In Sikkim and Darjeeling, on top of the world (as far as we could tell)

After Kaziranga, we literally headed up to Sikkim, the state that boasts breathtaking views of the world’s third tallest mountain Kangchenjunga, and Darjeeling, the famed hill station and home to tea plantations framed by the distant Himalayas.  The views are the main attractions.

Unfortunately, we only got lucky enough to survive the harrowing jeep treks up the steepest and most potholed roads we’d ever seen to reach Sikkim and Darjeeling.  Our luck ran out when it came to the views.  The vistas were entirely clouded by fog the entire time we spent at high altitude; we didn’t see a single peak.  #adventurefail.  However!  It’s the journey, not the destination, and we made the most of our time at the top of the world.

In Sikkim, we trekked through mountain villages, perched on cliffs, where incredible flowers bloomed in pots and people were wonderfully kind.  We met a woman along the way who casually knitted as she climbed up (what felt to me like) at 45 degree slope.  We ate lunch at the home of a local family, and we ate leafy greens, which looked like cactus that had mated with spinach.  We watched a cultural dance recital, performed by local girls.  (Check out our roommate Reena’s post about the star of the show, the runner up in Sikkim Idol.  Yes, it’s what you think.)

Houses in the hills

knitting while walking straight up, seems reasonable

perfect climate for flowers, though not for mountains

shy mountain man

lunch!

We hired a jeep to take us to from Sikkim to Darjeeling.  The driver asked us whether we wanted to take the long route, which we had taken to get to Sikkim and was the most absurd road I had been on (up to that point), or the shortcut, which he said was “steep.”  We opted for short.  It’s a miracle we made it, particularly since a group of eight random guys decided to hitch a ride by climbing on the roof, making an already top-heavy vehicle top heavier for twenty miles.

don't worry about that jeep that ran off the road and could have tumbled off the precipice into the abyss!

they didn't really ask our permission to climb aboard...

...but they were friendly passengers.

In Darjeeling, we visited the Happy Valley Tea Plantation where we took a brief tour and then stopped by the shop, started by a few women who had previously worked picking tea for over forty years apiece.  We were treated to a demonstration of how to steep the tea (only 5 seconds!), a test of our ability to determine tea grades (we aced it), and cups of the most delicious “super fine tippy golden flowery orange picko one” (basically an acronym SFTGFOP1, which you have to say in a sing-song voice, for the highest grade) tea I have ever tasted.

SFTGFOP1!

we scored 100% on our tea grading test. good work team.

a very steep tea plantation and the town in the background

There is a community of Tibetan refugees living in Darjeeling, and we stopped by their center where craft is the primary source of income.  I was obviously in heaven, and Jen and Jeni bought a beautiful custom designed rug that is being woven just for them.

spinning wool yarn for the rugs

making a spinning wheel

Woman at the loom

 

After a slightly less intense jeep ride down the mountains and a misadventure involving a canceled flight, we finally boarded a plane back to Delhi.  Only from the air did we finally get that view we’d be waiting for: the entire Himalayan range, clear as day against the blue sky.

a photo of a photo of the view we could have seen from Darjeeling

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

The highlight of the trip was our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake.  After two days of riding a train that chugged across dry plains and up jungle-covered mountains, we reached the town of Kalaw, a small mountain retreat, where we met our guide Zani.  According to Zani, whose English was pretty good, it would take three four-hour days of trekking to reach the lake, a famed oasis in central Burma.  Perfect.  However, we had a hotel reservation in Inle Lake two days later that we didn’t want to miss, and since our train had been delayed (slash we heard that the train was either two hours, four hours, five hours, or seven hours, depending on who we asked), we needed to make up some time.  Ever-resourceful Zani managed to round up a battalion of seven motorcycles and drivers within an hour.  Brian, Chuck, Mark, and I clambered on the back of the motorcycles, left our bulging backpacks in the hands of the passenger-less riders, and donned helmets that looked like WWII reproductions.  Hanging onto our bikes and/or drivers, we rode through the Shan Hills as they glowed in the last hours of daylight, and we spent our first night in the home of the village chief (who gave no indication of his status).

