The culture of Punjab has always pivoted around its folk customs, embracing all that is rural and adds value to the traditional way of life. Along with its rich cuisine, colourful attire, joyous dance and lilting music, it takes just pride in the skillfully created handicrafts it has long been famous for. Notably, the occupational crafts of Malwa, the Silk Route inspired artistic wealth of Majha, and the woodcraft of Doaba, consequent to its proximity to the forests of the Shivalik foothills. Not least the textile related skills of the women of Punjab; phulkari and baghs, durries, woven silks, carpets, gold thread embroidery and Chamba rumals, not just depicting rites of passage but the cultural richness of the times.
Majha: Strategically located on the Silk Route, Majha region’s wealth is reflected in its carved havelis (mansions), expensive textiles, delicately embroidered shawls, woolen carpets, zardozi (embroidery), ivory carving and inlay, lac decorated bedposts and elegant palm leaf fans.
Amritsar traded silks, shawls and horses from Afghanistan and Central Asia long before shawl and carpet weaving were promoted by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He set up galeecha workshops under the supervision of skilled Kashmiri weavers who migrated to Amritsar when it became part of the Sikh Empire. The availability of quality wool from the neighbouring hill states lent impetus to this craft, allowing for exceptionally fine hand-knotted woolen carpets. Even today a cluster of villages, notably Konke, Tapiyala, Lopoke, Rajsansi , Kot Khalsa and Chugawan, continue to produce these geometrically patterned pile carpets. The metal workers of Amritsar are renowned for their skill. The old city of Amritsar consists of a number of katras (zones) and mandis (markets) where a variety of businesses are still conducted. For silversmiths visit the Sarafan Bazaar, and for all things metallic - engraved brass doors, kalash (vessel) and chattar (umbrella) for temples, the Kesarian Bazaar is your answer.
Batala is known for its fine cotton cloth, and sansi, a combination of silk and cotton. Consequent to the migration of a large number of ironsmiths from Sialkot in Pakistan to this region, the town has acquired immense fame for its cast swords. The town has also long produced carved wood work in the form of khadavan (wooden slippers), butter churners, rolling pins, chairs, tables, beds and screens.
Doaba: The Doaba region is located in the delta of the Beas and Satluj rivers and is fronted by the wooded kandi area of Shivalik’s foothills. It has long had a concentration of artisan communities-especially wood workers, shoe makers and tanners. Plastic inlay in wood, lac turnery and wooden musical instruments have continued to be important local crafts.
In lac turned wood work, Jalandhar is particularly popular for its singhardaani (container) and peedi (low stool) fashioned out of sheesham and deodar. Another handicraft, the panja dhurrie, intricately connected with the Punjabi concept of dowry that includes items of bedding continues to be woven in the villages around Jalandhar. The bedding consists of a dhurrie, a thin padded mattress, an embroidered mat, embroidered quilt covers and hand-worked khes, all woven and embroidered by the bride.
The nearby town of Kartarpur has a number of cottage industries – carpet weaving, woven textiles, ban rope making, some excellent carpentry and shoe making. Due to the latter, the town has a large number of tanning units and an important hide mandi as well.
Nakodar, an important camping site during the rule of the Mughals, is today famous for the manufacture of dhurries and throws. Although the craft was practiced in most rural areas of Punjab, it became a domestic industry on a commercial scale associated with this town after the arrival of immigrant weavers from Sialkot in Pakistan arrived at Nakodar, Noormahal and the villages around. In Nakodar, bed dhurries are woven in multicoloured stripes, and dhurries for the floor in two contrasting colours. The motifs used in both, however, are derived from birds, beasts, plants and embroidered textiles.
Hoshiarpur produces dark sheesham furniture with engraved foliage patterns inlaid with acrylic, camel bone and shell. The motifs are either Persian in origin or adaptations of the exquisite wood carving in the havelis of Hoshiarpur. The foliage patterns, usually cypress trees that appear in most of the inlay work are now being supplemented with figures and landscapes, the details of which are etched and coloured with natural ink. Hoshiarpur is also justly famed for its vibrantly coloured turned wooden furniture, ornamented with motifs etched on a lac coating. Visitors are urged to browse around Dabbi Bazaar, Bassi Ghulam Hussain and Boothgarh for the best purchases of this craft including chairs, peg tables, sideboards, screens, doors and jewellery boxes.
Malwa: To the south of the River Satluj lies Malwa, the vast arid region which comprised three important principalities – Patiala, Faridkot and Malerkotla- of which Patiala rose to be the most influential. With the increased prosperity of Patiala, whole bazaars sprang up where craftsmen made and sold jewellery, zardozi (gold embroidery) fancy drawstrings, gold-embroidered footwear, dyed turbans and dupattas (stoles). The predominant handicraft of the Malwa region is the phulkari, an embroidered wrap, made of a thick cotton fabric called khaddar. Woven in narrow widths and later joined to form the desired size, the fabric is most often an auspicious dark red, on which the embroidery is executed in silk thread dyed yellow, orange, burgundy, bright pink, purple, blue and green. Aside from their everyday use as veils, the phulkari is integrated into the lives of the women and is an indispensable element in ceremonies, especially those concerning birth, death and marriage.
Visitors to Patiala must make it a point to browse around the Tripadi wholesale market to view and purchase fine samples of this colourful tradition. Modern day variations of fabric, style and colours can be seen in the cushion covers stoles and suits that line the many shops in Adalat Bazaar. Patiala also specializes in silken nalas (drawstrings) with highly decorative tassels that are much sought after. Before the advent of machine made drawstrings, every woman twined, plaited and knitted her own and these skills were passed on from mother to daughter. An entire street is dedicated to this craft in the Qila Chowk area of Patiala.
Another sought after produce of Patiala is the tilla jutti, the traditional embroidered footwear of Punjab. Hand-stitched with silver and golden wire, no nails are used in the fabrication, and no distinction is made between the left and right foot. The defining feature is an upturned toe resembling a proudly curly moustache! In Fazilka, the jutti is embroidered in a checkered pattern, while the jutti of Muktsar is characterized by the multi-coloured tilla. The one from Abohar is extremely light and no longer embroidered but embossed, cut worked, appliquéd and beaded.
Malerkotla, the only Muslim-Pathan principality in Punjab, possesses expert zardozi embroiderers and metal workers. Their juttis are renowned for their fine, dense embroidery motifs that cover the insole as well as the upper. It is also the hub for making monograms, badges and emblems on military uniforms in tilla (gold thread) embroidery.