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Crafts Panorama From Himachal

Artisans from these highlands provide a wide variety of spectacular ware—from dazzling shawls to miniature paintings and more.

Hidden from public gaze, amazing, highly specialized activities take place all over Himachal Pradesh throughout the year. In soft, picturesque valleys and high among the rugged mountain reaches, the crafts people of Himachal practice their age old skills. In many cases, it takes many months of patient work before a crafted article of rare workmanship is ready to be revealed for public appraisal.

Exquisite examples of needle painting, the rumals (large handkerchiefs) of Chamba have long been famous for their unusual beauty, and as symbols and omens of goodwill. Weddings in the hills and valleys around Chamba are still not complete without an exchange of Chamba rumals.

Originally, the hill women in and around Chamba embroidered the silk rumals with folk motifs. In time, they were influenced by the ">pahari school of painting which developed after Mughal miniature paintings came into vogue. Gradually, the Chamba rumals were transformed into works of art. Episodes from mythology and legends were embroidered on the rumals with stunning effects. The facial expressions of the characters, their lithe body movements, and scenic detail were brought to life on the rumal through remarkable skill at embroidery and an unerring feel for colours.

In addition to its rumals, Chamba is also known for the design quality of its leather chappals (flat, open shoes) and belts. Chamba chappals with their open toes and partially woven ‘vamps’ catch even the most unobservant eye. Besides their aesthetic appeal, they are light and comfortable.

All over the higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh, straw and treated bark shoes or pullas—used for walking on snow—are an unusual sight for strangers from the plains. The straw or bark, in natural fawn and beige shades, interspersed with dyed bright reds, magentas and blues, is tightly woven to make them in different sizes. Each pulla is made in one piece with its bark sole providing excellent grip on snow.

The woollen shawls and pattus of Kulu are no less striking. The location matters little: whether situated in the valley itself, or nestling against the contours of the mountainside, virtually every homestead in Kulu has a handloom which remains particularly busy during the winter months. With less work in the terraced fields, the women devote themselves to weaving the traditional Kulu shawls. The woollen yarn for the centre spread of the shawl is natural white or cream, while the borders have geometric or floral designs woven in brightly coloured woollen yarn.

As we traversed a charming wooden bridge and crossed the gently murmuring Beas at Kulu, on our way to picturesque Naggar, associated so intimately with the Roerichs and Devika Rani, we passed a number of wooden homesteads with slate roofs—so typical of Himachal Pradesh. Outside their home woven Kulu caps, were men leisurely spinning wool on a takli (hand held spindle). From within the houses came the clear, audible twangs and thumps of the handlooms as the Kulu women—dressed in colourful pattus and traditional scarves over their heads—busily wove their shawls.

While some families in Kulu rely on their own herds of sheep for the wool, the majority purchases the wool in raw form the gaddis (nomadic shepherds) when they pass through Kulu in summer on their way to the high pastures near the Rohtang Pass, or when they pass downwards on their return journey.

The more enterprising weavers in Kulu valley and elsewhere in the State have lately started devoting themselves exclusive to producing gudmas (soft but heavy woollen blankets, generally with red and black trimmings), thobis (floor coverings) and kharchas (mattresses). While the gudmas are made from the soft fleece of sheep, thobis and kharchas are spun from goats’ hair. The production of numdhas, made by felting wool and then embroidering it, has taken an upward swing in recent years. This diversification of skills is, in a way, a tribute to the free ranging spirit of the Himachali craftsmen. Faithful to the core, they refuse to give up ancestral traditions, design and skills, but they are consciously seeking avenues which will allow them to preserve their heritage as well as cater to the needs of modern buyers. For example, the handful of stone carvers in Kangra who once specialized in intricate, yet massive, temple carvings, have now turned to carving miniature mythological figures in stone.

So it is that many of the crafts in this State, while retaining their quintessential traditional flavour, are reaching out to a cross section of potential buyers. But there are a few crafts which are practised solely or largely for themselves. Attractive carpets, woven once upon a time only for personal use or as gifts, are now finding a wide market. In Sirmour district particularly, a number of Tibetan families have, over the years, been weaving carpets in bold colours and designs. But the beautiful small carpets woven for use as saddle cloth for horses can rarely be purchased in the market. Similarly, the small, soft rugs in bright hues that decorate the corner of many a homestead in the hills of Himachal are seldom produced for sale.

