Travel Souvenir Ideas: Not Made In China

As a seasoned traveller, do you find all travel souvenir ideas boring? Here are my favourite things to shop for when travelling in India.


As a seasoned traveller, do you find all travel souvenir ideas boring? Here are my favourite things to shop for when travelling in India.

This article was originally published in Women’s Web, an online community for the thinking Indian woman.

Thousands of years ago, when people from Asia crossed the Bering land bridge and first entered the American continent, the earth must have been an imaginably vast place with every new territory truly a revelation to the traveler. A few hundred years ago, when Columbus ‘discovered’ America, the world was a reasonably large place, with bits and pieces filled in on the map, and newer places getting on to it one by one.

Today, the world seems incredibly small in comparison, and though travel writers and film-makers try hard to get us the next ‘off-beat’ destination, never is the smallness of the world more evident than when seeking interesting travel souvenir ideas.

As every seasoned traveler soon discovers, the one thing common to most travel souvenirs is that they’re all made in China – regardless of where you buy them. And after some time, I get bored of fridge magnets and miniature monuments. If you’re travelling in India and visiting any popular getaway, especially one frequented by many Western travelers like Pondicherry, Hampi or Agra, the one thing you can be sure of finding is a Kashmiri gift shop selling ‘real pashmina’, carpets and ‘antiques’. Not that I have anything against Kashmiri shops or antiques, but there is only so much pashmina one can buy, and I’d rather buy something that has some relationship to where I’ve been.

Buying local when travelling in India

Even remote places in India are not immune to the trend of homogenization, but buying local still gives you a chance to treasure a slice of where you’ve been. Here are some of my favourite things to shop for while travelling in India:

Local weaves/textiles: In these days of mass production, it is increasingly hard to find textiles that are specific to a place, but it is possible with some research. It is also perhaps easier to find local embroidery or other handwork, even if the cloth has been manufactured elsewhere. For me, the best thing about buying locally made clothes when travelling in India, is knowing that some part of that money is benefitting local residents, especially women who often do the weaving and embellishing. Plus, I take care of my clothes pretty carefully, so most things last me a while, and I have that much longer to savour the memories. Unlike keepsakes, clothes are not permanent, but then, that gives you a chance to shop again on your next trip!

Food products: Amritsari wadiyan and paapad, Kumaoni chutneys, Manipuri bamboo pickle, blueberry jam and tea from the Nilgiris are among the delicious goodies I have shopped for while travelling, the last few years. As the world becomes more homogenized, opening a jar of plum chutney that tastes like nothing I’ve ever tasted before is one of the few ways in which I quench my thirst for novelty. In the last decade, many regions in India have started producing hygienically made, high quality products, and women’s self-help groups are at the forefront of this trend. What better way to support them than tucking into the goodies they make?

Food products also make for excellent gifts, I’ve discovered, unlike things like décor items and showpieces which sometimes turn out all wrong for your recipient’s house.

Boxes: Yes, I admit it, I have a box fetish. I love decorative little boxes of all types and use them to store trinkets like earrings, clips and so on. Boxes are not always handmade, which unfortunately means that they may sometimes not be locally made. Still, they usually come from the region nearby and tend to have some connection with the place. My favourite is a box in some kind of yellowish stone that I bought near the Ajanta caves, with an image of a reclining Buddha engraved beautifully on the top. Every time I open it, it reminds me of one of my favourite trips.

Books/music: This is something that I do only occasionally, but some places are great for picking up books and music specific to the region, or even discover local authors/musicians who are not as popular in other cities. Special to me is a CD of devotional music that I picked up outside the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, as it reminds me of the blissful three hours I spent inside, with an incredible feeling of peace and oneness.

Of course, the best takeaway from pretty much every place I’ve been to, are the experiences I’ve had. To riff on the popular phrase, clothes and boxes and jams and books may take a chunk out of your wallet but the memory of watching a blue-black sky with a loved one, and feeling a thump in your heart at the thought that it is merely a canvas for thousands of stars – now that’s priceless.


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