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With its burgeoning economy and rapidly swelling middle class, India is a country in the throws of swift modernization and newfound wealth. At top malls in Delhi and Mumbai, brands like Chanel and Ferragamo compete for the favor of both visitors and India’s new elite.
But most Americans traveling to India for the first time will instead be dazzled by shops and markets that sell a myriad of handcrafted pieces. Textiles and carpets, gems and silver, carvings in stone and wood, artwork and antiques — India’s abundance is staggering, and tour operators specializing in the destination incorporate almost-daily stops at markets and bazaars in their itineraries.
Risa Sekiguchi, product manager for India at Abercrombie & Kent, credits India’s heritage of the arts for the richness of the country’s wares.
“Most of the population is still rural, so handcraft arts are still very much alive and accessible. It’s hard to come home empty-handed,” said Sekiguchi.
Plus, the pricing is quite reasonable and bargaining is welcomed at most places.
Here are a few of India’s best cities for browsing.
DelhiIdeally, a dedicated shopper’s visit to India starts in the government-run Central Cottage Industries Emporium, adjacent to the Imperial Hotel. Crafts from all over the country can be found here, and the quality of wares is good.
“The other advantage here is that pricing is fixed,” said Pete Sohi, operations manager for SITA World Tours. “So if you start here, you’ll see quality to look for and avoid price gouging later.”
India’s capital is also home to Chandni Chowk, a calamitous collection of bazaars in the walled city of Old Delhi. Congested, noisy and fragrant with every imaginable scent, the shops sell clothing, shoes, leather goods, books and a variety of foods — window shopping is fine, but the best way to experience the area may be on the back of a rickshaw.
The refined side of India blossoms at Santushti Shopping Complex, a series of boutiques set amid quiet, landscaped gardens run by the Air Force Wives Association. Two dozen small stores sell clothing, batik prints, lush fabrics, cigars, pottery, leather accessories and more.
“It’s one of my favorite places,” said Nicole Beattie, India Special Interests Manager for Cox & Kings. “Santushti is all good quality merchandise, fair market value and there’s no bargaining — no one hustles you.”
JaipurThe hub for India’s jewelry trade, Jaipur brims with Rajasthani crafts and, increasingly, textiles. It is the home to Anokhi, an upmarket shop selling handsome block-print clothing and tablecloths.
But gemstones — both precious and semi-precious — and antique silver jewelry are the real stars in Jaipur, with dozens of stores concentrated in Pahar Ganj, a Muslim neighborhood. Some of the gem-studded silver is said to be spoils of the Maharajahs, but knockoffs and scams are pervasive. Most tour operators advise against buying jewelry or antiques here as an investment.
UdaipurLakeside Udaipur is a smaller, less frantic Raj town, and shopping here is mostly concentrated within the Old City’s walls — on narrow streets leading up a hill to the Tripolia Gate of the imposing City Palace. Textile shops sell a variety of fabrics in wool, cotton and silk, while vividly painted figures of Hindu gods carved from mango wood are also on offer.
Udaipur is the center of reproduced miniature paintings on bone, silk and paper. Although authentic Mughal originals are rare, reproductions can be purchased for $10 or $20. Quality varies considerably, but the best — sometimes painted on old parchment records — make for attractive gifts or mementos.
AgraThe city of the marble-shrouded Taj Mahal is where India’s stone inlay work (pietra dura) has grown into a cottage industry. Much of Agra’s stone inlay is handcrafted by families of artisans who have been doing the work for generations. The intricate designs are made of wafer-thin pieces of quartz, jasper, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones, inlaid into marble. Jewelry boxes, chess sets, table tops and more are sold throughout the city, though buyers should watch out for pieces that use soapstone instead of marble.
Also worth finding in Agra is the heavily encrusted embroidery known as zardozi, opulent tapestries and garments incorporating gold or silver thread and glittering stones.
• Almost all itineraries to India incorporate time for general shopping and markets, usually in the afternoon following sightseeing. But if a client has something more specific in mind, a private tour may be a better plan.
• “If you’re ever in doubt about the value of gems or other items you’re interested in, buy in the hotel shop,” says Beattie. “They’re more expensive, but nine times out of ten they’re checked more carefully than the little shops on the street.”
• Internal India flights have different baggage restrictions; heavier items may have to be shipped home. “Pack as lightly as possible,” says Sekiguchi. “And bring an extra bag.”
• If a tour ends in Delhi or Mumbai, visit the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, an easy way to stock up on gifts and souvenirs for home without lugging them around the country.
• Government emporiums also lessen the chance you might inadvertently purchase something produced by child labor. “The sad fact is that child labor does take place in India, and you can’t really tell looking at a finished product whether child labor was used,” says Sohi. “But in government emporiums you won’t find these kinds of goods.”
New and Noteworthy
Leela Palace Debuts in New DelhiThe Leela Palace New Delhi celebrated its grand opening in April. The Leela Palace claims to be the first Delhi hotel built from the ground up in 30 years and also the most expensive hotel ever built in India. The hotel boasts 11 stories, 260 rooms (some of which are the city’s largest guestrooms), Murano chandeliers, Turkish hand-woven carpets and a $5 million art collection. The Leela Palace also houses five restaurants, an impressive library and many types of meeting places for travelers of various pursuits. Rates currently begin at approximately $325 plus tax, per night, based on double occupancy.
