geographic isolation of Himachal has allowed its people to
evolve their own unique tradition of handicrafts. The
mind-boggling range includes fine woodwork, traditional
leather embroidery, beautifully patterned carpets,
traditional woollen shawls and lots of other things.
over the state abound in pine and deodar, besides walnut,
horse chestnut and wild black mulberry. Wood has been used
to great effect in temples and lavishly built palaces. The
steep-roofed pine temples of northern HP often bear relief
figures carved on their outer walls. Intricately carved
seats, doors, windows and panels speak volumes of the
craftspersons’ skill. The Bhimakali Temple of Sarahan is a
perfect product of the kind.
is still a living tradition in HP. Pahari artisans use wood
to make intricate jalis, trelliswork or perforated reliefs
that filter light, transforming the interiors of a building
with the play of light and shade and balancing mass with
carpenters of both villages and towns make beautiful objects
of everyday use like vedis (low benches), bedlegs, cradles,
bedsteads, low settees, boxes, ladles, churners, rolling
pins, wooden utensils, charkhas (spinning wheels) and hukka
nari (the pipe and body of the smoking pipe). You might like
to take back something from their range of fruit bowls,
beermugs, wooden jewellery, decorative boxes and carved
images. Bamboo and willow bark is also stripped and
fashioned into sturdy trays and baskets.
To say that
HP has a rich tradition of painting would be an
understatement. While museums and art galleries preserve the
famous miniature paintings of the region, traditional ritual
paintings can be seen in most village houses, on the floors
and walls. Women draw magic diagrammatic designs called
yantras on the thresholds on ceremonial occasions.
paintings are white, done with rice paste, while wall
paintings are colourful. The colours are from what the women
use in their daily lives – red from kumkum (the liquid for
bindi, the dot between the brows), yellow from turmeric
powder, red ochre from golru (red clay), and so on.
places like Kangra, Mandi and Bilaspur, brilliant wall
paintings are done in the torana griha (honeymoon room),
where the newly married couple enjoy their first days of
togetherness. This painting is known as kauhara or kamdeo.
Temple walls, too, sometimes have bright motifs painted on
schools of miniature painting collectively called Pahari,
flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries in the
sub-Himalayan states. The hilly region, then divided into 22
princely states, was ruled by Rajput kings or chieftains who
were all great connoisseurs of art, with most of them
points of their lives were war, hunting, lineage, and the
zenana. Also partial to love themes, especially the legends
of Radha and Krishna, the Rajputs liked them depicted in
Paintings of Mid-17th Century
Pahari paintings of the mid-17th century were in the Basholi
style (dubbed so because of its association with the king of
These are extraordinarily
colourful and charged with vitality and emotion. Two
persistent strains can be observed – a fondness for the
portraits of the local rajas in plain white garments and for
the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
The paintings bear resemblance to Rajasthani and Malwa
paintings but this can be attributed to the fact that the
kings of the princely states in Himachal were Rajputs.
Some of the telling
characteristics are the use of extremely elegant
two-dimensional architectural settings topped by domes or
pavilions, bands of scrollwork pattern and the use of
elaborately figured rugs
There are many striking works
in this genre as the Basholi style, with its strong
indigenous Indian element, is well suited to the portrayal
of many-headed Shivas and many-armed Durgas (figures from
the vast stockpile of Indian mythology).
From The Mughal Court
The coming of painters from
the Mughal court in the second quarter of the 18th century
(due to the decline of the Mughal Empire) led to a complete
transformation of the existing Basholi style.
There was a wholesale ferrying
in of Mughal style and fashion, from dress to architecture
to the arts. The resultant was the Guler-Kangra style.
The style owes a great deal to later Mughal painting,
particularly in its receding planes, its fondness for
quasi-realistic landscape and its frequent enlargement of
the figures on the page.
This late Pahari style first appeared in Guler, and then in
Kangra. Raja Goverdhan Singh (1744-1773) of Guler gave
shelter to many artists
School of Paintings
Under the ambitious Sansar
Chand (1775-1823), the Kangra School flourished happily. It
is said that Sansar’s love for a gaddi (a tribe of
Chamba-Kangra region) maiden drove him to commission the
Kangra Fort, where he held
court for nearly 25 years, was once adorned with paintings
and attracted art lovers from far and wide.
Later he moved his capital to Nadaun and finally to Sujanpur
Tira. The temples and palaces at each of these places were
adorned with lovely miniatures. The 1905 earthquake damaged
many of these buildings but you can still see some of the
miniature wall paintings.
style of Paintings
The Kangra style is by far the
most poetic and lyrical of Indian styles, says art historian
J. C. Harle
His favourite subject here is
‘the idealization of woman, in flowing sari, head
half-covered with a shawl, demure but stately, passionate
and shy’. The more complex many-figured compositions –
usually larger and horizontal in format – tend to illustrate
events from the Krishna legend – the cowherd god putting out
a forest fire, subduing the serpent Kaliya, or stealing the
clothes of gopis (milkmaids of Braj) while they were bathing
in the river.
