotton rugs, hand-block printed Sanganeri and Bagru cotton fabrics, brassware, exotic blue pottery made from crushed quartz, silks, quilts, Jodhpur breeches, folk toys, tie-die saris and turbans, hand painted textiles, enameled brasses from Jaipur, cane furniture, hand carved furniture, wall hangings and paintings, chunky silver jewelry, embroidered shoes, carved ivory and copies of antiques.

The Himalayan regions are known for their wool and cashmere (made from the fine wool of a goat) sweaters, blankets, thulmas (quilts), Tibetan carpets, pherans (embroidered tunics for women) and willow work baskets. Occasionally you come across Tibetans selling mugs made from human skulls and flutes whittled from thighbones.

Kashmir is known for Pashmina shawls, emeralds, silk and wool carpets, papier mâché products, crafts made carved walnut, papier mâché boxes, hand-knotted and wool silk rugs, lacquerware, a variety of garments made of cashmere, wicker baskets, silk shawls, polished cricket bats made of seasoned willow, embroidered shawls and a variety of stone and walnut products, beautifully carved furniture with dragon and Buddhist motifs, silver and gold jewelry with the same designs, Kashmir is famous for Gabbas (wool blankets with a special applique). Hook rus (made with chain stitch embroidery from a hook called an ahri) and Namdas (felted wool carpets embroidered with woollen chain stitches).

Coastal cities like Goa offer earthenware pottery and handicrafts and decorative items made from sea shells and palm leaves. Southern India is famous for its cultured pearls, rice pearls, sandalwood carvings, inlaid furniture, rosewood carvings, spices, perfumes, sea-shell concoctions, black metal inlaid with silver, glassware, studded bangles, handwoven printed saris, Kondapalli toys, Karimnagar filigree, carpets and jewelry made from pearls, gold and silver. Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu is famous for silk.

Gift items from Kerala include rosewood and sandalwood carvings, ivory work, brass and "bell-metal" lamps, other decorative items, horn products, wooden toys, items made from coconut, objects inlaid with gold and silver wire from Hyderabad, bamboo and straw items, lacquerware, Kathalaki dance-drama masks, handwoven textiles, sati and lungi lengths of fabric, soft silk-like calico cotton garments, antiques, gold filigree jewelry, nose pieces, bangles, colorful coir coconut-fibre products such as mats and carpets, spices, nuts and teas.

West Bengal is knows for terra cotta and pottery handicrafts, folk bronzes and kantha needlework. Assam is know for its wild silks, tribal weavings and bamboo goods. In Orissa you can find intricately carved soapstone carvings. Maharashtra offers fine muslin and hand-loomed silks. Gujarat produces handsome, handwoven, tie-dyed textiles and chakla patchworks and glass wall hangings.

Decorative House Painting in India

Christians and Muslims incorporate images from their religions into decorations they paint on their brightly-colored homes. Women in the town of Ludiya in Gujarat paint pink designs on their houses similar to those found on textiles produced in the area. Women in the desert of western Rajasthan paint their houses only once a year, for the religious festival of Divali, because of the scarcity of water.

Peasant women in Orissa decorate their mud houses with images of leaves, vines and flowers made with white rice paste applied with their fingers. Images such as the lotus vine, a symbol of the goddess of protection, are invoked to keep evil spirits from entering the house. The images are usually made after fresh layer of mud is applied to keep the house walls from cracking. Orissa girls often spend hours mastering painting techniques because their skill is often a criteria evaluated by the families of prospective husbands.

The market town of Madhubani in Bihar is known for its Madhubani style of wall paintings. The paintings are made by women to celebrate festivals and life-cycle events such as marriages. The works feature unique stylized images of Hindu gods and goddesses and domesticated and wild animals. Women artist produce the works on handmade paper and sell these commercially.

Book: Painting Prayers: Women's Art in Village India by Stephen Huyler (Rizzoli).

