With world currencies constantly in flux as of late, there is still an incredible opportunity to purchase souvenirs and beautiful goods from the Indian Continent. The exchange rate for most travelers from Canada, the Americas and Europe is very favorable especially if you look at local markets instead of big flagship businesses. Rupees go a long way to purchase goods that you can cherish for years, or enjoy more immediately like so much smoke being blown from a pooja fire. You will also go home with the unique style and flavor of a country that imbibes color and craftsmanship like some of us drink coffee, and displays it in the hari-kari way of the open market, trinket stall or table display outside a temple or other tourists destinations.
When I was visiting India, I purchased beautiful jewelry, saris, books, music, bed linens, soaps, herbs, henna, and essential oils, along with statuettes and hand-made stationary. I spent very little money considering how much I purchased for myself, friends, and family and every item made me smile months after I had returned home. Here are twelve must-have items you should consider purchasing on your next trip:
1. Jewelry. Women wear jewelry in India like no other place, from multiple arm bangles, to nose rings, ankle bracelets, earrings, even belly chains, and jeweled bindus. They are unabashedly creative when it comes to dawning their bling, and they don’t need a special occasion to do it. I found silver toe rings and ankle bracelets for far cheaper prices than I would have found in my home country and they were crafted with a style I would have a hard time finding had I looked high and low in jewelry stores elsewhere. The shop keepers I talked with were kind, if not a little assertive, but always offered me great deals and spent endless hours showing me different items, from a jeweled hair piece that made me look like a Mughal princess to earrings that I could wear any day of the week upon returning to my daily grind.
I also found ridiculously inexpensive mala beads (108-count beads used for mantra repetition and meditation) outside several different temples that I wear to remind me of the inviolability of my trip. I purchased a few extra to give to friends who practice yoga, and they were overwhelmed with gratitude for their spiritual significance, not their high monetary value.
If you want to feel like a queen for a day, go jewelry shopping in India. You can find costume jewelry as well as semi-precious and precious stones and metals.
2. Henna – no trip to India is complete without being adorned in henna. This ancient herbal body paint has healing properties and can last up to two weeks, if it is properly cared for once it is applied at an Indian salon. I happened to visit India during monsoon season, and after spending two hours being hennaed on my arms, hands, feet and ankles, I stepped out into torrential rain. Even still, (you aren’t supposed to get your henna tattoo wet for several hours after its completion) my beautiful floral designs, painted with an expert and fast moving hand, stayed dark brown for almost a week after my henna was applied.
Indian women often have henna done just prior to their wedding days, but also for other important occasions. You can have henna done for any reason at all, though, and why not as a celebration for being in India!?
Just make sure that your henna is true henna, and not black henna, which is used as a cheap substitute and can be very toxic. Most real spas in India wouldn’t think of using anything but real henna, as it has been used for centuries as an Ayurvedic tonic for everything from skin problems to attaining higher sates of spiritual awareness. Just ask to see a sample first and you should be just fine.
3. Textiles. While you can find everything from cotton to silk, wall hangings, duvet covers, silk pajamas and embroidered table linens, I fell in love with a tailor who made custom sari dresses for me and my friends. We purchased the material, chose a pattern, had our measurements taken, and told the tailor of any special considerations. One friend was expecting so she asked for a little extra room in the belly, and another friend was planning on losing weight while attending a yoga intensive, so she requested that a few inches be trimmed off her final measurements.
We got to run our fingers over countless, beautifully embroidered, beaded, or patterned fabrics in some of the most luscious tones on the planet, and choose which one would become our sari. You would think this would cost more than purchasing a designer dress, but the final product was exactly tailored to our measurements and cost less than I paid for a half decent pair of jeans while at home.
At another vendor I found offered beautifully hand-batiked bed linens and yet another, a cognac colored leather handbag that was shockingly cheap compared to the designer bags that sell in London or New York. I couldn’t refuse. I had to have one of each.
4. Pashmina. Pashmina shawls have become the rage all over the world due to their luxurious softness and warmth. They are made from a very special wool from pashmina goats that graze in the Himalayan mountains. This is part of the reason why the wool is more costly than other types, but you can still find great deals on pashmina shawls and sweaters, and for both men and women while in India. If you are offered a pashmina shawl for less than $15, realize that it is probably a blend of different wools, if it is pashmina at all. The real deal feels very soft like cashmere, and is similar in price.
5. Tea. I am not just a tea lover, I am a tea aficionado. I love all the different blends that are available, from super-fruit teas that have acai and goji berries to a rich earl grey with the smell of bergamot, but nothing compares to loose leaf Darjeeling from the hills of North-east India, chai made at a street stall on a propane oven, with goats wandering around and served with a smile in a make-shift tavern, fire blazing while Tamil and Hindi men chatter away about their children, and work, and Assam and Nilgiri teas to quench your thirst and intoxicate you with their aromas.
I didn’t even like chai before having it in India. The over-sweet, commercialized nonsense they sell you at Starbucks doesn’t even come close to the authentic chai teas of India. Darjeeling – ah, my sweet darling. How can I count the ways you are wonderful? Just the aroma of a good tea from this area of India helps you to understand why Darjeeling is to tea what Champagne, France is to bubbly. Heaven in a cup – that is the only way to describe it.
