India is one of the affordable countries for budget travellers. From cheapest metal earrings to finely cut Diamond jewellery, low price coconut shell bowls to highly carved wooden works – the range of shopping varies from highest to the lowest end. Being a fan and admirer of authentic handmade things, here is your complete guide to shopping in India from an aesthete living and shopping in India since the 1990s.
Heads Up – Shopping experience in each different state varies. I narrate things in general in this post, and I have added details in every state’s itinerary in separate posts.
- Malls to Markets – where should you go
- Tips for shopping in India
- Beautiful Desi labels.
- Things not to buy in India.
- Best things to buy in India.
Malls to Markets – where should you go
Remember – Don’t fall for sellers who try to sell you poverty and emotions over products! Real artists never do it. So these fake item sellers always try to convince you to buy their products with their sad stories.
India’s economy is so that we have luxury malls to the cheapest markets. The intermediate – malls with movie theatres and mid-range brands are most Indian’s go-to place on weekends in the cities. Smaller towns have showrooms selling private labels. So, I recommend you visit all three if possible and buy things at artisan’s home or local markets- Here is why.
Luxury malls show you the side of India that slumdog millionaire movie doesn’t want you to know. Plus, some Indian luxury brands here are worth spending on.
Mid-range malls show you what the modern Indian generation likes and dislikes. The larger super markers selling groceries to sports shoes and cosmetics are Indian’s favourite with their cafes and food court. This is the place to understand the young crowd’s fashion likes and dislikes. The most mid-range budget shopper who wants better quality shop in malls after watching a movie.
Then there are mini-malls – exclusive to the imitation jewellery like the one “Mahila” in Bangalore.
A few hours in a local market is like a mini business school – It shows you how locals haggle for better prices. The way we change our body language to get better deals, how we go around ten shops for the same product before buying one, how we gauge the quality by comparing and how sellers cleverly sell their products – It is a phenomenal place to see. Working-class to mid-range shoppers, all of us come here. You will understand how hard-working Indians are and what are their struggles.
My favourite part of the local market is – Musical – The way each seller shouts out and calls customers.
There are varieties in local markets, too- Delhi and Rajasthan’s markets give you bazar vibes. Mumbai’s Zaveri bazar is a place with usual shops on either side of the road. Sri Nagar’s dal lake is a floating market. Gangtok’s mall road is a market around a public plaza. Devraj Urs market n Mysore is a walled market with open to sky kiosks, often covered with tarps. Some furniture markets in Delhi and Mumbai are literally an open field market – Each works in its own way for ages.
Char Minar area of Hyderabad is the best place to buy metal bangles in India.
District head cities will have a local market open throughout the year that is the source for other shops in cites. These markets sell local shops wholesale and don’t mind selling tourists petty things at a lower price.
Tips for shopping in India
Stick to authentic “Made in India” things – especially made by true artisans who aren’t connected to any brands.
Haggle – Bargain for half the price in every local market and expect the healthy discussion to go on for 5 minutes. Just keep calm and walk away if you feel the quotation isn’t worth it, even after bargaining.
DON’T EXHIBIT INTEREST – Though those colourful dupattas stole your heat, try to act as if you aren’t interested in buying. Wander around and check for similar products, compare prices at different shops, and return to the one you loved most.
Learn some local phrases – You need not master all our 22 regional languages. But some simple phrases in respective regional languages to ask how much and reduce the price would help while bargaining.
SEARCH BEYOND SOUVENIRS – Indians use a lot of tools and accessories for their culinary style. Some may be so unique that you may not get it in an Indian store in your country. Keep your eyes open for such things and check what they use it for with locals.
This isn’t a murder weapon, but a coconut chopper. – At Pudukottai in Madurai
As a foreigner carries enough cash, including smaller currencies, most Indians use digital payment these days, and even small vendors accept it. So getting a small number of loose changes will be a headache otherwise.
Take advice from genuine people and not only your car driver – Many times, taxi/auto drivers get a commission for taking customers to a shop. So revise and rethink every time a taxi driver suggests you a shop. Sometimes it may be the best or the worst. Research before spending.
Beware of fake products -Whether online or offline shopping, you get the fake version of every product. For example, Mysore’s famous KSIC silk sarees start from 15k, while a poor quality similar-looking product is sold for 4k with the same label.
