ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY net a bounty of traditional local crafts on a trip down India’s eastern coastline from West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu
Ancient India’s eastern coast was dotted by flourishing emporia selling gold, ivory and silks – from the Mauryan port of Tamralipta (Tamluk in Bengal) to centres of the Kalinga Empire (Puri and Konark in Odisha) and Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh) to great Tamil seaports like the Pallava maritime capital of Mamallapuram, the Roman trading town of Poduke (Arikamedu) and the Chola port of Kaveripoompattinam (Poompuhar). Over time, the coast drew all the major colonial powers – Dutch (Pulicat and Nagapattinam), English (Chennai), French (Yanam, Pondicherry and Karaikal) and Danes (Tranquebar). Centuries later, a drive down the east coast still throws up many surprises for those looking for a bargain.
Though Digha is famous for its seashell ornaments, terracotta figurines and handicrafts, it’s also known for a regional specialty. Madur mats, crafted by the Mahishya weavers of Midnapore from Madhur Kathi, a thin soft reed that grows in swampy areas, come in several colours and can be used as floor mats, beach mats and table mats. They are also available as runners, coasters, curtains, cushion covers, bags, purses, baskets and furniture. Another popular mat is the Sitalpati (cool mat), typically made by Kayasthas out of Mutra cane, ideal for the hot climate. The more glossy and fine the texture, the better the mat. As per local folklore, the best Sitalpati is so smooth that even a snake cannot glide over it! The area behind old Digha beach is a great place to browse for pearls and shell accessories. Besides beach bags and handicrafts made of jute, shops also sell other Bengal staples like Kantha embroidery, silk and cotton saris, batik fabrics and Shantiniketan printed leather bags.
The seaside towns of Puri and Konark are great places to buy conches, seashells, corals and semi-precious stones. Puri’s main road Bada Danda, New Marine Drive Road and Swargadwara at the southern end of the beach are a shopper’s delight with miniature stone sculptures, metal craft, bead and bamboo works, wood carvings, silver filigree work, sea-shell items and rows of shops selling exquisite Sambhalpuri ikkat saris and fabric. The 35km Marine Drive from Konark to Puri is dotted by stone carvers who churn out exquisite pieces of Lord Buddha, Ganesha and Hindu deities, ideal for the home or beautifying the garden.
Odisha is best known for its Pattachitra tradition (painting on cloth), closely linked with the worship of Lord Jagannath. Chitrakars, earlier based around the Puri temple but now centered in the crafts village of Raghurajpur (11km north of Puri on NH-203), depict stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and themes of Radha-Krishna, Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Tala-pattachitra, etchings and illustrations done on palm leaf, are also popular. Don’t forget to pick up the colourful appliqué work lamps and wall hangings of Pipli (36km from Puri, at the junction of Konark Road).
Andhra Pradesh has a rich artistic tradition and Visakhapatnam (Vizag), the state’s second largest city, is the most important shopping address on the coast. From pearl and gold jewellery, Bidri ware, uppada pattu cheeralu (silk saris) to handicrafts, you’ll find them all on Vizag’s Main Road stretching from Jagadamba junction to Old Post Office. Besides Eastern Art Museum and Girijan Co-operative Society, there are several shops on Vizag’s main tourist precincts of Ramakrishna Beach and Rushikonda Beach as well as Dabagardens road.
The government run Lepakshi showroom (Ph 0891 2508037 http://www.lepakshihandicrafts.gov.in) is the best place for wood carvings and handicrafts like Kondapalli, Yetikippaka and Nakkapalli toys, Nirmal paintings, Kalamkari work, Banjara embroidery, brass artware, leatherwork and Bidriware. Pochampalli and Narayanpet saris also sell like hot cakes here.
Chennai/Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu)
Kanjivaram silks, Chola bronzes, Tanjore paintings, brass lamps, stone sculptures, sandalwood carvings, metal artefacts and gold jewellery; Tamil Nadu is simply a shopper’s paradise. Chennai has an enviable number of hi-fashion & furniture boutiques like Fuschia, Rehane, Ambrosia and Amethyst. Strike a good bargain for junk jewellery with hawkers around The Marina and Besant Nagar. For saris and textiles, there’s Nalli Silks, Khadi Gram Udyog and Tamil Nadu Handloom Weaver’s Co-operative Society (Co-optex) and for jewellery visit GRT & VBJ showrooms.
On ECR (East Coast Road), don’t miss the Cholamandal Artists’ Village at Injambakkam (8km from Chennai) for some great artworks by contemporary artists, or DakshinaChitra, which showcases a fine collection of South Indian arts and crafts. At Mamallapuram, pick up stone sculpture at the Artist Village and hippie clothes and souvenirs on Ottavadai Street. Further down the Coromandel Coast, buy hand-woven mats at Thaikkal (10km south of Chidambaram on NH-45A). Just across the Kollidam bridge, the highway is lined by thatched shops selling vibrant korai pai (grass mats), cane swing chairs and baskets.
A good place to buy handicrafts is Central Cottage Industries Emporium and Poompuhar, run by Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation (Ph 044 28521271 www.poompuhar.org). It has 16 showrooms across the state, including several on the coast – Chennai, Mamallapuram, Cuddalore, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari.
This delightful beach town teeming with shops and boutiques has a dizzying range of products that leaves one spoilt for choice. The signature handmade paper, incense, handcrafted jewellery, garments and organic products are on sale at Auroville’s boutique outlets – La Boutique d’Auroville and Boutique D Auroshri on Jawaharlal Nehru Street, Kalki on Mission Street and Auroville Visitors’ Centre (Ph 0413 2623450 www.maroma.com).
Go boutique-hopping in Pondicherry’s French and Tamil Quarters for door and window frames, ornate pillars, antique furniture and other surprises at charming showrooms like Cottonwood, Touchwood, Hidesign’s Casablanca and La Maison Rose. Artyzan Design Shop and Studio at The Dune Resort (Ph 0413 2655528. www.artyzan.org) has an eclectic array of attractive beaded fashion accessories, key chains and pouches by a fair trade brand promoted by Children of the World-India Vocational Academy.
Also Read: The 9-yard Indian sari
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of JetWings magazine.