New Safari With Wild Planet AdventuresWild Planet Adventures announces new wildlife tours for 2012 which promise clients up-close encounters with some of the world’s most extraordinary creatures. In India, travelers will embark on a 19-day India Ultimate Wildlife Safari, during which they will explore the Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. Here, clients can see India’s only apes as well as other unique primates. The tour is available from November to June, and rates average $400 per day.
Ten-Day Dreams of the TajPacific Delight Tours is offering a 10-day tour through India with travels through Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, spending two to three days in each place. The tour includes such conveniences as land transportation and transfers within India, seven breakfasts and dinners and seven nights in five-star hotels, plus professional English-speaking guides, comprehensive sightseeing and more. Land-only prices begin at $1,399. www.pacificdelighttours.com
Delhi to KathmanduIntrepid Travel is offering a 15-day small-group tour, with a maximum capacity of 12 people. The tour travels from Delhi to Kathmandu, through Agra, Orchha, Varanasi and Lumbini and includes such activities as a River Ganges boat trip and a visit to Chitwan National Park. Travelers are treated to sights such as the beautiful Taj Mahal and the Himalayas. The trip also includes three breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners. Land-only prices begin at approximately $1,440. www.intrepidtravel.com
A Portrait of IndiaFor both the remainder of 2011 and the New Year, Tauck Tours has two options for those who prefer an extended journey through India as well as those looking for a shorter trip. Tauck’s 18-day tour of India takes tourists through New and Old Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Kochi and Mumbai. The shorter option, Spotlight on India, includes the first 12 days of this tour. Guests will have the opportunity to cruise the Arabian Sea and see village life, historic and religious sites and more. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as hotel accommodations at some of the top-tier hotels in the country, are included. Land-only prices begin at $7,940. www.taucktours.com
9/11Navratri Festival — The Navaratri Festival celebrates the goddess Shakti in her various forms. The last day of the festival is marked by the performance of Kanya Puja during Mahanavami, in which nine young girls representing the nine forms of Durga are celebrated. (Sept. 28-Oct. 5)
10/11Marwar Festival — Commemorating heroes of the past, the Marwar Festival, held in Jodhpur, features music and dance of the Marwar region, as well as polo and horseback riding. Performances during the festival bring to life the legends and folklore of Rajasthan. (Oct. 10-11)
11/11Camel Fair in Pushkar — During the Camel Fair in Pushkar, as many as 50,000 camels are dressed up, shaved, raced and even entered into beauty contests. The fair is also celebrated with a large carnival featuring musicians, acrobats and more. (Nov. 2-10)
Dal Lake, KashmirNestled inside a ring of snow-capped mountains in the Himalayas and decorated with shoreline gardens and orchards on all sides, Dal Lake is Kashmir’s tourist icon. It uniquely combines an urban setting with many restaurants and hotels to choose from with extraordinary natural beauty. Houseboating on the lake is extremely popular, and its abundant fish population makes fishing the second-largest industry in the area.
The Golden Temple, AmritsarThe Golden Temple at Amritsar holds the unique position of being a famous religious monument, which is still in active practice. Although it is a sacred site, like all Sikh temples, the Golden Temple is open to visitors, although it is asked that they refrain from drinking alcohol, smoking or eating meat in the shrine. The most famous, sacred section of the temple is the Hari Mandir, the famed golden structure surrounded by water.
Spice Market in New DelhiStretching along Khari Baoli street, which runs from the Fatehpuri Mosque to the western edge of the Old City, Delhi’s wholesale spice market bustles along in much the same way that it has for centuries. It is well worth seeing, as much for the sights and smells of spices and produce as for the opportunity to experience such a long-standing tradition in Delhi’s history.
The Leela PalaceIn honor of its recent opening, The Leela Palace New Delhi is offering a special package through Sept. 30 for stays of two nights or more. Grand opening rates begin at $325 and include accommodations in a grand deluxe guestroom, roundtrip airport transfers by limousine, daily buffet breakfast, Internet access, butler service, a fresh fruit basket and daily mineral water with a newspaper. www.theleela.com
Park Hyatt GoaThe Tropical Escape package at the Park Hyatt Goa promises a luxurious retreat with modern amenities for the perfect indulgence. The package includes buffet breakfast, food and beverage credit of about $65 per night, a 20 percent discount for laundry and spa prices, roundtrip airport transfers in an air-conditioned shuttle, daily yoga classes and a complimentary half-day at Camp Hyatt facilities. www.hyatt.com
Four SeasonsThe Four Seasons Resort at Mumbai is offering a practical and convenient business package that promises ease and efficiency. Clients arrive in Mumbai with the details of their stay already arranged by the Four Seasons. The package includes breakfast for up to two adults at Cafe Prato & Bar, roundtrip airport transfers via a 7 series BMW, unlimited Internet access and luxurious accommodations. www.fourseasons.com
Oberoi HotelsOberoi Hotels’ special package for October 2011 through March 2012 offers clients the ability to craft a tour itinerary staying at participating Oberoi hotels throughout India. Travelers can select from Oberoi’s suggested itineraries or craft an itinerary of their own for a minimum of six nights. The Oberoi travel management team is available to help agents and guests plan domestic air and road travel. www.oberoihotels.com
India Ministry of Tourismwww.incredibleindia.org