Wear appropriate footwear and clothing in local markets – You have to walk/stand a lot in local markets. Though the spirit of shopping is high, some markets aren’t the cleanest.
Look for shopping festivals and sprees – The place I love most, “Rann of Kutch”, holds Rann Ustav every year from December to March. Artisans from all over Gujarath come there with their works. Dastkar in Delhi is something you should keep an eye on. Each state will have its own fair and exhibitions yearly.
Carry cloth bag – The universal law for shopping is to carry your own cloth bag. In India, many cities have banned the use of plastics. The shops charge you extra 10Rs for carrybags.
Beautiful desi brands.
Kutch is India’s handicraft capital in my opinion. There are many NGOs
This is the list of a few Indian brands that I have used. They aren’t cheap, but worth the money.
- Forest essentials: The authentic Ayurvedic products whose roots are based on traditional skincare techniques.
- Shaylee & Desi – The best brands for cotton outfits & home decor that encourage rural empowerment.
- Chumbak’s designs depict India’s vibrance with elegance with their patterns and colours.
- Purple Turtle – Unique home decor.
Things not to buy in India.
Don’t buy the regular brands like Marks & Spencer / H&M
India is one of the largest exporters of stitched clothes. So the price here is much lower than in western countries ( Not as cheap as Sri Lanka). After travelling outside, I realised that branded clothes quality is lower in India than what you get in the west. So if you want brands, don’t buy in India. Stick to local and streetside shopping if you want western clothes.
Don’t buy Cinnamon
It is easy to get carried away with average quality cinnamon as India is the spice capital of the world. Personally, I prefer Sri Lankan cinnamon better than ours.
Don’t buy all dry fruits.
Dates and figs are grown in India to a small extent. Except for cashew and almonds, I prefer middle eastern dry fruits better than ours.
Don’t buy Gemstones.
Though 90% of the world’s diamond gets cut in Surat, the diamond and gemstones available in India aren’t the best quality. Buy the precious stone jewellery, but not the stone.
Don’t buy animal products like ivory and horns.
You may have heard of fine leather bags of King Kobra from India or ivory studded jewel boxes. Or even those stuffed stag heads with beautiful animal horns. It is illegal to hunt animals for these products and banned by the government. But poachers still have their way to get things done. Don’t buy any animal-related objects to discourage poachers.
Don’t buy winterwear.
The handwoven woollen sweaters are good for temperatures more than 12*C. Indian winter wears usually don’t cater to anything below that temperature.
Best things to buy in India.
On this planet, you won’t find any other place that gives you a variety of jewels at a lower price as much as India gives. Since Pakistanis and we wear similar jewels, you may find similar collections. The apparel doesn’t just end in necklaces and earrings – Bangles, finger rings, anklets, nose pin, waist belt and so on. I recommend you to buy Glass bangles, Jumkas and anklets because they are unique to India. Plus, don’t forget to check on tribal special jewellery.
Buy anywhere and everywhere in local markets. Whether it is a small kiosk at weekend markets (Santhe) or stores with name board “Fancy Stores”, you are never far from a shop for apparel in India.
Insense sticks and Dhoppam
Buddhists and Hindus use incense sticks as a primary part of the Pooja ritual. According to Ayurveda, real Dhoopam – a cube made using natural ingredients that produce perfumed smoke, creates fresh air and has medicinal value. These Dhoopams are used in Muslim Dargas too. You get multiple branded ones in any grocery and little shops outside religious places. But the best ones are without labels found in local markets.
We use it daily, and I have bought the best ones outside Rumtek monastery in Gangtok, Cauvery emporium & Devraj Urs Market in Mysore.
Cotton and Khadi clothing are something that I love most about Indian clothing. Kurtha Paijam for men, salwar Kameez and short kurtas for women, and long flowing flared skirts are unique to Indian cotton clothing. Most states produce cotton and have power looms.
But my recommendation is – Kolkatta in West Bengal, Ahmedabad in Gujarath, Mysore, Bangalore and Sagara in Karnataka.
Along with stitched clothes, running fabrics are a great buy in India. You can use some as curtains, bedspreads or even get dresses stitched. The block printed handloom fabrics are the best, in my opinion, as they are mostly made of natural dye & durable. Along with the quality of clothing, the work on fabric varies with region. A list of my favourite fabrics are-
- Kalamkaari from Kaalahasthi
- Brocade from Banaras and Gujarath.