Badass Chuck in transit. Note the camo helmet.

The next day, we began our trek in earnest.  Starting out at 8am, we headed out with our porters in the lead.  (We had read in the Lonely Planet that you can get your luggage driven to each stop on your trek.  However, Zani was apparently not aware of this option.  Rather he hired a few guys to carry our backpacks during the three day trek, which became more humbling and impressive with every step….they were wearing flip-flops.)  We walked through the most thriving pastoral landscape I have ever encountered.  In America, the vastness of farmland gives it an anonymous quality, as though the fields had spontaneously been sown without the intervention of a human hand.  But the agriculture of the Shan Hills is almost intimate.  Families and communities tend by hand their plots of land, each parcel small enough to see its boundaries.  We didn’t witness a single piece of machinery in use, but rather bullocks pulling tills through the soil and men and women bent over with their hands in the soil.  These were pastoral scenes out of a painting, though peaceful images that belied a life of hard work.

Brian likened this terrain to Tuscany a hundred years ago.

Fragrant, just-dug ginger. Oh my gosh, it smelled good.

A woman bundling wheat.

As the day heated up, we crossed the four hour mark.  This was not flat terrain.  We were walking up and down hills in our hiking boots.  Meanwhile, our guides ahead of us kept up a good clip, while they carried our forty pound backpacks…and walked in flip-flops.  We finally arrived at our destination after eight hours on the trail.  The next day, the estimate was another two hours of walking to Inle Lake….we made it there in five. (This severe underestimation is apparently a regular occurrence and cultural trait in Burma.)

Our trek took us through many villages of the Pa-O people, where they welcomed us with smiles, tea, and bowls of peanuts.  In one village, an older woman sat weaving on a backstrap loom, and in another a man wove baskets from bamboo.  People live in beautiful two story homes, built from bamboo, wood, palm, and other natural materials.  They eat rice pounded in their own kitchens.  They cook in pots sitting on flames.  They keep cows and chickens in their backyards.  In the villages, there was no electricity, and only candles lit up the rooms where we listened to our trekking guides talk into the night while we fell asleep exhausted on our floor mats.

A Pa-O woman.

Weaving a traditional headscarf.

Weaving a basket from bamboo strips.

Pounding rice.

Crops drying in the sun.

Daw Win's house where we spent the night in her peaceful, welcoming village.

The trekkers!

***

 

What’s a namdha?

I met Sunrise Arifa for the first time when I stopped to admire the handmade namdha rugs she had on display at the Dastkar Nature Bazaar.  Since our first meeting, we’ve stayed in touch, and I now admire Sunrise’s determination and resolve as much as the namdhas she sells.

Sunrise is a young entrepreneur from Srinagar, Kashmir, who is working to revive the craft of namdhas, laboriously hand-felted and intricately designed wool floor mats.  Sunrise is well qualified for the job.  She studied Craft Management & Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Craft Development Institute of Srinigar, and there developed the professional skills to succeed in starting her own business.  She now employs craftsmen who manufacture her designs, and she travels between Srinagar and other Indian cities to sell her rugs.

While her skills may enhance her success, it is her heritage that ensures her passion for the business.  Growing up in Kashmir, home to internationally popular crafts like fine paper mache and embroidered pashmina shawls, Sunrise saw many of these crafts diminish and dilute over time.  Markets inundated with machine-made “pashminas” masquerading as hand embroidered.  Exploitative middlemen buying paper mache from artisans at bare minimum prices and selling the products at an enormous mark-up.  Inexpensive synthetic rugs replacing namdhas among local consumers. Efforts, such as the Geographical Indicator certification of authenticity, are underway in Kashmir to protect these endangered crafts.  But in the meantime, entrepreneurs like Sunrise are taking matters into their own hands, starting businesses to bring Kashmiri crafts to a wider audience.Though being Kashmiri may have inspired Sunrise to start her own business, running a company in Kashmir, particularly as a female entrepreneur, comes with challenges.  Eight month waiting periods to obtain scoured wool from the government’s fleece processing unit.  An exorbitantly high and “unofficial” government fee to obtain the quality control certification required for an export license.  A community concerned that Sunrise will slowly lose her religious and cultural values as she becomes more successful.  A curfew that prevents her from leaving the house to go to her production unit.  The risk of being hit by a stray stone, pelted when skirmishes break out in town.