Tamil Ground Painting

Peasant women in Tamil Nadu adorn the thresholds to their homes with elaborate floor designs, known as kolam, made from chalk, lime, crushed stone, and colored rice flour. Elderly members of the household often draw them every morning under the belief that they will keep evil out of the house and bring prosperity. More than a million homes have them. The custom is centuries old. The designs, also known as alpana, rangoli or rangavalli, are found in other parts of India, particularly the south.

Describing a Tamil Nadu artist at work, Stephen Huyler wrote in Natural History, “Just as she does every morning, she pours water from a small brass pot into her hand and sprinkles it over the dirt beneath her feet, making it firm enough to draw on, Bending straight over at the waist, she takes large handful of rice flour from a little metal bowl and quickly drops it onto the ground, followed by an another and another, all evenly spaced, until she has created a diamond-shaped grid of white dots about five feet high on each side.”

“Then with further pinches of flour, she deftly draws thin white lines between the dots—some straight, some curved—rapidly transforming the packed earth into the petals, leaves, stamens and stem of a lotus blossom. Because it is a special festival day she fills in her picture with colored powders before going inside to awake her family and prepare breakfast...Each drawing is ethereal. As the day begins and family members come out of he house and into the street, they walk over the kolam, smudging the design. Bicycles, scooters, bullock carts, vans and buses all rapidly eradicate the artwork; within an hour all traces of it are gone.”

Most of the designs depict animals or plants but geometric designs are also popular. Each region has its own styles. The Deepavali festival features decorative designs made from grains of rice. The largest kolam in the world was produced in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The 70-x-40.5 meter masterpieces was made over 18 hours by 450 volunteers with 1,800 kilograms of rice.

Indian Textiles and Stonework as Art Forms

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Since ancient times India has been famous for fabrics. Greek and Roman texts mention the luxurious and finely woven cottons of Benares. These textiles are called “muslins” in tribute to their place of origin. Ikat weaves and permanently dyed cottons (chintzes) are equally ancient textile techniques. The weaving of pile carpets, however, was not native to India. In the hot and often damp climate, a heavy floor covering was deemed unnecessary and impractical. Muslims introduced the technique in the fifteenth century, but it was Akbar (r. 1556–1605) who first established pile carpet weaving as a royal art. He had become accustomed to their use and to their rich patterns and colors during his stay at the Persian court before his conquest of northern India. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese were eager importers of South Asian cotton textiles, famous not only for their fine textures and excellent weaving but also for their patterns and designs. With the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century and Dutch and British traders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, imported Indian fabrics became the rage in Europe. Several English words such as khaki, muslin, chintz, and calico are derived from this period when Indian textiles were so popular. <*>

“It is from the Muslim kingdoms of India that we have the earliest surviving stone palaces. Inset stones, tiles, and openwork windows decorated walls, fountain courtyards, domes of palaces, and the homes of wealthy court officials. Doors, shutters, and paneling of walls and ceilings were carved and inlaid in geometric and vegetal patterns. Furniture was sparse. People sat on pillows or low settees, and slept in bedding on the floor. The only pieces of wood furniture were storage chests and collapsible stands supporting metal trays from which people dined.” <*>

South Indian Mughal-Era Wall Hanging

Describing a 252.7-x-195.6-centimeter dyed cotton wall hanging from Madras (1640–50), Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Centered in this hanging is a well-dressed couple with a small child. The artist has made no attempt to model their features in light and shadow, preferring instead to outline their contours, costume, and adornment. The couple’s size and large, staring eyes dominate the many fascinating details of life inside and outside a palace, the miniature rooms of which form a frame around them. Floral patterns are everywhere. The palace occupants are luxuriously dressed Indians except for two men—one riding a rearing horse—who are in rooms on the lower left. Their costume and coiffure identify them as European cavaliers whose poses are derived from European portraits. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Beneath the couple in a space of their own, three elegantly attired females move through a stylized garden. The gestures of their arms and hands and the flow of their shawls and sashes create the rhythms of a graceful dance. On a shelf above them is a decorative row of vases, bottles, containers for food, and a sword. <*>