- Ajrakh from Kutch
- Kantha fabrics from Orissa
If you have had enough of the stuffed toys and plastic toys, you will be thrilled to see Indian toys made of various materials. North-Eastern states tribal masks and clay toys are a great addition to the home decor. Dasara doll/Gollu exhibition is a serious business during the Navratri festival in Karnataka & Tamil Nadu. Kolkatta’s Kumartuli idol makers create gigantic masterpieces: seeing them make themselves is hypnotising. Channapatna’s wooden toys are world-famous and the highest quality ones are exported to foreign countries.
The best places to buy are – Nagaland for tribal themed toys, Gujarath for handmade fabric toys, Karnataka for Channapatna toys, Tamilnadu for clay Gollu.
Pietra Durra: The art of carving stone is evident and famous in Agra. The white marbles are carved with care and made into sockets to fit precious colourful gemstones. You can buy wine glasses of Pietra Dura that cost 7500 Rs or even buy a tabletop that cost 3Lakh.
Buy Marbleware in government-approved workshops in Agra.
Pappad & Namkeens
The sweets like Rasmalai make you drool over it, but they get spoiled without refrigerating after a day. The pappads are dried thin wafers made of rice flour/saabudaana mixed with Indian spices are that you must carry home. Some of them are good for roasting, and most must be deep-fried. Our favourites are Fried Okra, Onion Sandige, Rice Papad, and Jackfruit papad.
You get brands like MTR & Haldiram for these. Most rural homestays make these fresh and sell. Check with your host for recommendations as the type varies with each region.
While pappads are something you need to fry or roast, namkeens are ready-to-eat snacks. Bikaner and Ahmedabad is India’s Namkeen capital in my point of view. When in Chikmagalur and Kerala, don’t forget to try Banana chips.
Bags and shoes
If you have been using solid colour bags and wants a twist to your outfit, India’s patterned and embroidered bags are a must to be added to your collection. Sling bags with beads work or clutches with Zardosi work; you find this in all ranges and designs.
Buy bags in Gujarath and Rajasthan for some highly embroidered and mirror worked ones.
The bling goes to our footwear also. Simple Osho chappals to colourful Juttis of Punjab and Kollhapuri sandals, you find colourful footware for 300-400Rs. You can even get an extra soft rubber sole stitched by a cobbler nearby if you find these hard for your feet.
Buy shoes in Punjab – Their Jutthis are a true value addition for your outfits.
Lavancha root sandals are unique to India and are great for indoors.They are majorly made in hill stations of Karnataka & Kerala.
Most foreigners associate Indian culture with this 9-yard fabric beauty for all the right reasons. Each state in India at least have two variety of sarees that is authentic to them. Paithani silk of Maharashtra is peacock them based. My favourite Mysore silk is plain and simple with real gold threads. The checkered cotton handloom sarees of Chettinad and plain Gadwal cotton silk sarees with contrasting borders have a different feel itself. The cost varies with each type and quality. For 2000 Rs, you get a nice quality handloom saree. A pure Kanjeevaram simple saree may cost 5000Rs, and Mysore silk starts from 15000Rs. Gujarat’s & Rajasthan’s Bandini saree on synthetic material is also a great buy if you love colourful clothes.
Saree is the symbol of elegance when draped correctly. I mention this because if not draped correctly, it feels like you wrapped a piece of cloth like linen on Mummies. There are hundreds of videos on youtube to teach you this – So no worries.
Dupattas and scarf
Almost every Indian dress can be accessorised with a dupatta. Plus, you see Indian girls covering faces with only the eyes left for the heat and dust. Then there are Farsi and Muslim community women who wear Hijab. Men’s sherwani also needs a highly embroidered dupatta to make it grander. So our scarf and Dupatta range are vast, colourful and beautiful.
Personal favourites are – Pashmina shawls of Kashmir, Bandini of Gujarath, Leheriya of Gujarath and vegetable dyed Linen dupatta for Kurthas.
Once you visit any palace in India, you very well know how fond our Maharajas were about wooden handicrafts. Simple wooden bowls, sandalwood craft, wooden toys, carved wooden wall hangs – You can place an order for an intricately carved teakwood cot or buy a pearl embossed wooden box. The best places to buy wooden craft in India are-
- Karnataka -Sandalwood statues in Mysore.