But Sunrise is determined.  “It’s dangerous, but I have to go to do my work,” she explains.  Her father supports her aspiration, but during her weeks on the road, traveling to sell namdhas, she tells the rest of her family that she is doing a school internship.  While friends say that running a business will change her, she disagrees.  “I love my tradition,” she professes.  And the 12-hour workdays she logs, the bodily risks she takes, and her commitment to reviving Kashmir’s craft traditions proves her deep dedication to her heritage and its crafts.

Want to own your very own Craftmark certified namdha?  I can send you a namdha directly from India. 

Check out The Red Thread’s Shop page or email me!

The Contrast Between Camels and Cars

While driving in Bhuj, Brian and I came upon three Rabari nomads leading their colorfully adorned camels and goats along the highway.  The jarring traffic noise was juxtaposed against the peaceful rhythm of their procession.  The slow, silent footsteps of the camels; the jangling of bells and harnesses; the occasional punctuating bleat of a baby goat.  The man and two women carried their possessions upon the backs of their camels; their belongings had been lovingly and creatively handmade.  The camels were outfitted with embroidered, appliqued blankets and tasseled reins.  The goats rode high atop trampoline-like saddles that, once removed from the camels’ backs, flipped over to become beds.

It was a beautiful and somewhat unsettling contrast, watching these traditionally dressed nomadic people tread slowly along the highway, bordered by car dealerships and even a wind turbine manufacturing plant.  On the surface, they appeared unfazed and unchanged by the modernity all around us.  We felt we had been given a brief glimpse into a past way of life that had snuck into the present.

We pulled over to the side of the road and spoke with the Rabaris, thanks to our translating tour guide.  We asked whether we might take a few photos.  They said their goodbyes, and we watched quietly as they processed away down the highway and flatbed trucks laden with machinery rattled by.

 

History, Chemistry, and Craft (Still in Gujarat…)

We spent the next day with Ravi, a driver and tour guide who would take us to visit the many textile artisans surrounding Bhuj.  At 11am, Ravi led us to his awaiting and rather dilapidated touring car.  On the way we picked up some dhokla, a yellow spongy vinegary concoction made with fermented gram flour (chick peas) and Gujarati favorite, for breakfast and then hit the road.

Our first stop was Ajarakhpur, a small village specializing in traditional Ajarakh block printed fabric, dyed with natural colors.  After turning off the busy four-lane thoroughfare, we trundled past neatly kept homes that felt more like a new housing development than a hotbed of traditional textile production.  However, we knew we were in the right place as row upon row of cloth drying on the dusty roadside came into view.

We pulled up to the head office of Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri’s Ajarakh company.  Dr. Khatri is the Godfather of Ajarakh block printing.  He is world-renowned, exporting fabric internationally and having advised so many art students from abroad that a British university conferred an honorary degree on him.  Hence, Doctor Khatri.

Perhaps as a result of his notoriety, we did not get to meet Dr. Khatri.  When we entered the main office, Dr. Khatri’s son Sufiyan sat in front of a computer, talking on the phone to a client.  While Ravi checked his email, Sufiyan gave us a crash course in the history and process of Ajarakh block printing.

Ajarakh printing originated in the Sind region of Pakistan in the 14th century.   In 1634, the King of the Kutch desert region invited Sind artisans to bring their craft to his kingdom.  Sufiyan was able to trace the block printers in his family back nine generations.  This long history was not without trials.  Most recently in 2001, a massive earthquake struck the Kutch, and the region is still recovering.  (Evidence of this was amply available in Bhuj where the historic royal palace and museum are still undergoing repairs.)  The seismic activity caused the iron content of the river water, used for dyeing, to increase dramatically and thus changed the dye results.  The Khatri family was forced to move their operations to this new location (hence the discordantly new surroundings), which they named Ajarakhpur after their craft.

