Arts & Crafts of Himachal Pradesh
The geographic isolation of Himachal
has allowed its people to evolve their own unique tradition of
handicrafts. The mind-boggling range includes fine woodwork,
traditional leather embroidery, beautifully patterned carpets,
traditional woollen shawls and lots of other things.
¤ Wood Carving
all over the state abound in pine and deodar, besides walnut, horse
chestnut and wild black mulberry. Wood has been used to great effect
in temples and lavishly built palaces. The steep-roofed pine temples
of northern HP often bear relief figures carved on their outer walls.
Intricately carved seats, doors, windows and panels speak volumes of
the craftspersons skill. The Bhimakali Temple of Sarahan is a
perfect product of the kind.
Woodcarving is still a living tradition in HP. Pahari artisans use
wood to make intricate jalis, trelliswork or perforated reliefs that
filter light, transforming the interiors of a building with the play
of light and shade and balancing mass with delicacy.
The carpenters of both villages and towns make beautiful objects of
everyday use like vedis (low benches), bedlegs, cradles, bedsteads,
low settees, boxes, ladles, churners, rolling pins, wooden utensils,
charkhas (spinning wheels) and hukka nari (the pipe and body of the
smoking pipe). You might like to take back something from their range
of fruit bowls, beermugs, wooden jewellery, decorative boxes and
carved images. Bamboo and willow bark is also stripped and fashioned
into sturdy trays and baskets.
To say that HP has a rich tradition of painting would be an
understatement. While museums and art galleries preserve the famous
miniature paintings of the region, traditional ritual paintings can be
seen in most village houses, on the floors and walls. Women draw magic
diagrammatic designs called yantras on the thresholds on ceremonial
Floor paintings are white, done with rice paste, while wall paintings
are colourful. The colours are from what the women use in their daily
lives red from kumkum (the liquid for bindi, the dot between
the brows), yellow from turmeric powder, red ochre from golru (red
clay), and so on.
In some places like Kangra, Mandi and Bilaspur, brilliant wall
paintings are done in the torana griha (honeymoon room), where the
newly married couple enjoy their first days of togetherness. This
painting is known as kauhara or kamdeo. Temple walls, too, sometimes
have bright motifs painted on them.
Various schools of miniature painting collectively called Pahari,
flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries in the sub-Himalayan
states. The hilly region, then divided into 22 princely states, was
ruled by Rajput kings or chieftains who were all great connoisseurs of
art, with most of them maintaining ateliers.
The focal points of their lives were war, hunting, lineage, and the
zenana. Also partial to love themes, especially the legends of Radha
and Krishna, the Rajputs liked them depicted in miniature paintings.
¤ The Pahari Paintings of Mid-17th Century
early Pahari paintings of the mid-17th century were in the Basholi
style (dubbed so because of its association with the king of Basholi).
These are extraordinarily colourful and charged with vitality and
emotion. Two persistent strains can be observed a fondness for
the portraits of the local rajas in plain white garments and for the
gods of the Hindu pantheon.
The paintings bear resemblance to Rajasthani and Malwa paintings but
this can be attributed to the fact that the kings of the princely
states in Himachal were Rajputs.
Some of the telling characteristics are the use of extremely elegant
two-dimensional architectural settings topped by domes or pavilions,
bands of scrollwork pattern and the use of elaborately figured rugs.
There are many striking works in this genre as the Basholi style, with
its strong indigenous Indian element, is well suited to the portrayal
of many-headed Shivas and many-armed Durgas (figures from the vast
stockpile of Indian mythology).
¤ Painters From The Mughal Court
The coming of painters from the Mughal court in the second quarter of
the 18th century (due to the decline of the Mughal Empire) led to a
complete transformation of the existing Basholi style.
There was a wholesale ferrying in of Mughal style and fashion, from
dress to architecture to the arts. The resultant was the Guler-Kangra
The style owes a great deal to later Mughal painting, particularly in
its receding planes, its fondness for quasi-realistic landscape and
its frequent enlargement of the figures on the page.
This late Pahari style first appeared in Guler, and then in Kangra.
Raja Goverdhan Singh (1744-1773) of Guler gave shelter to many
¤ Kangra School of Paintings
Under the ambitious Sansar Chand (1775-1823), the Kangra School
flourished happily. It is said that Sansars love for a gaddi (a
tribe of Chamba-Kangra region) maiden drove him to commission the
Kangra Fort, where he held court for nearly 25 years, was once adorned
with paintings and attracted art lovers from far and wide.
Later he moved his capital to Nadaun and finally to Sujanpur Tira.
The temples and palaces at each of these places were adorned with
lovely miniatures. The 1905 earthquake damaged many of these buildings
but you can still see some of the miniature wall paintings.
¤ The Kangra style of Paintings
The Kangra style is by far the most poetic and lyrical of Indian
styles, says art historian J. C. Harle.
