Travelling through the eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim reveals artisan traditions that have stood the test of time. The region has a rich variety of handicrafts and handlooms many of which show a strong influence from surrounding areas like Tibet and Nepal. The fine woodwork, scroll paintings, ornamental tables and carpets that are seen in the monasteries are perhaps a visitor’s first introduction to the crafts of this state. But there's a lot more than just that. Here are five stunning handloom and handicrafts of Sikkim to look out for:
Handwoven Textiles and Decor
One of the most commonly bought handicrafts are products made of ‘thara’ or a textile woven by the traditional Lepcha weavers. It is said that centuries ago, the indigenous Lepcha tribe of Sikkim used to make yarn from the stinging nettle plant (sisnu). The use of cotton and silk was introduced later. Woven on a vertical loom (of narrow width) with a back strap, the cotton and silk yarn is used to make textiles that are later stitched to make clothes, scarves, bags and purses, curtains, table cloths, etc. Colourful traditional designs make these products unique. Although the traditional Lepcha hat, made of bamboo and cane, is rarely worn these days, it is worth picking up from the many shops that line Gangtok's MG Road. Sikkim is also known for its colourful hand-knotted carpets decorated with attractive traditional motifs.
Thangka or painted scrolls are held in high esteem among Sikkim’s Buddhist community. Artists take utmost care to produce these thangkas, which usually have an image of a deity, such as Buddha or Tara, or the Wheel of Life, as its central theme. Other objects, figures or symbols may be drawn around it. The paintings are usually drawn with natural dyes on a canvas of cotton or silk. They are often framed with a silk or brocade border. Thangkas, being sacred objects, kept at homes and monasteries, can be of many sizes. Some monasteries have special thangkas, which are displayed during festivals.
Visitors to Sikkim are often fascinated by the low wooden tables, painted with ornamental motifs and seen at most hotels and homes. These foldable tables are known as ‘chokste’. A look at the old monasteries, whose exteriors are decorated with beautiful woodwork, will tell you woodcarving has been a Inricate wooden carvings Usually, three types of wood — ‘tooni’ (toona celiata),’rani chaap’ (macalia exelsa), and ‘okher’ (walnut) – are used for wood carvings. The craftspeople also make a square wooden table known as ‘bakchok’.
Decorative screens, lamp stands, masks and lucky charms made of wood are excellent souvenirs too. The wood carving legacy of Sikkim is unique and intensely rich, being deeply rooted in this Himalayan region’s unparalleled geography, culture and tradition.
Cane and Bamboo
Craftspeople also make vases, tumblers, decorative items and fashion accessories out of bamboo. Cane, though found in limited areas, is also used to make household goods like moorahs (small stools), and pen stands, picture frames, baskets and dust bins. You can also pick up eco-friendly products made out of cane and bamboo like fruit and vegetable baskets, beer mugs, hair clips, and flower vases.
Wooden masks, traditionally used for religious ceremonies, represent various deities or animals. Usually, these masks are made of a wood called Zaru, which is found in the higher reaches of Sikkim. The masks are often identified by their colours and designs. For example, the mask of Khangchendzonga is always red in colour.
Where to Buy
Several shops on MG Marg in Gangtok stock excellent handicraft items, but make sure they are authentic.
The shops at Buddha Park in Ravangla are also a great place to pick up local craft items.
Gangtok’s Directorate of Handicrafts & Handloom, a must on tourist itineraries, has different departments dedicated to each craft, and a sales counter too.