The skills of weaving and embroidery have been given a new dimension in Himachal Pradesh. They have been combined to create traditional outfits for well crafted dolls known as Himachali dolls. The dolls, dressed in Himachal style, complete with head scarves and adorned with traditional jewellery of the State, are almost perfect replicas of the women here. Regional variations are also captured in dress and jewellery. For instance, some of them are dressed as Kulu women wearing pattus while others represent gaddinis (sheep rearing nomads).

The silver jewellery of Himachal Pradesh is one of the oldest handicrafts in the State. The silversmiths scattered in various parts of the State all recount how Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, wore silver jewellery designed and crafted by them in the days of yore. Carrying on this long tradition, these silversmiths continue to produce articles of utility—engraved silver teapots, glasses, lamp stands, fruit trays and more.

Wood Carving is yet another note-worthy old craft of this hill State. In fact, most of the wooden homesteads here display excellent standards in wood carving. Carved wall panels, doors and window ledges are very common. Today, the woodcarvers are mainly concentrated in the Kangra Valley, around Palampur, and use the wood of walnut and birch trees as the medium for carving a range of items such as trays, fruit bowls, mythological figures, pens and their stands. Bamboo and wicker work is also popular folk craft. The locals are adept of making baskets, containers, trays and bowls in various shapes and sizes.

Often beginning their work in isolation, so necessary to create a masterpiece, the industrious crafts people of Himachal crown days, weeks, sometimes months of effort by reaching out to people through their crafts in a magnificent way. As Chitu, a wood carver we met near Hamirpur remarked expressively, “These hills, these mountains, these valleys where we live are timeless. So it is with our crafts. There is a beginning and an end for each piece, but they are all part of a timeless stream of creativity, an essence of life—and that is what appeals to buyers.”

Shopping Guide. Between them, the Mail and the shops near the skating rink on the ridge, and Lakkar bazaar in Shimla provide a pot pourri of the crafts of Himachal Pradesh. The Chinese shoemakers along the main Mall provide handmade shoes of high quality. At Dalhousie and Chamba you can buy wood carvings bamboo and wicker work, Chamba rumals and chappals, Himachal dolls, woollen shawls (including Kulu shawls and Pashmina shawls) and gudmas. At Jwalamukhi, Kangra, Palampur, Dharamshala and Baijnath you can buy bamboo and wickerwork baskets, wood carvings, silver jewellery and stone carvings. At Kulu and Manali, you can buy a range of shawls, gudmas and numdhas, Kulu caps, pullas and wood carvings. Hamirpur and Bilaspur also have a small, select pot pourri of Himachal crafts.


Since long ago, the plains of India, particularly in the North, have been subject to invasions from central Asia with the result that ancient art forms did not survive in the Punjab, which bore the maximum number of these attacks. Luckily some valleys of the Western Himalayas like Chamba, Kulu, Mandi and Kangra, which till recently were rather inaccessible have preserved vestiges of ancient and later civilizations from the Kushan and gupta times, to the late 18th and early 19th century art of Kangra. In Chamba, one comes across wood beam temples with rich wooden reliefs, and brass and stone statues which date back to the period of Ajanta and Ellora. In Kulu, there are well preserved 7th and 8th century Shiva temples and strikingly powerful stone sculptures at Bajaura, Naggar, Dashal and Jagat Sukh—in gupta style, although the empire itself crumbled under the impact of the invasions of the semi-nomadic people of Central Asia, the Palas of the East and the Rashtrakutas from the South. These temples, with shikharas constitute one of the important distinct architectural styles seen in Kulu Valley.

Of these Gupta style stone temples, the Basheshar Mahadeo temple at Bajaura is the best preserved. Situated about 16 kilometres from Sultanpur, Kulu on the Mandi-Kulu motor road, the temple has no plinth, the main structure rising from the ground level itself. The entrance to the inner sanctum is guarded by two elaborately carved sculptures of Ganga and Yamuna. There is a linga inside and the niches have sculptures of Ganesh, Vishnu and Mahisasuramardini.

The Shiva temple at Naggar is not basically different except that here one comes across a sculpture of shiva and Parvati instead of the linga, which is something uncommon. The temples at Dashal, Jagatsukh and Thawa also conform to the style of the temple at Bajaura, although they seem much older. Folk and primitive motifs are used extensiely in them.