The ability to handle large
groups of figures and landscapes with towns or clusters of
houses in the distance is admirable. Apart from intricate
brushwork, Kangra miniatures are characterized by the
skillful use of brilliant mineral and vegetable extract
colours that possess an enamel-like lustre. But the
strangest thing about these hill paintings is that you’ll
never find snow-capped mountains in them!
Research shows that while the
Kangra style became well-entrenched in the Hills, many
offshoots emerged in regions like Kullu, Nurpur, Chamba and
Mandi. The Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba is best-known for
its exquisite collection of Pahari miniatures.
Places with a Tibetan
community often sell intricate and brightly coloured cloth
paintings called thangkas.
These are actually ritual paintings displayed during certain
Buddhist festivals, but they happen to be extremely popular
with foreign tourists (and cost the earth too!).
Thangkas are scroll paintings on canvas, edged with a border
of rich silk, usually depicting the Buddha and other deities
and the wheel of life. The painting follows complex dicta
like proportional grids for each diety and traditional
vegetable or mineral colours are used.
The Norbulingka Institute at
McLeodganj is the centre of learning this ancient art of
Carpets and blankets are
almost synonymous with Himachali furnishing. Their brilliant
colours and traditional motifs can make you forget your
Persian back home! You’ll be spellbound by their appearance
– Garudas (Vishnu’s mount, the eagle) perched on flowering
trees, dragons, swastikas (auspicious Hindu/Buddhist
emblem), flutes (symbolizing happiness) and lotus blooms
In the higher reaches of the
state, hillfolk rear sheep and goats and weave the wool and
hair into traditional blankets, rugs and namdas (heavy
rugs). Namdas are made with beaten wool. In fact men
spinning wool by hand as they watch their flocks is a common
sight in Himachal.
Fleecy soft blankets called
gudmas are also very popular. They are made from the wool of
the Giangi sheep. They come in natural wool colours and are
finished with a red or black edging. You’ll have a lot of
furnishings to choose from: thobis (floor coverings), karcha
(mattresses), which are made from goat hair, pattoo cloth
(like shawls), carpets and yarn made from soft wool. Back To
Himachalis simply love to
dress up. Their everyday wear is so colourful that you’d
think that they were dressed up for a festive occasion.
The Gujjars (a semi-nomadic tribe) wear kurtas (long shirts)
which are delicately embroidered with circular and linear
The people of Chamba are majorly fond of all sorts of
accessories, which include bright rumals (scarves) worn by
the women, bangles and rings made of horsehair and brightly
patterned grass shoes. Traditional Footwear
Lahaul has its own traditional
footwear. People wear the most interesting socks – we bet
you’ve never seen anything like them before.
These handknit woollen socks
are brilliantly patterned in bright and cheerful colours.
Luckily for the rest of the world, they are sold in
abundance in the bazaars of Himachal, along with gloves,
mufflers and caps. The typical Kullu topi (cap), in shades
of grey or brown and flat on the top, is rather striking
A band of colourful woven
fabric brightens the front and the topi looks rather neat
set at a rakish angle
Embroidery seems to be the
favourite pastime of pahari women, their nimble fingers busy
with needle and thread on lazy afternoons. Houses in HP are
replete with beautiful pieces like rumals (scarves),
coverlets, handfans, caps, cholis (bodices), gaumukhi
(prayer gloves) and such things.
The motifs are either from the traditional stock of
miniature painting, the landscape or are innovations of the
women themselves. This urge to create and live with
beautiful pieces is very much a part of pahari culture.
The red and orange richly
embroidered silk rumals (scarves) of Chamba are simply
beautiful. The women of Chamba have traditionally made them
for a 1000 years now. These rumals are actually small shawls
meant to be used as head coverings.
They often depict scenes from
the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Raas-lila of Radha and
Krishna. The embroidery is done in silk yarn on tussar cloth
or fine cotton. The stitches are so fine that there is no
evidence of knots or loose threads. As such both sides of
the rumal are alike.
The ground is usually white or cream, but the embroidery
threads (usually red and orange) are in striking contrast. A
finely embroidered rumal can take something like even a
month to complete.
Wool is an auspicious thing in
Himachal, and no ritual occasion goes without wearing
woollen clothes. A quaint ritual during weddings, for
instance, is to wrap the bride and groom in a woollen shawl
to protect them from evil eyes.
Extremely fine and valuable
shawls are a speciality of Himachal and Kashmir. They are
greatly sought after by tourists from all over the world.