His favourite subject here is the idealization of woman, in
flowing sari, head half-covered with a shawl, demure but stately,
passionate and shy. The more complex many-figured compositions
usually larger and horizontal in format tend to illustrate
events from the Krishna legend the cowherd god putting out a
forest fire, subduing the serpent Kaliya, or stealing the clothes of
gopis (milkmaids of Braj) while they were bathing in the river.
The ability to handle large groups of figures and landscapes with
towns or clusters of houses in the distance is admirable. Apart from
intricate brushwork, Kangra miniatures are characterized by the
skillful use of brilliant mineral and vegetable extract colours that
possess an enamel-like lustre. But the strangest thing about these
hill paintings is that youll never find snow-capped mountains in
Research shows that while the Kangra style became well-entrenched in
the Hills, many offshoots emerged in regions like Kullu, Nurpur,
Chamba and Mandi. The Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba is best-known for
its exquisite collection of Pahari miniatures.
Places with a Tibetan community often sell intricate and brightly
coloured cloth paintings called thangkas.
These are actually ritual paintings displayed during certain Buddhist
festivals, but they happen to be extremely popular with foreign
tourists (and cost the earth too!).
Thangkas are scroll paintings on canvas, edged with a border of rich
silk, usually depicting the Buddha and other deities and the wheel of
life. The painting follows complex dicta like proportional grids for
each diety and traditional vegetable or mineral colours are used.
The Norbulingka Institute at McLeodganj is the centre of learning this
ancient art of Tibet.
¤ Rugs & Carpets
Carpets and blankets are almost synonymous with Himachali furnishing.
Their brilliant colours and traditional motifs can make you forget
your Persian back home! Youll be spellbound by their appearance
Garudas (Vishnus mount, the eagle) perched on flowering trees,
dragons, swastikas (auspicious Hindu/Buddhist emblem), flutes
(symbolizing happiness) and lotus blooms (signifying purity).
In the higher reaches of the state, hillfolk rear sheep and goats and
weave the wool and hair into traditional blankets, rugs and namdas
(heavy rugs). Namdas are made with beaten wool. In fact men spinning
wool by hand as they watch their flocks is a common sight in Himachal.
Fleecy soft blankets called gudmas are also very popular. They are
made from the wool of the Giangi sheep. They come in natural wool
colours and are finished with a red or black edging. Youll have
a lot of furnishings to choose from: thobis (floor coverings), karcha
(mattresses), which are made from goat hair, pattoo cloth (like
shawls), carpets and yarn made from soft wool. Back To Top
¤ Garments & Accessories
Himachalis simply love to dress up. Their everyday wear is so
colourful that youd think that they were dressed up for a
The Gujjars (a semi-nomadic tribe) wear kurtas (long shirts) which
are delicately embroidered with circular and linear patterns.
The people of Chamba are majorly fond of all sorts of accessories,
which include bright rumals (scarves) worn by the women, bangles and
rings made of horsehair and brightly patterned grass shoes.
has its own traditional footwear. People wear the most interesting
socks we bet youve never seen anything like them before.
These handknit woollen socks are brilliantly patterned in bright and
cheerful colours. Luckily for the rest of the world, they are sold in
abundance in the bazaars of Himachal, along with gloves, mufflers and
caps. The typical Kullu topi (cap), in shades of grey or brown and
flat on the top, is rather striking too.
A band of colourful woven fabric brightens the front and the topi
looks rather neat set at a rakish angle.
Embroidery seems to be the favourite pastime of pahari women, their
nimble fingers busy with needle and thread on lazy afternoons. Houses
in HP are replete with beautiful pieces like rumals (scarves),
coverlets, handfans, caps, cholis (bodices), gaumukhi (prayer gloves)
and such things.
The motifs are either from the traditional stock of miniature
painting, the landscape or are innovations of the women themselves.
This urge to create and live with beautiful pieces is very much a part
of pahari culture.
The red and orange richly embroidered silk rumals (scarves) of Chamba
are simply beautiful. The women of Chamba have traditionally made them
for a 1000 years now. These rumals are actually small shawls meant to
be used as head coverings.
They often depict scenes from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the
Raas-lila of Radha and Krishna. The embroidery is done in silk yarn on
tussar cloth or fine cotton. The stitches are so fine that there is no
evidence of knots or loose threads. As such both sides of the rumal
The ground is usually white or cream, but the embroidery threads
(usually red and orange) are in striking contrast. A finely
embroidered rumal can take something like even a month to complete.
¤ Woollen Garments
is an auspicious thing in Himachal, and no ritual occasion goes
without wearing woollen clothes. A quaint ritual during weddings, for
instance, is to wrap the bride and groom in a woollen shawl to protect
them from evil eyes.