Sufiyan went on to describe the complex 16-step process required to create a piece of Ajarakh fabric.  Dyes may include indigo, pomegranate, madder root, sapan, logwood, turmeric, and other natural products.  One design may include up to five colors and require four different wood blocks.  Mordants and other fixatives can include camel dung, soda ash, castor oil, gum arabic, lime, clay, alum, and iron.  Adding to the complexity, production halts during the monsoon because it is too wet for the fabric to dry between dye stages.  To successfully dye with natural colors as an Ajarakh block printer, you need to have as much knowledge of chemistry as art!

The many stages of Ajarakh printing

Printing by hand

Washing the finished cloth

Intricate, hand-carved wooden blocks

Sufiyan, me, and my souvenir!

Thank you, Sufiyan!  Next stop…embroiderers.

P.S. For more info on Ajarakh and the Khatris, check out this podcast from Maiwa.

To Gujarat we go…

On November 25, Brian and I ventured together on our first journey outside of Delhi.  We were headed to the states of Gujarat, renowned for its rich textile heritage, and Madhya Pradesh, the site of my research and bursting with ancient history.

We boarded a train at the Old Delhi Railway Station and settled in to watch the crowded city melt into cotton fields and camels replace cars.  Twenty-six hours later (yes, the train has sleeping berths) we arrived in Bhuj, a city of 150,000 people about 125 miles from the border of Pakistan.

Riding the sleeper train

With the Delhi winter comes “smoke”, a somewhat pleasant euphemism for lung-clogging pollution, so both Brian and I welcomed the visit to Bhuj.  The air was cleaner, and the entire experience was a breath of fresh air.  Children and adults piped up with “Hello! What is name?  Your country from is?” as we walked through the narrow streets, where cows roamed freely.  Rickshaw drivers quoted us fair prices.  A family making the Indian equivalent of Flav-a-Ice in their living room invited us inside from the street when I expressed curiosity in their operation.  We were definitely not in Delhi any longer.

A group of children watching something very interesting behind the wall...

...until an adult out of frame alerted the children that a foreigner was taking their picture...

...and then the screaming horde stampeded toward us...

...and could not have been more adorable.

Cows. Everywhere.

We had made the long journey to Bhuj in order to attend the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Mela.  I will translate.  Kala Raksha is an organization, started by an American woman (and former Fulbrighter), whose mission is to preserve traditional arts in the Kutch Desert region of Gujarat.  Six years ago, Kala Raksha launched the Vidhyalaya, a design school for artisans, and the Mela we attended celebrated the graduation of some of these students.  A crowd of a hundred or so tribal people turned out to support the graduates from their communities, and Brian and I jumped right into the mix.

A live musical performance of traditional instruments

A man spinning

Rabari women waiting in the lunch line

A few years after Kala Raksha opened its doors, Tata the Indian mega-corporation built two imposing, enormous coal power plants nearby, forcing Kala Raksha to move to a new location in the coming months. Currently, you must pass through Tata's security checkpoint to reach Kala Raksha. The smokestacks are an eerie symbol of modernity creeping up on and overtaking the traditional way of life.

Bri and I dig into lunch with the Rabari ladies. (Note there are no forks and no other men...)

More to come…

Happy Place

If only Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar could go on forever.  I may have to make a special trip back to India next October just to revisit the show.  Here are more pictures of the crafts on display.

 

 

This wooden furniture was all intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

 

Many of the textiles at the show are naturally dyed, giving them these absolutely saturated and rich hues.

 

Grrrrr!!  Roar!!!

 

Artisans from Kala Raksha design their own products, including the most endearing cloth “board” games.  Women fashion game boards out of patchwork and embroidered fabric.  The pieces are leather or cloth figurines.  I should have bought “Chutes and Ladders.”  These games were among the most creative products I saw at Dastkar.