You can find lose teas that were meant to be brewed with a diffuser, or pre-boxed teas in sachets. This is a gift I am always happy to give and receive, and when traveling to India, I stock up.
6. Incense and Perfume. While we are the subject of heady aromas, the smell of Nag Champa incense still makes me buzz, or of sandalwood, or lavender. With the near encyclopedic knowledge that many people have of Ayurveda in India, and the very special ways in which oils and perfumes, bath salts and soaps are created, you could spend an entire dowry or trust fund on incense, perfume and other lovely novelties for your boudoir and bath.
Attar, (also known as ittar) a type of perfume made from the entire spoils of collected herbs and flowers, including the petals, barks, seeds, leaves and stems, has been in use for centuries. They are distilled naturally through a process of steam or utilizing a form of water distillation. They are then aged like a fine wine –between a few months or an entire decade. And unlike more commercialized scents and perfumes elsewhere in the world, that are full of toxic chemicals, Indian scents are based on the ancient science of healing the body and mind, so they are full of botanical properties, which soothe the body and warm the heart. Like an aphrodisiac to the soul, you can pick up Himalaya and Shanaz Herbal products, but also seek out local vendors of less repute who make the most enticing perfumes and soaps that are all natural and don’t have a stitch of anything you couldn’t pronounce or even ingest.
And incense! Also known in Hindi as agarbhatti, This is the land of the temple, and the there is no temple without incense. Thought to be an offering to the Gods, and developed during the same time as Ayurvedic medicine by priests, incense comes in cones, on sticks, and rods.
The Indian style of hand rolling mattipal or halmaddi, two rare ingredients that allow for this ancient practice, is drawn from a tradition of using the liquid resin made from the Ailanthus Triphysa tree, to then impregnate with Ayurvedic oils comes form the time of the Vedas. In this time, it was used not just for a pleasing olfactory experience, but for the medicinal qualities which were gleaned from inhaling these heavenly aromas.
Incense was later introduced to China by a wandering Buddhist pilgrim.
You can burn incense to create a sense of ceremony when you return home, or just to refresh the energetic pattern of your space. There are so many scents to choose from, you’ll get dizzy trying to pick just one. Chosen to balance the doshas, there are scents of ginger, valerian root, cedarwood, cassia, clove, star anise, patchouli, myrrh, frankincense, and even tumneric, plus a thousand and one others, including amazing blends that make for a truly phenomenal scent.
7. Arts and Crafts. There are so many talented artisans in India, it can make your head spin. From hand-crafted teak wood, to antique temple carvings, pottery, rugs, and stationary, you can find the ornate style of the Mughals, financed by the King, Akbar, the same man who built an entire, ornate castle as a means to honor his wife who passed in childbirth – the Taj Mahal, to Hindu Wedding Invitations made on fine silk papers, to hand carved and painted miniature carvings of Ganesha, the Elephant God to Shiva, the divine cow or beautifully detailed peacocks, to woven carpets and rugs which started as a craft as early as 500 BC, and was influenced by Persian designs with rich hues from pink to green, deep red to violet blue, there is beauty everywhere.
If you want real art – not mass-produced, soulless nonsense to hand on your walls, decorate your floors or make your home or office more aesthetically pleasing, you can’t go wrong here.
8. Books. If you are looking for books in English, there are many, and some of the classics come cheaply, but with some, shall we say, interesting translations. They are quite humorous though and add a quality of whimsy to your take away trinkets and souvenirs. There are also beautifully calligraphied Sanskrit texts, or popular knock offs of books like Mark Twain. My favorite find was a book on yoga for two rupees.
There are small bookshops you can wander into, and street vendors selling random paperbacks. If you want museum quality, collectible books, you can find those too. Books are cheap and fun, or ancient and priceless. Take your pick.
9. Music and DVDs. I was introduced to so much beautiful music in India, I couldn’t keep up with it all – and I had to take some back with me to capture the flavor of this amazing land. From classical Indian music to tabla, chants and even Bollywood rants, there is something for everyone. I tend to like a little of everything, so I took a sampling home with me – and for about $5 US a CD, I found treasures I’m still listening to today. I also found a great Bollywood DVD of a movie I saw while I was there, replete with the great dance scenes, and some bonus footage that wasn’t played at the theater.
10. Chess Sets. The game was invented in India, based on a game called Chaturanga. It was played before the 6th century A.D. and later spread to nearby Persia, from there Muslims took it to Europe. While you can play on a computer screen now, it definitely takes away from the camaraderie and deep satisfaction that comes from playing someone face to face across a greatly designed board. I found wood carved sets, made of sandalwood, and soapstone. There are chess sets based on the royal Maharajas, and sets of ancient yogis. You can find very ornately boards meant to be used in parlors and quiet libraries, or more inexpensive sets meant to teach your children on.
11. Computer Software. India is the king of the stuff. It exports more than any other country. If you need a cheap version of any software program, from windows to an obsolete graphics program, you can find here, and cheap. Thank goodness for the engineers of India. Without them your little smart wouldn’t be so great, nor your video games, or your laptop. You may have to go to a larger ‘chain’ store to find software, but it also shows up in the open markets.