“The artist who created this hanging first completed the design on paper or parchment and perforated the outlines. By pressing powdered charcoal through the perforations, the design could then be transferred to the cot- ton. With the assistance of other craftsmen, he painted in the outlines or gradually added them along with the colors in a technique called resist dyeing.” <*>

Indian Carpets

The Mughals greatly admired Persian art and Chinese motifs are merged them in their carpets. Iranian court weavers imported by the early Mughals introduced the Persian style of carpets in which a symmetrical field of stylized flowers, birds, and sometimes animals in combat were arranged in dense arabesque patterns based upon geometric order. To this the Mughals added pictorial designs and, occasionally, Chinese symbols.

The main carpet-producing areas of India today are Srinagar in Kashmir, Jaipur in Rajasthan, Amritsar in the Punjab, Mirzapur and Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The art of carpet making is believed to be to have been introduced from Persia and many of the designs used today are based on designs from Persia and Central Asia. Mouri, Jaipur, Mizapur and Bhadoi produce quality carpets with 80 to 120 knots per square inch.

Kashmir is famous for hand-knotted and wool silk rugs, Gabbas (wool blankets with a special applique). Hook rus (made with chain stitch embroidery from a hook called an ahri) and Namdas (felted wool carpets embroidered with woollen chain stitches).

Video: Hasan the Carpet Weaver, 1976, color, video, produced by Sunrise Films. This video follows twelve-year-old Hasan as he learns the traditional craft of carpet weaving from his grandfather, a master craftsman, in Kashmir, India. From the 126 World Cultures and Youth series. (25 min.). Distributor: Phoenix Learning Group, 2349 Chaffee Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63146, (314) 569–0211

Mughal Carpet with Pictorial Designs

Describing a 833.1-x-289.5- centimeter, late-16th-or-early-17th-century. Mughal period cotton and wool carpet, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Across the imperial red field of this carpet, wild animals move freely about among decorative trees and plants. One lion is attacking an ibex, a type of wild mountain goat. Small birds are perched on the branches of the blossoming trees. Beneath them, large cranes stand about. It is as if one were looking into a royal Mughal hunting park filled with lions, tigers, ibexes, and palm trees, all native to South Asia. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Closer examination reveals, however, that not all the beasts are real. Some lions and ibexes have flamelike attachments on their bodies, resembling those that appear on the qilin, a mythical Chinese beast. Since the thirteenth-century Mongolian invasions in Iran, Chinese motifs such as the dragon, phoenix, and decoratively curled clouds often appeared in Persian art. <*>

“The challenge faced by later Mughal weavers was how to adapt this traditional ornamental style to the growing imperial interest in pictorialism. Here the animals, birds, flowers, and trees are placed in a design that repeats three and a half times, each reversing the direction of the last. Although a sense of decoration and repetition still prevails, the area in which the birds, animals, trees, and flowers exist is more like a landscape. The field has opened up, the patterns are less insistent and symmetrical, and the animals charge about with natural energy.” <*>

Jewelry in India

Jewelry found in India includes ankle bracelets, toe rings and nose rings—both large and small ones—as well necklaces and bracelets and other kinds of jewelry worn by Western women. Ivory, gold, silver bracelets and jewelry have traditionally been bought as investments as well as for ornamentation, serving as bank accounts for villagers. Ornaments are worn on the ankles in part to keep them covered as a sign of modesty. Some people wear their wedding ring on their foot. In India, you can see barefoot women with rings on every toe.

