India is vibrant, intense, and feels like everything is in technicolor. It’s an ancient land that’s preserved its crafts and traditions over thousands of years; a place where art and adornment are alive, a part of everyday life, and a way of living. Shopping in India is a chance to discover something beautiful and bring it back with you so that you can feel like you’re in a technicolor dream again.
There are an endless number of things to shop for in India, but here are some of my favorites.
Shawls: The Timeless Accessory You’ll Have Forever
My absolute favorite thing to shop for in India is shawls. Shawls are the perfect style accessory to add a dash of glamorous ease to anything you’re wearing. You’ll find an assortment of hand-loomed khadi, or raw cotton, shawls in muted tones with embroidered motifs to brightly colored shawls in woven wool with ornate embellishments.
Pick up a true Kashmiri pashmina and you’ll have an instant heirloom. Pashminas come in various weft and weaves, a multitude of colors, and with or without embroidery. The finest pashminas are very light in weight and an entire shawl can pass through a ring, a demonstration of which your salesman will happily provide.
Shoes: A Girl’s Best Friend
Artisanal, handmade leather slippers that you can easily slip on and off are ubiquitous in every city in India. Leather sandals accented with silver and gold thread, or simpler designs featuring patterned and naturally dyed leather, are classic choices that will withstand any trends.
Chappals are open sandals that come with or without a toe ring. They are stylish and perfect for hot summer months and look great with jeans or a dress. Jutis are the traditional footwear of Rajasthan and are available in a shoe or mule style. They come in a variety of colors and styles that are easily paired with leggings and a tunic (great cotton tunics will likely be available in the same market where you are shopping for your stylish Indian footwear).
Baubles: Something for Everyone
There are ancient Indian texts that prescribe how to properly adorn oneself, and if you wish, you can find the most exquisite jewels for every inch of your body from the top of your head right down to your toes.
Bangles, the ubiquitous adornment that’s a must for every Indian woman, come in every material imaginable: glass, gold, fine silver, resin with mirror work, beaded, and studded with swarovski crystals. The only limit is your desire.
Art: From Folk to Fine
There’s a rich and long tradition of handicrafts in India, and everything from woodwork to pottery to folk art paintings are widely available. Every part of India has its own distinct traditions, styles, and schools of craftsmanship.
Gond art from Madhya Pradesh and Madhubani paintings from Bihar are known for their colorful and highly stylized forms that often portray nature, animals, and mythical episodes.
Antique miniature paintings hail from an aristocratic patronage. Today, the tradition of these finely detailed paintings is continued by dedicated artists that pass down their skills and knowledge to the next generation through selective apprenticeship.
India also celebrates a vibrant modern and contemporary art scene. In Mumbai, the Kala Ghoda art district boasts many galleries, and every year in early January there is a huge art festival that lasts for about 10 days.
Be sure to check out the Jehangir Art Gallery near the Kala Ghoda district. It is a beautiful space dedicated to showcasing the finest contemporary Indian art, and you can pick up great posters and prints of artworks for unbeatable prices.
Choose Your Shopping Style
Shopping is an adventure in India and there are many ways to go about it.
If you’re the daring type who likes to discover finds and takes pride in bargaining for the best deal, then you should go for open-air street markets where there will be an endless number of stalls and vendors. Dilli Haat in New Delhi is one of the best open-air markets where you will find all sorts of handmade goods from all over India. In Mumbai, you can check out Fashion Street market, where you’ll find an eclectic mix of clothing, slippers, and baubles to suit your style.
If you enjoy scavenger hunts and favor going off the beaten-path, then venture out to Chor Bazaar (literally Thieves Market) on Mutton Street in Mumbai. Here you’ll find everything from car parts to antique coins to vintage Bollywood posters and props. You really have to dig to find treasure here, but remember, it’s an adventure and if even if you don’t strike gold you’ll walk away with a pocket full of memories!
If you want an authentic Indian shopping experience without the rush and bustle of open-air markets, choose local, independently owned shops. As you walk in, a salesman will kindly offer you a seat and offer you a beverage: “Madam, cold drink, coffee, chai?” Next, he will ask what you would like to see and then carefully pull out his wares one by one to slowly charm you into opening your wallet. The secret is to keep a poker face and say you don’t see anything you like. This will likely prompt the revealing of the good stuff and the salesman might even puff up a little with a bit of pride. If you find something you like, don’t be shy to bargain a bit and ask for a discount because, hey, you’re a special guest of the shop!
Splurge a Little
No trip is complete without a luxurious splurge, especially in India. In recent years, many interesting higher-end boutiques have launched that offer the very best in Indian craftsmanship paired with a high sense of design.
Good Earth is a beautiful shop that’s like your favorite design and lifestyle blog come to life and burst into vivid color. This is the place if you’re looking for design details and goods that have the power to elevate even the most mundane space. Good Earth has locations in several cities, and in Mumbai they even have cafes serving sumptuous treats and local Indian wines.
Fab India, which was founded by an American in the 1960s, is another great shop that offers beautiful home goods, apparel, and even a selection of organic Indian teas and spices. The founder’s son is at the helm now and the company is committed to working with and empowering traditional artisans engaged in small enterprises. Locations abound all over India, but the best and biggest stores are in large metro cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.
Anokhi is another one of my favorite shops that specializes in beautifully designed clothing, bedding, and linens that are crafted using their signature block print fabrics. They even have a museum in Jaipur dedicated to showcasing the rich textile heritage of Rajasthan.
Also not to be missed are local, seasonal melas, or fairs, that pop up in cities everywhere. At a mela in Jaipur, I met vendors selling elaborate beaded necklaces and elegant pottery from Mizoram in Northeastern India and weavers from Southern India selling exquisite, finely woven silk saris and stoles. So, even if you aren’t able to visit every part of India, you’ll definitely be able to sample a taste of the best it has to offer.
Good luck with finding your perfect treasure — and you might want to consider bringing an extra bag. It’s very likely that you’ll discover more than just one! Happy travels!
Photo credits: author, Ninad Chaudhari, Jorge Royan, author, Suryanarayan Ganesh, Lokantha, Jorge Royan, and Ekabhishek.