Visiting the northeast and wondering what to take back home? Here’s a guide to the best places to visit in North East India for famous handicrafts. By Sarah Merchant
The Seven Sisters in Northeast India include Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Home to over 160 tribal groups, each different from the other, the culture of this region is richly reflected in its indigenous arts, crafts and handiwork.
With dazzling and enchanting beauty, Sikkim has an enticing charm that no other state can match. It is popularly know for its unparallel beauty, smiling natives and creative handicrafts. The genuine Sikkimese design very popular is a must-buy for any tourist. From carpets, canvas, wooden carved furniture, wall hangings, thankas to artistic ‘choktse’ table, just a glimpse of the wonderful art will leave you spell-bound.
#1 Carpet Weaving
You can find the most ancient form of carpet weaving here in Sikkim. The traditional pattern of weaving is done by the ‘Bhutia’ community which requires a frame and an exclusive manner of weaving. You can see the hard work put in by the locals in the intricate designs of the carpet.
#2 Wood Carving
Known as a symbol of true art of India, Sikkim excels in wood carving. Sikkim brims with beautiful monatesteries, heritage building and temples, architecture of which is adorned with symbols and icons carved in wood. Not only that, you can see the special wood carving with papier-mâché in the mask dances of Sikkim. Pemayangtse Monastery is a fine illustration of carved wooden sculptures and wood carvings.
#3 Thangka Paintings
Thangka Panting can be only found in Sikkim. These paintings were known to be the only medium to preach the ideals of Buddhism. Made on cotton canvas and enveloped by silk frames, Thangkas depicts pictures of various Gods, Goddesses, Buddhist philosophies and much more. These paintings were orignally made by priests and monks and their skills have been passed from one generation to other.
Once known for the manufacture of guns, Arunachal Pradesh now produces a wide variety of hand-made goods. Handicrafts shopping in Arunachal Pradesh consists of carpets, wood carving, dolls, cane and bamboo and hand woven goods. It is also a haven for accessories lovers.
Located in isolated splendour, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are divided into 3 major groups depending on their culture and handicrafts; the Buddhist tribes consist of the Sherdukpens and Monpas and also to some extent the Khowa. The Aka and Mijis comprise another group, while the Membas, Khambas, Khamtis and Singphos comprise the last group. Each tribe has a unique culture and their handicrafts are great as souvenirs for those visiting Northeast India.
Weaving is a common activity carried on by women in all the tribes. Arunachal Pradesh’ weaves are famous for their beautiful colour combinations. Exceptional are the Sherdukpen shawls, Apatani jackets and scarves, Adi skirts, jackets and bags, Mishmi shawls, blouses and jackets and Wancho bags and loin cloths. Don’t forget to include these in your shopping list.
#2 Carpet Making
When you see a bright colourful carpet with floral, geometric or dragon designs, chances are that the carpet is from Arunachal Pradesh. Carpets are a speciality of the Manpas. In recent years, these carpets have begun to be exported and are a major livelihood activity of the women.
#3 Wood Carving
Wood carving is associated with the culture and tradition of the various tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. Wood carving is a significant hobby of the Wanchos of Tirap. Their skilfully crafted and designed wooden articles have a special place in Arunachal handicrafts.
#4 Ornament Making
The Akas are famous for their bamboo ornaments while the Mishmis are famous for their use of silver in ornaments. The Wanchos make earrings from glass beads.
Doll making, bamboo and cane articles are also made here.
Also known as the land of the blue mountains, the finesse and intricate, traditional designs of Mizoram are beautiful. The Mizos have held on to certain patterns that have been passed down through the ages. These designs have become deeply rooted in their tribal consciousness and are an integral part of the heritage of the Mizos.
Weaving forms a major part of Mizo culture. Young girls are taught to weave early in childhood. The shawls and handbags produced by the various tribes are very attractive, though steeply priced. If you want to take home a memory of Mizoram, the delicate and exquisite puon, traditional Mizo dresses for women that are woven on a traditional loom, should be added to your shopping list. The Hmars have several designs of which the thangsuo puon, meaning famous cloth, puon laisen meaning cloth with middle in red colour, hmarm, the loin cloth worn by women and zakuolaisen, the blouse piece used by unmarried girls are high on the list.
#2 Cane & bamboo work
Mizos take great pride in their can and bamboo work. Expert basket makers, they etch and notch designs into soft cane fibers and use the baskets for numerous purposes.
Over 16 tribes live in the state of Nagaland. Most are adept at wood, metal and bamboo handicrafts.
Some of the finest woodcarvers in India come from the Wancho, Konyak and Phom tribes in Nagaland. The icons that best define the Naga’s skill in woodwork are carved mithun heads, hornbills, human figures, elephants, tigers and the log-drums or xylophones that are laboriously hollowed out of the trunk big trees. Woodcarving is also associated with their religious beliefs.
