Shopping in India: Paradise or Trap?

India has always had the reputation of being a wonderland for shopping. The craftsmanship was always legendary. Early travelers from Europe and China such as Marco Polo, Fa-Hien and Hiun-Tsang have given us awe-inspiring stories of the times. Fa-Hien was a Buddhist monk, one of the first and perhaps one of the earliest Chinese travelers

to India. It is reported in his memoirs that in those days no one traveled for fun, like we do today. Most of the travel carried on in those times was for trade and commerce.  Fa-Hien himself, would have hitch-hiked with merchant caravans in order to get from one place to another.

Equisitely-designed Gold Jewelry

Marco Polo’s fantastic accounts of his travels from Asia to Beijing along the great Silk Road that took him through parts of India, speak of the wondrous sights he witnessed enroute. So, we see that India’s skilled artisans had already carved a well-deserved image for themselves in the trading world of ancient times.

Today, when you see gorgeous fabrics woven from silks and brocades, it’s easy to imagine that such beauty and perfection comes from generations of artistry being perfected across centuries in time. Around the time when Turkish and Persian carpets were creating history with the likes of Marco Polo and his contemporaries, richly woven silk and woolen carpets from Kashmir, in incredibly intricate designs and motifs were already competing for world recognition of India’s rich heritage and cultural traditions.

India seems not to have lost any of its magic and charm, even today. The traditional handicrafts and wares displayed in the bustling markets of cities like Agra and Jaipur and the capital: New Delhi, will take one’s breath away. There are special centers in Delhi like the ‘Dilli Haat’ that are devoted to getting the Indian artist and his wares up front and personal, directly in touch with the actual buyer. This usually turns out a win-win situation for the buyer, who gets a good deal and the artisan, who gets a fair price. However, since infra-structure is limited, not every gifted artisan from the distant corners of the country gets the chance to display his wares here.

The Tree of Life in Silk

There are also the more modern, professionally-managed retail outlets that source some rare gems of artistry and craftsmanship from some of the remotest corners of India. Usually, these are already well-established outlets that have been in the business for more than a few generations. Hence, the relationship between the seller and the artisan is likely to have been cemented over a couple of generations already. It is usually a sacred relationship that has helped keep alive precious artistic expertise that has been handed down in families for generations.

In the face of rapidly expanding commercialization and an increasing demand for standardization through automation, some of these old, traditional crafts are losing out to machine-made wares that are available at a fraction of the cost. The quality and the finish though, may not be as beautiful and memorable as those that are lovingly fashioned by hand.

In some places such as Varanasi, once a thriving center for the production of exquisite, handmade silk fabrics, craftsmen who once exulted in their age-old expertise and finesse are now having to work as laborers and boatmen on the mighty Ganges, just to make ends meet.

Do not let this dismal scenario take away any of the sheen and excitement from an exciting holiday in India, though. Efforts are being made on a wider social scale in India to keep alive as many of the traditional crafts, as possible. While, at the same time, efforts are also underway to rehabilitate those with livelihoods at stake, into other occupations and preserve their dignity and that of their families.

It is also important for you to know that while you may wish to buy local hand-crafted wares when on holiday in India, that you need not allow yourself to be pushed into buying sub-standard or outrageously priced articles of poor quality from street vendors or outlets of dubious intent. Usually, if you are being given the hard-sell to patronize a particular shop or outlet – either by your friendly cab-driver, your exceptionally knowledgeable guide or a friendly, helpful passerby or even the nice, respectful, mild-mannered young guy
from your travel agency – you may be sure that the interested person or the organization he represents is most likely being given a commission or referral fee for getting you there.

Sadly, this is the ugly under-belly of tourism that you may come face-to-face with, not only in India but in many other glamorous and glitzy tourist destinations around the world. It could involve individuals or even entire organizations.

But all is not lost! You can still have the best holiday in the world and even enjoy the best shopping experience every time, if you would ensure to follow one simple rule: do not allow anyone to coerce you, cajole you or even make you feel sorry for saying “No” when you feel it is the right thing to do.

Tapestry

And if you do decide to give in to your shopping desires, by all means, do so! You might be pleasantly surprised by some of the happiness you experience in the process. You may even pick up a gem of an item that would make you happy for years to come.

Watch out though, for bargains and the urge to bargain. These are usually good for the ‘other party’ and rarely for you.

It always makes good sense to do your shopping at an establishment of repute. It should be clearly and properly licensed by the local authorities. It should have iron-clad client-protection policies and guarantees in place that fully respect your rights as the consumer and your right to the best quality.

For the rest, I can only say: “Have a lovely holiday and go home with golden memories that will always light up your days with happiness.”

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