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Shopping in India

There is an astonishing variety of dazzling souvenirs from India: handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, furnishings, art, spices and much more on display in winding bazaars, busy markets, state emporiums and street stalls; at ancient historical sites and shining new malls. The country produces both traditional and modern goods, and sometimes a compelling mix of both — such as designer fashions inspired by traditional costumes. The entire country is an Indian shop!

India is an Indian shop
The first time I went to India, I went a bit shopping crazy and bought a lot of souvenirs from India. It was like I had just been given the keys to the castle, and in a way, I had. I had saved for a year to go on my “trip of a lifetime” to India, and was recovering from the grief of losing both my parents, just a few years apart. Seeing all those shiny, hand-beaded, affordable niceties opened the floodgates of desire to live my dreams — which included dressing like a modern day Oriental princess, apparently.

Six years and five trips to India later, I’ve learned that shopping in India is like running for a subway train: it’s a waste of energy to run, there is no hurry, another will be along in a minute. I also learned that buying in haste does indeed make waste. Shoes that enticed me with fantasy were horribly uncomfortable to wear and many of the shawls I bought resembled each other to the point of redundancy. I ended up giving away a lot of things, or bringing them home and selling them in my annual India-themed yard sale.

Souvenirs from India, Indian shop
Mariellen shopping at Karol Bagh Market, Delhi, India

Part 1: Top 5 tips on how buy souvenirs in India
Anyone who has visited India will know that bazaars, markets, emporiums, street stalls, tourist attractions and malls, from one end of the subcontinent to the other, overflow with a dazzling array of handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, furnishings, art, spices and much more.

But the splendour of the merchandise is equaled and often surpassed by the chaos of the market place. Prices and quality vary wildly; touts are persistent to the point of obnoxious; it’s impossible to keep track of regional specialties and where the best places to buy specific things are; and haggling with wily shopkeepers is unsettling, if you’re not used to it.

On my first trip, I went a bit crazy shopping in and learning about what to buy in India. I was staying with friends, an Indian family in south Delhi, and I would come home at the end of almost every day clutching bags and bags of clothing, housewares, jewelry and more. They watched in wonder as the pile of goods grew and grew in the bedroom I was sharing with a family member. I ended up giving away a lot of the stuff I bought – and learned these lessons the hard way.

1. Take it easy and don’t buy on impulse. You already hate me. How can you possibly resist the shops and tables heaped with glittering, exotic and affordable goods? Trust me, as you travel in India you begin to see the same things over and over again, and gain a better sense of quality and how much things should cost. I wasted a lot of money by buying things the first time I saw them – like a peacock feather fan, fabulous-looking but horribly uncomfortable shoes and a lot of jewelry that broke on the second wearing. If I had to do it all over again, I would buy fewer things, and spend more time and money ensuring I was buying good quality.

2. Haggling is a blood sport, enjoy it. Do you remember the first time you sang karaoke? How you just had to let your inhibitions go and jump in, feet first? It’s like that. Don’t worry that you’re hurting the shopkeeper’s feelings. This is business. Take it slow, enjoy it, have a cup of tea and stay cool. Decide ahead of time on how much you want to spend — a good rule of thumb is to offer half and pay up to two-thirds. Be prepared to walk away. Whatever it is, chances are you will see its like again.

3. Know when to haggle and when to pay full price. Having said that, there are lots of fixed price stores in India that do not use the barter system; bartering is primarily done in street markets. But sometimes, in smaller stores where the merchandise is locally made, you can bargain — offering, for example, to buy more pieces if they are willing to bring the price per unit down. And sometimes, when you fall in love with something, price doesn’t matter.

4. Do your homework. Everything in India is regional, from cuisine to language to clothing styles, and dramatically changes from state to state. As you travel, find out what the regional specialties are. Some things are obvious, like buying tea in Darjeeling. It’s worthwhile and also interesting to seek out local craftsmen. I once spent an afternoon sitting on the floor of a gem dealer’s shop in Jaipur – the gemstone capital of India – helping to design a gorgeous beaded necklace and pendant, with semi-precious stones the colours of a morning sunrise over a misty sea. That set still has a lot of meaning for me, years later. (More on this topic in the next part.)

5. All roads lead to Delhi. Many international flights arrive and leave from the capital of India, Delhi, and likely yours will too. You can buy almost everything there that you saw as you traveled – saving you the hassle of lugging your souvenirs all over the country. In fact, near Connaught Place, the commercial centre of the city, there’s a row of state emporiums that sell many of the handicrafts of those regions. Having said that, though, shopper beware: I bitterly regret not buying sandalwood oil in Mysore. I have never seen it for sale in Delhi.

What to buy in India

1. Textiles. India is famous for cotton and silk clothing, bed covers, table cloths and wall hangings. Many of these come adorned with hand beading and/or hand embroidery and will make you feel like a princess. And you can buy a lot of great Indian clothes online too.

2. Shoes. From inexpensive leather juttis (traditional embroidered slippers) to crystal-beaded, high-heeled evening sandals, shoes in India are fun and frivolous … and very tempting.

3. Jewelry. Indian women love jewelry, and the bigger and more ornate the better. There is an astounding variety of real and costume jewelry — to go with your princess look.

4. Tea. The champagne of tea, Darjeeling, comes from the hills of North-east India; and Assam and Nilgiri teas are excellent too.

5. Pashmina and other shawls. Real pashmina is a type of cashmere wool that comes from pashmina goats in the Himalayas. It is very costly. So, if someone offers you a pashmina for a small sum, such as $10, it’s probably a blend (at best). However, there are many beautiful shawls made in India from wool, silk, cotton and blends of these materials. 

6. Scented products. India is, of course, the land of incense. And attar, a type of natural perfume extracted from flowers, herbs, spices, or barks, has been in use in India since ancient times.

7. Arts and crafts. Throughout India, traditional artisans make lovely rugs, furniture, pottery, clothing, textiles, boxes, home decor items — usually with unique regional variations which you will discover as you travel around the country.

8. Ayurvedic products, such as skin care and herbal remedies. Several commercial brands, such as Biotique, Himalaya and Shahnaz Herbal, are readily available.

9. Books. India publishes a LOT of books in English, at very affordable prices, and browsing the classic bookshops of Connaught Place in Delhi, or the bookstalls of Mumbai and Kolkata, is a favourite “time pass.” But if you can’t get to India, and want to read about India, check out my list of 10 books about India that are better than Shantaram for recommendations and links to Amazon if you want to buy any of them. The book you should start with is the classic Freedom at Midnight, all about the struggle for independence, Gandhi, partition and the birth of a nation.

10. Music and movies. Classical Indian and devotional music CDs, and Bollywood DVDs, are a great buy and make for a long-lasting souvenir. Bollywood is of course the world’s biggest movie-maker and many of the films they make in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are of top-notch quality and appealing to viewers around the globe. I highly recommend the mega-hit Jodhaa Akbar, for example (below, which you can buy on Amazon). For more info, read Bollywood Primer: Top 4 things you need to know.

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