Jewelry has traditionally been greatly prized as signs of family wealth. Poor women have traditionally kept their family’s wealth in jewelry and sold off pieces such as a bracelet when money was needed. One woman told National Geographic, “We never wore just one piece. We wore it all when we went out to many rings as possible. At least six rings, but not on the thumbs. We use to get tired in the summer and take the jewelry and pass it to our mothers. It was so heavy...My mother would be wearing a kilo of gold, between her belt, her bangles, and her earrings.”

Jewelry is also symbolic of stages of life. When girls reach school age her ears, and sometimes noses, are pierced. A bidi (forehead mark) indicates a woman is married. Nose rings worn by Indians are called "trills". Jeweled nose rings are worn during important festivals and events. Women in the north sometimes display their wealth, slender pins of gold and silver, on a nose ring piercing their left nostril. A pieced nose often means a women is married. Generally the left nostril is pierced. Small girls have them so they can be distinguished from boys.

Gold, silver, copper and bronze are all used to make jewelry which is often inlaid with gems, semi-precious stones, beads or materials such as coral. Filigree with patterns of flowers, butterflies and geometric shapes is a speciality of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Mogul style style remain alive in Rajasthan and Delhi. In Assam, gold is fashioned into earrings and necklaces modeled after local flora and fauna.

Gold and Gems in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ The Indian love of gold had been gratified from early times by Indian rulers’ insistence that they be paid in gold for trade goods. So great was the dem and for Indian cotton in Kushan times that it almost bankrupted Rome’s supply of the precious metal. Gold was used extensively for jewelry and for gilding precious statues. Frequently, small-scale metal images were gilded in the mercury gilding technique, in which a paste of gold and mercury was applied to the surface and heated. Because mercury burns at a lower temper- ature than gold, the mercury burns off, leaving the gold bonded to the underlying metal. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Very little ancient or medieval gold jewelry from South Asia survives because it was melted down again and again to make more up-to-date adornment. It was usually made of hammered gold. Because gold is soft, it can easily be hammered into thin sheets and cut into the required shapes for a finished piece. Designs can be pressed into a gold sheet placed on a yielding surface such as pitch or wax. When the gold sheet is turned over, the designs protrude from the surface. This technique is called repoussé. <*>

“Gold earring were constructed of several pieces of hammered gold sheets cut into the required shapes and soldered together. The surface designs are created by innumerable tiny gold balls adhered to the surface in a technique called granulation, which requires extraordinary skill. Much larger quantities of ancient gold have been found in Southeast Asia. In Java and Vietnam, gold was usually cast solid in the lost-wax method. Fine details were added afterward with chasing tools.<*>

“Details on classical Indian sculpture and in Muslim and Hindu miniatures provide evidence that rulers through the ages had plentiful supplies of diamonds, balas rubies, and pearls. From the sixteenth century onward, the supply of emeralds was augmented by gems brought from South American mines.” <*>

Video: 1) Ten-year-old Gopal is learning the ancient art of enameling gold and silver, called minakari in India. From the World Cultures and Youth series. (25 min.) Distributor: Phoenix Learning Group, 2349 Chaffee Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63146, (314) 569–0211.

Ancient Indian Gold Royal Earrings

The ancient Indian technique of jewel making called kundan that didn’t require ay heating or hammering and allows craftsmen to make intricate designs. Describing a pair 7.6-centimeter earring from 1st century B.C. India (probably Andhra Pradesh), Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “This ear ornament resembles a tightly curving gold vine ending in two large flaring buds. Vines, sometimes sprouting fantastic fruits and flowers, are a common symbol of fertility in ancient India. On the underside of each bud is a vase from which foliage grows, a design of classical origin that was adopted into the Indian art repertoire as a symbol of the earth’s bounty. On one side of each of the buds are animals, either a winged lion or an elephant. Both animals are royal emblems. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Ear ornaments like these were so large and heavy that they distended the earlobes of the wearer almost down to the shoulders. At the center of the curving vine is a narrow slit that can be partially seen on the right. The distended earlobe was passed through this slit so that the earring hung from the earlobe of the wearer.