 

Patel Handlooms produces Maheshwari sarees in Madhya Pradesh, the region south of Delhi where I will be conducting my field research.  My first trip will be in a week or two!

 

The Nature Bazaar’s theme this year was the Camel.  “Be like a camel — carrying sweets but dining on thorns.” – Indian proverb

 

The art form of Kalamkari painting has existed in India for generations.  The name is derived from the Persian words kalam (pen) and kari (craftsmanship).

 

Kashmiri crafts seem to have had the most widespread success in international markets.  I have seen boxes like this for sale in the States for years.

 

Block-printers create beautiful fabrics, but I never considered the blocks themselves to be works of art — until I saw Mr. Tahir’s and his award-winning father Mr. Mohammad Ayyub’s masterpieces.  This block measured a foot and a half across, and its lace-like design was carved using metal tools as fine as dentists’ picks.  As I lingered over the blocks for sale, I chatted with Mr. Tahir the carver, a man about my age who provided me with a steaming cup of chai.  His family members have been carving wood blocks since the 1700s!

 

Swoon.

 

It’s high time I explained why, specifically, I have come to India.  But this explanation will have to wait until the morning.  It is 12:30am, and I am ready to be lulled to sleep by the artillery of pre-Diwali firecrackers outside my window…

Devin in Paradise

Slowly but surely, my Fulbright research is ramping up.  Each day, after three hours of Hindi class, a brief lunch, and wrangling with rickshaw drivers, I’ve been sneaking in research “field trips.”  Last week, I went to Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar — twice.Dastkar is an Indian “society for crafts and craftspeople…that aims at improving the economic status of craftspeople, thereby promoting the survival of traditional crafts.”  The organization annually hosts the largest craft show in India, the Nature Bazaar – just in time for Diwali shopping!

Dastkar brings together the widest array of high quality handcraft products and techniques that I have come across in one location.  If only the fair happened more than once a year!  To make up for this loss, I’ve been going as often as possible – twice so far last week and plans to go at least twice again before the fair ends.  (For research purposes, of course!)  The Nature Bazaar is both a direct-to-consumer retail opportunity for craftspeople, hailing from every corner of India, as well as essentially a tradeshow venue.  Buyers from all over the world travel to Dastkar to examine what innovative, creative items have been developed over the past year.  I spent my time at Dastkar ogling and petting every piece of cloth in sight and talking with as many artisans as possible.  I was surprised to discover that some of the vendors already sell at or have relationships with big American brands.  I talked with a weaver from Rajasthan (northwest India) who sells his gorgeous handwoven, naturally dyed shawls at ABC Carpet & Home in NYC (a drool-worthy store, to say the least), as well as Archana Kumari, a charming embroidery designer whose products may be appearing in Anthropologie this year.  (Fingers crossed!)  The Dastkar bazaar is my happy place.

Dastkar was hosted at the National Craft Museum.

Block printed & woven dhurrie carpets

Hand-stiched chappals (sandals) and slippers

New York, New York! Archana's embroidery may be featured in Anthropologie.

Yak Adventures in Middlebury sold similar pottery!

Pottery demonstration! Totally different than the wheels used in America.

Namdhas are unique felted floor mats from Kashmir.

In addition to the endless array of crafts, the Nature Bazaar features food and performances from all over India.  During my two visits, I treated myself to pyaz kachori (sort of like a fried pita pocket filled with onion and spiced deliciousness), stick kulfi (tall, thin, pyramid-shaped, cashew-flavored ice cream on a stick), and methi parantha with raita (fenugreek-spiced, bready pancake served with yogurt sauce).  I also watched and attempted to film traditional Rajasthani dance performances.  (You’ll figure out from the video that this is my first attempt to film live-action with my camera.  The film gives you an idea of what the dance and music was like, if you can manage to avoid getting motion sickness.  Future films will be better – I promise!)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTrtj9fuSE4]

Dastkar also features different types products that promote culture and more "organic" lifestyles. Loved these "seeds of wonder" from the Himalays.

Vegetables just taste better here.

I’ve been in India for a month now, yet I have to keep pinching myself to make sure this is all actually happening.