Traveling Through Two Worlds in India
The author joins a clothing designer who meets her fabric makers in rural India
By Stacy Cunningham
“India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time.’ -Indian photographer Raghu Rai
It has been my good fortune to be able to travel with Eco-designer Laura Siegel for the past two seasons while she develops her new collections. With her youthful backpacking style and nomadic inspiration Laura Siegel creates a sustainable lifestyle collection every season steeped in preserving Indian craft.
Traveling in India is like const antly stepping back and forth in time, take a step back, then forward, as we journey through the country.
Munnar is a sleepy town in southern India’s backwaters, in the state of Kerala. Designer Laura works with Aranya Naturals to create her wealth of naturally dyed textiles. All fabrics are hand dyed by ‘differently-abled’ (Indian version of handicapped) men and women that are taught the traditional craft of dying techniques.
Where to stay: While in Munnar my favorite place to stay is at JJ Cottage. The owner, JJ, and his family give a warm comfortable feel to your stay even when you are far from home. For a splurge stay on the top floor front room with a beautiful view of the Munnar tea hills and jungle- you might even spot one of the town’s elephants!
Enjoy seeing coffee, cardamom and lemon greased growing wild and the possibility of sighting the Asian elephant. After a long hike reward yourself with dinner at Rapsey’s in Munnar’s town centre. Their biryani is delicious!
Stop in at the Tea Museum to learn about the history of tea in Munnar and see a full mock-factory of how tea is processed from leaf to powder.
Next take an auto rickshaw to Aranya Naturals. Pop in the gift shop to stock up on locally made craft items from saris to paper and jam. While you’re there stop by the bakery for a treat. (Hikers note: stock up on the ‘health cookies’ for packing along.)
Next Stop Bhuj
Next stop in the whirlwind Laura Siegel India tour is Bhuj in the Kutch region known for craft; it’s in the dry state of Gujarat.
How to get there: Travel is most scenic by train from Ahmedabad. If you’re traveling with a friend the overnight bus with sleeper cabins is an authentic experience and cheaper.
Many hours were spent in their lobby using their internet to communicate with the rest of the world and I recommend spending a little time there just to enjoy the sounds of the Dr. Seuss-sounding horns that pass on the busy road nearby.What to do: A short drive outside of town visit the Kutchries, enjoy the drive as your driver swerves around whole families on motorbikes and auto-rickshaws narrowly missing the giant colorfully painted truck heading straight at you.
Meet the Doctor of craft at the Kutchries, if Dr. Ismael is in he will insist on having tea with you. Ogle at the beautiful array of silk saris and scarves lying on the fields for drying, dying and de-gumming (part of the block printing process). This family has been making block printed fabrics for centuries. Ask for a tour and see the family’s centuries old wooden blocks strewn about the yard and piled neatly in boxes in the printing room.
Buy: If you don’t make it to the Kutchries visit Qasab’s shop right in town. Find crafts created locally which sustain families, just like the block printers, in the area and their heritage. Visit the antique textile dealer market for some truly beautiful and unique finds.
Buy Silver? Not Gold?
Buy silver! While the rest of India is obsessed with gold the tribes of this region favor silver. Bhuj is one of the cheapest in the world to purchase silver and most of it is of beautiful handcrafted quality ranging from small tiny diamond rings for about to $12 to the most extravagant dowry jewelry you can imagine.
After developing textiles in Bhuj and Munnar next stop with Laura was to New Delhi to piece it all together for her collection.
What to Buy: Make your way over to the rowdy and bustling Parhagunj. It is a backpacker area full of hostels and shop stalls aplenty. Bargain, bargain, bargain! If you don’t hear the price you want and can’t waste any more breath on negotiating leave. You will see the item in another shop undoubtedly. Get your hands traditionally henna-ed here. If you’re brave let the henna artist have free range to create a design of their choice!
Stacey Cunningham grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and currently residing in New York City. Between cuddles with her chiahweenie pup, Chai, she works full time as a fashion stylist for editorial and advertising photography.
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