Very little ancient Indian jewelry has survived. Rather than being passed from one generation to the next, most jewelry was probably melted down in order to avoid transmitting the karma of the former owner. This earring and its mate are the finest and most elaborate examples of early Indian jewelry known. They remind us of the extraordinary cultural remains— domestic architecture, wooden sculpture, jewelry, and textiles—that have largely perished and can only be imagined by reading descriptions in literature and by looking at the surviving art. For instance, the elaborate jewelry depicted on deities in Indian sculpture and painting was undoubt- edly based on real models. The basic forms of this earring were made from flat hammered sheets of gold. The animals were made from separate sheets hammered from the back to create their forms (repoussé) and then decorated with gold granulation. In granulation, tiny globes of gold are adhered to the surface. Granulation was also used to outline the foliage and abstract designs and to add texture to the smooth surfaces. Twisted wires of different thickness and small pieces of gold sheet enliven the surfaces.

Mughal Personal Art Objects

The Mughals produced outstanding jeweled objects d' at. One of the most outstanding pieces, owned today by Sheik Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait, is a dagger with 1,685 rubies, 271 diamonds, 62 emeralds and many pieces of emerald green and deep blue glass. It features an Italian Renaissance grip, a blade inscribed with English words, Iran-style gold overlay and a scabbard with Central Asian silk designs.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “It was a tradition in the Mughal and Rajput courts to give elaborate gifts to impress and gain favor at court. Giving beautiful, skillfully made objects that could be held or worn advertised the refined taste of the donor, another way to advance one’s position at court. The most treasured possessions, and therefore the most prized gifts, were jewels, bejeweled daggers and turban ornaments, fancifully designed containers made of precious materials for food and drink, incense, jewelry, perfume and water for bathing, writing implements, and hunting equipment. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“At the biannual weighing ceremony of the Mughal emperor, his weight in gold and silver, made from gifts by his courtiers and subjects, would be distributed to holy men and the poor. The emperor, in exchange, bestowed costly personal objects on his favored princes, ambassadors, and officials.” <*>

Traditional Punjabi Brass and Copper Utensil Making

In 2014, traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, Punjab, India was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The craft of the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru constitutes the traditional technique of manufacturing brass and copper utensils in Punjab. The metals used – copper, brass and certain alloys – are believed to be beneficial for health. The process begins with procuring cooled cakes of metal that are flattened into thin plates and then hammered into curved shapes, creating the required small bowls, rimmed plates, to larger pots for water and milk, huge cooking vessels and other artefacts. [Source: UNESCO]

Heating the plates while hammering and curving them into different shapes requires careful temperature control, which is achieved by using tiny wood-fired stoves (aided by hand-held bellows) buried in the earth. Utensils are manually finished by polishing with traditional materials such as sand and tamarind juice. Designs are made by skilfully hammering a series of tiny dents into the heated metal. Utensils may be manufactured for ritual or utilitarian purposes, both for individual and community use on special occasions such as weddings or at temples. The process of manufacturing is transmitted orally from father to son. Metalwork is not simply a form of livelihood for Thatheras, but it defines their family and kinship structure, work ethic and status within the social hierarchy of the town.

The traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making of the Thatheras was placed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity because: 1) Transmitted from father to son, the traditional brass and copper craft is more than a means of subsistence; it is also a social and cultural identity symbol linked with the way of life of the Thatheras community; 2) Its inscription on the Representative List could contribute to encouraging dialogue with other communities worldwide that practise traditional metal craftsmanship while testifying to human creativity to manufacture handcrafted products that are both useful and beautiful; 3) The proposed safeguarding measures reflect an integrated vision of the safeguarding process and a well-budgeted and programmed plan; they include the development of capacity-building programmes, the provision of municipal water supply and the restoration of vernacular workshop-residential buildings; they also reflect the commitment of the submitting State in terms of funding and training;

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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