#2 Black smithy (metal craft)
One of the recent additions to Naga arts and crafts, black smithy or metal craft is popularly found among the local tribes because of their affinity towards weapons such as spears and daos. The Rengma tribe is considered to be the best Naga black smith and you can get beautifully decorated spears as take-aways. Just make sure customs knows what you’re up to.
#3 Bamboo, cane & bead craft
With an abundance of bamboo and cane plantations in Nagaland, the bamboo and cane craft is an ancient tradition. The women of Nagaland also make gorgeous, colourful, ornaments decorated with beads, shells and feathers.
Naga shawls also known as the angami naga are famous for their bright colours and bold embroidery of animal motifs. Dress material woven by the women, depict ancient Naga tales. The handlooms of the numerous tribes of Nagaland showcase traditional patterns and the rich, vibrant colours have successfully fused with modern garments.
It is said that the people of Tripura are born with a gift for hand craft, but modernisation has led to a decline in this ancient skill.
Traditionally, every household in Tripura had a hand loom and locals rarely ever purchased cloth from the market. Each cloth was lovingly woven at home and decorated with embroidery. The striking feature of Tripura handlooms is the vertical and horizontal stripes with scattered embroidery in different colours.
Tripura was once famous for its metal work of brass and bell metal. Bamboo and cane articles were also produced here. You can still find articles made of these materials, though they may be priced at a premium.
Generally associated with silk, bamboo and cane products Assam produced other handicrafts that are equally exquisite. Different regions and tribes have their own form of handlooms and handicrafts.
#1 Cane & Bamboo craft
The life of an Assamese revolves around cane and bamboo goods. Since both bamboo and cane are grown in abundance here, most household articles, accessories and instruments are made of these materials. However, the jappi, a traditional sun shade, still remains the most significant mambo article. The jappi shade was used to welcome the great Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited Assam around 642 AD.
#2 Metal Craft
Bell metal and brass are commonly used metals in Assam. A variety of traditional utensils and fancy articles are manufactured here. Gold, silver and copper too form a part of traditional metal craft in Assam. Visit the State Museum in Guwahati for a rich collection of metal craft.
“Assamese women weave fairy tales in their clothes,” so said Gandhi. Known for its exquisite silk, Assam is the home of various types of silk, of which the Muga is the most coveted and exclusive. In days gone by, weaving was one of the primary qualifications required for a women to marry. To date, weaving is linked very intimately with the day to day life of Assamese tribes and the silk woven by various tribes, are valued highly nationally as well as internationally.
The toys of Assam are beautifully crafted and intricately decorated and are wonderful holiday souvenirs. The toys here are made of clay, pith, wood, cloth and cloth-and-mud. Clay toys were initially made by the Kumar and Hira tribes. The human figure, especially dolls, brides and grooms and a variety of animal forms have dominated the clay-toy scene of Assam. Pith toys are generally produced in the Goalpara region. Cloth toys contribute to the rich history of Assam and the craft is believed to be passed on by a mother to her daughter.
Pottery is always associated with a wheel but in Assam, the Hira tribe do not use the wheel at all. While the men collect the clay and sell the wares, it is the women who use a unique technique to produce pots and are probably the only known potters in the world who do not use a wheel.
#6 Woodcraft and Paintings
It is said that the Assamese can recognise timber even in the dark of night. They are known to craft beautiful and alluring articles from wood. The tradition of painting on wood can be traced back to several thousand years. The palaces and temples in Assam still display brightly coloured paintings which tell tales of past glory. The motifs and designs contained in Chitra-Bhagavata are still practiced and cherished in Assam.
Manipur presents a mosaic of traditions and cultural patterns and is known for colourful and bright handicrafts, textiles, metal bowls and reed mats. Clay and straw toys and dolls are also produced here.
‘Meghalaya’ means ‘The Abode of Clouds’, in Sanskrit. The British called this state the Scotland of the East. Inhabited by Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes, Meghalaya is known for its woodcarving which is practiced in the Garo Hills. It is also famous for its unique way of producing handicrafts and articles from pineapple fibers.
Best Places To Visit In North East India For Handicrafts
Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre
Havelock Villa, 119/B, Gandhi Road,
Darjeeling, West Bengal 734101
Phone – 0354 225 593
Snow White Handicrafts
MG Marg, Arithang, Gangtok,
Emporium Crafts Centre Shop
Hapoli, Central Arunachal Pradesh
Phone – 225327
Meghalaya Handlooms and Handicrafts
Meghalaya State Unit, Secretariate Hills, Shillong, Meghalaya
Phone no. 91-0364-2225501
Nagaland State Centre
Room # 2, Central Block,
New Secretariat Complex
Tripura Handloom & Handicrafts
Development Corporation Ltd
M.B.B. Sarani, Agartala- 799007
Phone no: 91 – 381 – 222-3496
Room-79, Ministrial Block
Imphal – 795001
Mizoram State Centre
Annex-II, Civil Secretariat
Aizawl – 796001
Interested In Visiting The North East India?
Book A Package