Extremely fine and valuable shawls are a speciality of Himachal and
Kashmir. They are greatly sought after by tourists from all over the
In fact, shawl weaving is a major cottage industry in HP. These
shawls, both plain and patterned, are made from the fine hair of
pashmina goats. Pashm is the wool of a certain Asian species of
mountain goat, Capra hircus.
The fine fleece used to make these shawls is that which grows beneath
the rough outer hair. Did you know that the finest hair comes from the
underbelly which is shed with the onset of summer?
The right mix of wool gives beautiful shades of grey, blue, mustard
and black. Shawls in Kullu are often woven from the wool of angora
rabbits. The borders of these plain-looking shawls are decorated with
dazzling geometric designs. Shawls of Lahaul-Spiti, especially, are a
riot of colours. (Also see Kullu)
¤ Leather craft
Traditional Chamba chappals (slippers), plain or embroidered, are
exceptionally comfortable to wear.
They are embroidered with multicoloured threads red, black,
green, yellow and blue, and imitation zari (gold thread). Tourists
seem to love them and this inspires craftspersons to experiment with
patterns and designs.
Apart from chappals, you can also pick from a range of shoes, sandals,
socks and belts.
Chunky bead-and-metal jewellery of the hill people is usually in great
demand. As with most tribal communities, the traditional attire
includes ornaments for almost all parts of the body. Markets abound
with stalls selling amulets, pendants, necklaces, daggers and rings
youll probably want to take everything home!
Fine jewellery is crafted out of silver and gold. The jewellers of
the once-Rajput kingdoms of Kangra, Chamba, Mandi and Kullu were
famous for their enamelling skills.
They mainly worked with silver and were partial to deep blue and
green enamelling. They created exquisite pieces like elliptical
anklets, solid iron-headed bangles, hair ornaments, peepal-leaf-shaped
forehead ornaments, necklaces known as chandanhaars (a bunch of long
silver chains linked by engraved or enamelled silver plaques) and
pendants with motifs of the mother goddess.
An old Kangra pattern for silver anklets is a series of birds,
archaic in design, connected by silver links. Unfortunately most of
this is old jewellery and is no longer made. You could check it out in
museums like the Kangra Art Museum in Dharamsala, the State Museum in
Shimla and the Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba.
of the jewellery thats made now, coin necklaces are extremely
popular with pahari women. So much so that every pahari woman dreams
of owning one.
Chokers called kach (made of silver beads and triangular plaques) and
the collar-like hansali are also common. Heavy anklets, bangles and
silver bracelets (kare) solid or filled with shellac
with clasps in the shape of crocodile or lions heads are worn by all
In the Tibetan influenced Lahaul-Spiti, ornaments are studded with
semi precious stones like coral, turquoise, amber and mother-of-pearl.
In a land where religion rules daily life, worship is bound to be an
elaborate process. Temples are replete with pretty objects needed for
worship, all fine specimens of metalwork.
The metals used mainly are brass, copper, iron, tin and bell metal.
Apart from the exquisite statuettes enshrined, there are several metal
objects like bells with artistically designed handles, lamps, incense
burners, low settees of silver or brass, vessels and ornate musical
instruments in these temples.
In fact, the common lota (a small globular pot for storing water)
itself is available in so many different forms all over the state that
its amazing. Similar things may be used as everyday items at
Some of the more affluent homes possess beautifully fashioned
teapots, smoking pipes, carved panels, doorknobs and various other
artefacts. Metal workers havent lost their magic touch; this
centuries old craft is still one of the most vital traditions of the
¤ Another Metalcraft- Mohra
Another metalcraft unique to Himachal is the mohra.Mohras or metal
plaques representing a deity are common in Kullu and Chamba.
Most of them represent Shiva, but masks of the mother goddess Devi
and other deities are not uncommon. These plaques are usually made of
bronze, brass or silver and consecrated by a pujari (priest) before
being installed in a temple.
The head is sculpted in bold relief, while the neck and shoulders are
more summarily treated.
Each village has its own mohra. Mohras have been made in Himachal for
at least 1,400 years now. They are taken out of the temples on a
palanquin in processions during religious festivals like the grand
Thanks to the fair variety of stone found in this hilly region, stone
carving has been explored to the fullest in Himachal. Numerous
shikhara (spired) stone temples dot the landscape. The Lakshminarayan
temples of Chamba and the temples of Baijnath and Masrur in the Kangra
Valley are some splendid specimens of the kind.
Beautifully carved memorial stone slabs called panihars are also
found in several places, especially near temples and fountains.
Stone carvers in HP are hammering away at their blocks even today,
producing several artefacts of domestic use widely available in the
markets. These include traditional stoves (angithi), circular pots for
storing (kundi), pestle and mortar (dauri danda), mill stones (chakki)
and other things. The centres of sculpting in Himachal are
concentrated mainly in Mandi, Chamba, Kinnaur and the Shimla Hills.