- Uttar Pradesh – Saharanpur’s woodcraft is one of the finest in India and got GI Tag.
- Kalimpong – West Bengal’s small town is famous for its wooden cutlery.
The Maharaja and his courtmen lived a lavish life. The antique markets show you how luxurious their life was, other than the palace. Many shops sell brass and copper items, from kitchenware to Hindu pooja items like bells and Arathi plates.
Buy it in – Karaikkudi antique market in Tamil Nadu, Jaipur and Delhi.
Carpets & Quilts
The story of how Persian travellers during the Mughal time got stuck in Mirzapur, who locals helped, is intriguing. To return the help, the [ersian travellers taught them to weave carpets. Since then, Mirzapur people have prepared of one the best rugs in the world.
Kutch region people are born to make handicrafts. There is some magic in the way their hand moves. So the quilts made by attaching multiple layers of clothes keep you warm in winter and cool in summer.
As the patchwork technique spread to other parts, the Lambani tribe became the masters of it. So you find the patchwork in multiple places of India.
Ayurvedic skincare products
I remember my mother using Mtti leaves for shampooing my hair. Eventually, we stopped using it, and my hair falls increased. The plants that grow these have vanished near my home. Fortunately, a few Indian companies manufacture skincare products using these natural products. Most products are pricey, but they are worth it. Beware of overpriced and fake items that float in every street around touristy areas.
Products worth buying are – Shampoo and conditioner, Kumkum based skin creams. Uttarakhand and Himalayan regions are the best places to buy these. Also, look for non-labelled ones in western Ghats villages.
Tea and coffee powder
I wonder if it is tea or blood that runs in most Indians veins because we are one of the top 5 countries that produce tea leaves, and we consume 70% of it. The five main states produce different varieties of tea powder- some are meant for black tea, and the others are for milk tea. Almost every tea estate open for visitors will have a kiosk selling their powder. Darjeeling has hundreds of shops selling their world-famous tea powder. Most of the time, what you buy in such shops won’t be good. So check with your host what they use and buy the same brand.
Arab traveller Baba Budan brought coffee beans from Yemen to Chikmagalur hill. Now coffee estates are the soul of Karnataka’s Chikmagalur. It spread to Coorg during the British period, and now South India’s filter coffee is one of the finest coffee you can ever have. Traditionally brewed in Brass filter and is now brewed in similar steel filters and even electric filters. A pinch of sugar or jaggery mixed with milk along with filtered decoction is heavenly.
The best place to buy Coffee powder in India is the major towns of South India, Chikmagalur, Coorg and Kumbakonam. Make sure to buy a coffee filter along. Some of the brands I prefer for filter coffee are – Cothas speciality blend and Cothas Nova Therm, Coffee day ultra-rich.
Spices & Dry fruits
How can you go back without buying spices from a country that grows/uses and exports them most? Most tourist places like Agra, Jaipur will have spice shops- they are pricey, and maybe unauthentic. Head to any local grocery shop away from the “made to tourist” shops to grab the aroma first and then buy.
The best spices to buy are – Cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, Amla powder, cloves, turmeric, Cumin powder and seeds and Asafoetida (Hing)
The best buy dry fruits are cashew, areca nut(if you know its use) and almonds.
Indian food essentials
Indian food ingredients are endless. Whether it is powder or paste, some are unique to India.
- Garma masala powder – for Indian curries
- Curry Powders – for Rasam, Sambar and other non veg curries
- Pickles – spicy & juicy pickles of Lemon, raw mango and gooseberries
- Pulses – finger millet, saabudaana, Lentils, Chia seeds.
- Oils – Coconut, Mustard and Groundnut oil.
Diamonds and gold jewels
90% of diamond cutting on the planet happens in Surat of Gujarath. It doesn’t mean you get it for the lower price here, but the designs are mindblowing. Simple solitaire diamond jewellery is never meant for Indians- We love dramatic and detailed pieces from Traditional South India’s Temple jewellery, West India’s Kundan etc. Be sure of the seller, don’t forget to check and verify the diamond certification, gold making charges and silver rates in the market before spending your fortune.
What would you consider buying in India? Let us know in the comment section below.