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The arts & crafts of southern India

Southern India is enriched with crafts that have been practised and refined over thousands of years, crafts that have survived many dynasties and that have influenced other parts of the world via travel and trade.

Recently I travelled through the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala where extraordinarily skilled craft work can be found everywhere you go, whether in your hotel in the form of beautiful hand-made furniture and decorations or the ancient stone carvings in the temples you find dotted everywhere. There were master craftsmen in every village and town I visited and it was always incredibly satisfying to watch these people produce something extraordinary out of rudimentary materials. Below are some of the crafts I witnessed on my trip to southern India.

Sari weaving

Although sari weaving is common throughout India, it is rare to find a whole village that is dedicated to the silk weaving industry. We visited the village of Tirubuvanam, close to Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, to discover the process of 'Pattu' silk weaving, which uses hand-assembled wooden machinery to meticulously weave silk, often with golden thread, into complex designs. The village produces a staggering 6,000 hand-made saris a year, mostly in very modest family homes. We were welcomed into one of these homes and led into a small room at the back to watch the weaving process. We were shown examples from the raw material stage to the finished product.

Bronze cast statues

I was familiar with bronze cast statues before I travelled to Tamil Nadu but I had never before given any consideration into how these were made or the delicacy and individuality of each design. The craft began more than 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley civilisation and the technique has remained largely unchanged. Our group visited a casting studio where we were introduced to every stage of the process by expert foundrymen. The process involves moulding intricate designs out of a combination of bees wax and soft clay before heating the design to form a caste. This is then filled with a bronze liquid and left to dry for several days. The most striking thing about this process was the realisation of how quickly these artisans could produce such complex designs. I appreciated this all the more when I tried and failed to mould the stubborn clay into a design that resembled the Hindu deity Ganesha!

Tile making

Before this trip I had never once thought about how tiles are made or designed, or even considered the importance of them in buildings. However, on a trip to the small village of Athangudi, just outside Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, we visited a small tile-making studio where we discovered the simplicity and brilliance of how these are made. By pouring a paste mixture made of coloured die, sand and cement into glass framed moulds, these artisans can produce beautiful designed tiles in less than a minute and can make up to 400 tiles a day. After visiting the studio and trying to make a tile design myself, it was impossible to stop spotting these tiles on the floors of nearly every building I entered.

Tanjore paintings

Possibly one of southern India’s better known art forms, Tanjore paintings originated in the town of Thanjavur (Tanjore), Tamil Nadu, in the 1500s. They can be found in the majority of households and you are very likely to spot them in your hotel. A typical painting will feature one figure, usually a god or goddess, with rounded limbs, often complemented by precious stones. The art form is still practised today; you can visit a Tanjore painting studio to see them being produced and see some fine examples of the art form.

Kumbhalanghi craft village

One of the common characteristics of craftwork in India is the resourcefulness of the creators and their ability to use materials that may not usually be considered for anything else. We visited Kumbhalanghi, a small model village about an hour away from Kochi in Kerala. The village preserves and promotes Keralan culture by showcasing several crafts. It was here that we learned how discarded palm leaves can be made into beautiful baskets and how the husk of coconuts can be weaved into yarn, which in turn can be used for multiple purposes. We also observed broom making, local fishing techniques and pottery.

Cox & Kings Treasures of Southern India 14-day group tour visits Kerala and Tamil Nadu, exploring the crafts and culture of these exotic southern states as well as the idyllic landscapes. Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.