India’s behind-the-scenes shopping experiences most visitors have no idea exist
India’s behind-the-scenes shopping experiences most visitors have no idea exist
// August 19, 2019
Read the Forbes interview with Meghan Black here. Ditch the guidebook and forget generic—we’re reveling in palace takeovers and secret pashmina haunts! From Jaipur to Cochin, Meghan Black shares the “for-keeps” memories, experiences, and must-have treasures from her fourth trip to India.
Patiently waiting for the perfect souvenir to find me, and then ruminating over the memory of discovering it brings me a rush of travel joy. The best ones are always the most unexpected or hard-sought. Below I’ve highlighted the shopping stops that double as bespoke experiences. Try skipping conventional stores altogether and be rewarded with precious discoveries in the narrow back lanes and off-the-beaten path boutiques—a behind-the-scenes shopping experience most visitors have no idea exists.
Back-lane treasures Delhi
Touchdown in Delhi and circumvent the same-old at Khan Market and Janpath. Instead, beeline for the obscure haunts cosmopolitan Delhites and international connoisseurs frequent. Visit Cottons & Satins to choose rolls of fanciful wallpapers, saturated textiles, and one-of-a-kind upholstered pieces; Moon River for porcelain dishes, highball glasses, fabric bound books and vintage prints; then Mishcat Co. to pick up a color-rich silk oriental carpet handwoven from repurposed vintage saris. What’s more, these boutiques’ stocks are exclusive, so you’ll be going home with something truly different.
Old Delhi’s market is a world unto itself. Sprawling around the Jama Masjid, the best (and most fun) way to navigate the chaotic alleys is by rickshaw. Go with a local expert who will show you the silver and spice wallahs they’ve been visiting since childhood. Score pure silver stacking rings and delicate anklets to wear peeking out from under your jeans in the fall and with those jodhpurs you’ll definitely buy in Rajasthan during the summer. Pick up little brass boxes set with mother of pearl to pack with saffron or sindor (the red powder worn by married Hindu women) for gifts.
In Jaipur, sneak around the Hawa Mahal and get lost in the tangle of narrow streets. Doorways double as workshops. You’ll see bangle makers stretching bracelets and setting them with rhinestones, marble statues being filed into shape, gold droplets being weighed and forged into beads, and essential oils being poured and sorted. Select single glass bangles (a single bangle feels more luxe than an armful and translate better back at home) to be gifted to friends in block-printed pouches from iconic Anokhi, Rasa, Kilol, or Bridgette Singh (a private viewing of her blossom-scattered haveli workshop and showroom is a treat—the gates are locked so you’ll need an in, we have one).
Or select essential oils like lotus flower and rose, then decant them into rose-tinted crystal ambrosia bottles from Aaska (Aaska also stocks the best dohars, Rajasthani summer quilts, out there. Trust me, I saw them all). Display them by the bath at home and use them to scent your bathwater.
Surface in the flower lane and get draped in jasmine garlands before selecting a pair of leather slippers embroidered in silk thread and stretched to fit your foot just so.
In Jodhpur, wander the blue-washed streets, dodging rickshaws and cows and stopping to see locals jump into the swimming ghats, to find brass tiffins (the original lunchbox). Do as the locals do and have the shopkeeper etch your initials onto your tiffin.
Then duck through an unsuspecting door that opens into a rambling, multi-story fabric castle. Beware of mountains of pure silk and finely embroidered cottons tumbling down. Ever wonder where Anthropologie’s globally-inspired bed throws come from? This place. But the real treasures are the stacks of natural, undyed cashmere scarves. You’ll have to ask to see them. There are snowy whites, herringbone grey, and every shade of classic camel. Have your selections hand embroidered with the date of your trip or your initials for just a few rupees on your way through Delhi or Mumbai.
Finally, have your very own pair of jodhpurs tailored (remember, the ones you are going to wear with your anklets come summer?). Jodhpurs are the world’s last garment that cannot be ready made. As Jodhpur residents see it: if they’re pre-stocked, then they’re not real jodhpurs. Your tailor will measure your foot, ankle, knee, hip, and calf to ensure that your pair slips on easily, has just the right amount of billow at the thighs, but fits snuggly at the hip and from the knee down. Choose from an array of stiff crisp cottons, or bring your own yardage. If you want to go all out, consider a gauzy block-printed cotton from Jaipur or a weighty ikat silk from Orissa.
Jodhpur is also famous for tribal silver and palace antiques. If you have a day (or a week) to browse the many antique shops that line the main road, you may well score an authentic find like hollow dowry bangles thick enough to stash gold and silver coins.
Skip from the desert to the lush south. On your way to a houseboat adventure on Kerala’s famous backwaters, spend a day in the sleepy city of Cochin. Jew Town is chockablock with antique shops, but the best take-homes are pouches of potent black pepper—Kerala is famous for producing some of the world’s finest pepper.
Then drop into Malabar House to buy one of their signature pillows. Hand painted with blue two-dimensional Sufis twisted into yoga poses atop tigers, these are fun and chic and you won’t see anything like them elsewhere. Guaranteed.
Make Mumbai your port of departure, and stuff that extra suitcase you brought to the brim. By now everyone is familiar with Mumbai’s big players: Good Earth, Bungalow Eight, Forest Essentials, and Bombay Electric. But nesting amongst these magnets, are under-the-radar spots not to be overlooked. My favorites: wedged between Good Earth and Bombay Electric in Colaba, up a little stairwell, is a lampshade shop selling poppy-red silk palace shades and cut-glass hanging bulbs. Get one to drape in your foyer. Then head to WomenWeave—a trust and shop that supports women in handloom weaving—for stunning, understated handwoven yardage, scarves, and sarees Mumbai’s international fashion crowd is embracing.
Delivery to your suite
If you’re craving something only available in India, but not even in stores, then select an item from Bobo Calcuttawala’s line of hip silhouettes made from colorful, limited edition prints on silk and muslin. You’ll have to plan ahead though; selections are made to order and can be sent to your hotel room, anywhere in India, one week from when you place your order.
Where to Stay
India has a crop of inspiring new, design-driven properties that will fuel your hunt for artisan keepsakes. The most spectacular of the bunch is Jaipur’s Sujan Rajmahal Palace. Part Rajput fanfare, part Wes Anderson fantasy, Rajmahal Palace is nothing short of dreamy. Go in the off-season and have the grounds to yourself: June temperatures in Jaipur may be sauna-like, but having the run of this darling is one huge reason to brave the heat.
We pulled-up the pink granite drive—fitting for the pink city—to be greeted by an army of perfectly turned-out butlers with gleaming smiles and a pristine thunderbird sporting the license plate “Jaipur 1.” It only got better from there. As the sole resident guests (thank you heat wave!) we were swept through room after fanciful room by Sujan’s Vice President—an extremely well-heeled gentleman with the most amazing Indo-British accent.
This is the kind of property so thoughtfully designed even the air conditioners match the color scheme of each room. The entire place has been impeccably restored and decked out floor to ceiling in 42 custom Mughal-inspired wallpapers. There are charming umbrellas that dance around the porticos, polo princes in the teal breakfast room, fuchsia lotus flowers in the Maharani suite, and of course Rani stripes in the Maharaja apartment’s foyer. You will be transported by each and every corridor, powder room, and even the lime soda welcome drink served with a sprig of fresh mint in hefty cut-crystal tumblers.
The custom designs are singular to the property but follow my trail and you’ll snag a bit of the vibe for yourself.
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