In fact, shawl weaving is a major cottage industry in HP.
These shawls, both plain and patterned, are made from the
fine hair of pashmina goats. Pashm is the wool of a certain
Asian species of mountain goat, Capra hircus.
The fine fleece used to make
these shawls is that which grows beneath the rough outer
hair. Did you know that the finest hair comes from the
underbelly which is shed with the onset of summer?
The right mix of wool gives beautiful shades of grey, blue,
mustard and black. Shawls in Kullu are often woven from the
wool of angora rabbits. The borders of these plain-looking
shawls are decorated with dazzling geometric designs. Shawls
of Lahaul-Spiti, especially, are a riot of colours. (Also
Traditional Chamba chappals
(slippers), plain or embroidered, are exceptionally
comfortable to wear.
They are embroidered with multicoloured threads – red,
black, green, yellow and blue, and imitation zari (gold
thread). Tourists seem to love them and this inspires
craftspersons to experiment with patterns and designs.
Apart from chappals, you can
also pick from a range of shoes, sandals, socks and belts.
jewellery of the hill people is usually in great demand. As
with most tribal communities, the traditional attire
includes ornaments for almost all parts of the body. Markets
abound with stalls selling amulets, pendants, necklaces,
daggers and rings – you’ll probably want to take everything
Fine jewellery is crafted out
of silver and gold. The jewellers of the once-Rajput
kingdoms of Kangra, Chamba, Mandi and Kullu were famous for
their enamelling skills.
They mainly worked with silver
and were partial to deep blue and green enamelling. They
created exquisite pieces like elliptical anklets, solid
iron-headed bangles, hair ornaments, peepal-leaf-shaped
forehead ornaments, necklaces known as chandanhaars (a bunch
of long silver chains linked by engraved or enamelled silver
plaques) and pendants with motifs of the mother goddess.
An old Kangra pattern for
silver anklets is a series of birds, archaic in design,
connected by silver links. Unfortunately most of this is old
jewellery and is no longer made. You could check it out in
museums like the Kangra Art Museum in Dharamsala, the State
Museum in Shimla and the Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba
of the jewellery that’s made
now, coin necklaces are extremely popular with pahari women.
So much so that every pahari woman dreams of owning one.
Chokers called kach (made of silver beads and triangular
plaques) and the collar-like hansali are also common. Heavy
anklets, bangles and silver bracelets (kare) – solid or
filled with shellac – with clasps in the shape of crocodile
or lions heads are worn by all women.
In the Tibetan influenced Lahaul-Spiti, ornaments are
studded with semi precious stones like coral, turquoise,
amber and mother-of-pearl.
In a land where religion rules
daily life, worship is bound to be an elaborate process.
Temples are replete with pretty objects needed for worship,
all fine specimens of metalwork
The metals used mainly are
brass, copper, iron, tin and bell metal. Apart from the
exquisite statuettes enshrined, there are several metal
objects like bells with artistically designed handles,
lamps, incense burners, low settees of silver or brass,
vessels and ornate musical instruments in these temples.
In fact, the common lota (a small globular pot for storing
water) itself is available in so many different forms all
over the state that it’s amazing. Similar things may be used
as everyday items at home.
Some of the more affluent homes possess beautifully
fashioned teapots, smoking pipes, carved panels, doorknobs
and various other artefacts. Metal workers haven’t lost
their magic touch; this centuries old craft is still one of
the most vital traditions of the state
Another metalcraft unique to
Himachal is the mohra.Mohras or metal plaques representing a
deity are common in Kullu and Chamba.
Most of them represent Shiva, but masks of the mother
goddess Devi and other deities are not uncommon. These
plaques are usually made of bronze, brass or silver and
consecrated by a pujari (priest) before being installed in a
The head is sculpted in bold relief, while the neck and
shoulders are more summarily treated.
Each village has its own mohra. Mohras have been made in
Himachal for at least 1,400 years now. They are taken out of
the temples on a palanquin in processions during religious
festivals like the grand Kullu Dussehra.
Thanks to the fair variety of
stone found in this hilly region, stone carving has been
explored to the fullest in Himachal. Numerous shikhara (spired)
stone temples dot the landscape. The Lakshminarayan temples
of Chamba and the temples of Baijnath and Masrur in the
Kangra Valley are some splendid specimens of the kind.
Beautifully carved memorial stone slabs called panihars are
also found in several places, especially near temples and
Stone carvers in HP are
hammering away at their blocks even today, producing several
artefacts of domestic use widely available in the markets.
These include traditional stoves (angithi), circular pots
for storing (kundi), pestle and mortar (dauri danda), mill
stones (chakki) and other things. The centres of sculpting
in Himachal are concentrated mainly in Mandi, Chamba,
Kinnaur and the Shimla Hills