In Kulu the rectangular stone and wood temples, furnished with a pent roof and verandah are a class by themselves. The walls are built of alternate courses of stones and deodar beams. The Naggar castle is an example of this style of architecture and there are two important temples belonging to this class: the Bijli Mahadev and Sandhya Devi temples. The former has fancifully carved wooden uprights that join on the roof and a good deal of open carvings surround the arched windows in the fretted verandah.

The Sandhya Devi temple is built on the structure of an old temple that dates to the 8th century. This is testified by the fact that the lower part has stone carvings quite different from the upper wood carvings done in primitive style. The wooden part completely encases the original structure and this was done in the year 1428 AD according to an inscription on the temple. The present structure with Mughal pillars and wood carvings seems to have been built still later.

Another important style in which the Kulu temples were built can be seen at the Tripura Sundari temple in Naggar and the Hidamba Devi temple at Dhungri, Manali. These are pyramidal structures with tiered roofs, generally three, four or five in number and superimposed one above the other, diminishing in size towards the top. The Hidamba Devi temple is an interesting study from the point of view of wood carvings. The temple was built in 1553 AD by Raja Budh Singh. In these carvings, one comes across motifs derived from Gupta art, which are intermixed with ornamental motifs such as knots, scrolls and plaitwork that have their origin in the art of the nomads of Central Asia. There are also carvings of local gods and goddesses.

The old Kulu houses which are still extant on the left bank of the Beas—in Naggar, Haripur, Jagat Sukh and Vashisht—with their overhanging balconies going round the entire first floor of the building and sloping slate roofs, are structures of remarkable beauty. The railings, brackets and pillars are artistically cut and the wooden window panes decorated with carvings. The entrance doors and the ventilators above them also have carvings of fine workmanship. Even the carved wooden household articles used by the people of Kulu are genuine objects d’art.


The paintings of the Guler-Kangra school, exquisite lyrical composition, are the most splendid specimens of Pahari miniature paintings. Refined in outlines and replete with rare sensuousness, these miniatures are a fitting climax to a painting tradition in the northern hill states which imbibed foreign influences on the fabric of a local style.

The Guler style emerged with the Ramayana and Bhagwata Purana paintings. A new romantic naturalism sensuous colours, beauty of the female form and a striking spontaneity characterized the Guler style. Natural elements were a conspicuous part of the composition. Big trees of the Guler region, swaying plantain leaves, pointed cypresses and an undulating hills came to be identified with this particular style. Also, dark clouds pierced by serpent-like lightning and skeins of white cranes were the Guler symbols of desire.

The Guler-Kangra paintings are mostly illustrations of Krishna-Radha legends, absorbing with its divine framework the aspirations of human lovers.

Apart from devotional themes, Kangra paintings specialize in portraying women drawn after the masterly classification of nayikas by Keshavdas in Rasik Priya. Thus, we have nayak-nayikas depicting love in union and nayikas pining for union with the nayak. The eight different categories of nayikas have been identified as per their disposition in love. Hence, svadhinpatika is adored by her lover; vasaksajja awaits his return form sojourn abroad; utka is anxious about his welfare (“Like a newly caged bird she moves restlessly in her leafy nook,” says Keshav Das of Utka Nayika); abhisandhita has been separated from her lover over some small quarrel; khandita turns the nayak away for having spent the night with some other woman; proshitpreyasi is obdurate,; vipralabdha is the jilted nayika to whom the flowery bower is like a fiery furnace;and abhisarika sallies out into the stormy night to seek her lover. Kavipriya was the other Keshav Das classic which was illustrated. Pranks of the charming child Krishna: playing a flute, dancing with the gopis (milk-maids), subduing the Kalia serpent and lifting the Govardhana hill-episodes from the Bhagwat Purana—were great favourites with painters and patrons.

Paintings of the seasons and each month of the year were also down with a rare feeling for the changing landscape, flowers, birds and life around the lovers. The rangmalas (musical modes) had a limited patronage in Kangra but are still known for their tranquil depiction of ragas and raginis.

Technically, Guler-Kangra paintings show a great sophistication of composition. Multi-figure composition are handled with élan. As Anand Coomaraswamy has remarked “Rarely has any other art combined so little fear with so much tenderness, so much delight with such complete renunciation. If the Chinese have taught us how to understand the life of Nature manifest in water and inmountains, Indian art at least can teach us how not to misunderstand desire, for we are constantly reminded here that the soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.”

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