"Better the spear that missed an elephant than the arrow that killed a hare."
- Indian proverb
Gavin, my pal in Delhi, tells me about a remote town in the deep South of India with rows and rows of antique shops filled with castoffs of wealthy Indian merchants. I am always on the hunt for new ideas and old markets and I jump at the chance to tag along with him. Every season I hit the road to find new ideas in painted monastaries atop soaring mountains or local bazaars down sweltering warrens. Either way, it usually works.
First stop is the temples of Madurai. One can’t help gawking at the amazing pyramid temples in the South of India. The technicolor facade on the Meenakahi temple consists of countless gods and animals endlessly piled on top of each other rising straight up to the heavens. One thousand columns support the temple. It is more than one thousand years old and the city itself is twenty five hundred years old. Fifteen thousand visitors queue up daily to rush in and pray to the Shiva. These numbers make my head spin. At one of the four main gates Gavin and I check our shoes and buy offerings in the form of piles of lotus petals, rosewater and heavenly smelling frangipani. I hang back as the crowds literally run into the temple in religious fervor bordering on a rugby match. Offerings are made as bare chested priests in saffron saturated lungis change the clothing of the god. I wander the deserted edges of the temple complex, monks smiling as I pass. Small idols are sheltered from the sun by massive banyan trees, scraps of fabrics tied to their branches as offerings. Rumor has it there is a tank of water at the temple that judges the merit of poetry thrown into it. If the poems float they are worth reading if they sink they are not—I am tempted to come back with my latest swatches and give it a shot!
Next my intrepid friend points us in the direction of a local market found in an old temple. As we enter the temple, the stalls are just opening: gaily painted wooden cabinets stuffed full of wonders. Gavin is searching for old copper pots, instead we find a stall for sari trimmings filled with dazzling embroidered parrots, peacocks and all sorts of geometric figures for fancying up sarongs. Like crows sighting sparkling baubles, we both dive in, politely elbowing each other aside. The good thing about shopping with a pal is you can play good cop/bad cop when the shopkeeper throws out ridiculous prices. The bad thing is sometimes you are snatching at the same items!
Finally we make our way out of the temple market only to land in another market selling spiritual accessories. I’m mesmerized by two feet high mounds of sandalwood paste the faithful smear on their bodies. These odd shapes of dazzling honeybee yellow seem like pure sculpture. Gavin haggles over purple loops of cane representing earrings of the gods but looking more like mod light fixtures. All this shopping takes its toll and we pause for a fresh green coconut from a serious looking street vendor. I think he overcharges us but I have learned not to argue with a man with a machete.
Warmed up with the temple and market shopping, we jump into a car and head south. A quick roadside thali on a bright banana leaf always hits the spot. I happily knead the rice and curry, following it up with a local south Indian coffee dramatically aerated by a fellow who pours the coffee from a height of three feet, never spilling a drop.
We head to the hinterland and Konchipuram. For years I’ve heard tell of this place-—its hundreds of deserted mansions once home to the Chettiars, moneylenders to the Raj from 1850-1930. Changing times dried up their fortunes and antique shops soon sprang up to contain their detritus. The shops and warehouses, or godowns, are filled with Burma teak columns, Italian marble, glassware from Bohemia. Shop after shop contains dowries of the grand old days in Karaikudi where families would show off their international flare with items from around the world: glass bibs and bobs, Swedish enamelware by Cockum in sea greens and orange yellows mixed with dusty low-fired ceramic figurines of police officers or gods made for pujas, their haphazard painting bestowing a relaxed charm.
Making my way down the street, I survey piles of vintage Burmese laquerware painted with the finest brush in beetle juice reds and golds, their original paper labels still affixed. Raja Ravi prints of gods look down from the top of the stores, embroidered upon and embellished with sequins—-lively companions for any house! Gavin and I dash ahead of each other in a fevered frenzy. I find some two feet high clay replicas of the Madurai temple. We decide since there are four, we will each take two but bequeath them to each other so the four pillars will be reunited when one of us dies—seems fitting.
We couldn’t leave without seeing some of the eccentric mansions scattered about the surrounding hills. A hybrid of Tamil and Western design, these once-stately homes still display extravagent facades. Grand entrances lead to teak pillared hallways with hand-made tile floors of gentle reds and pinks. Belgian chandeliers cast their delicate light on egg tempura walls as soft as skin and doors depicting scenes of the gods so intricatly carved they took three years to make. No less than five courtyards in every house, mostly of Indo-Saracenci design, where you might see Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth alongside King George V. Paintings along the walls tell more stories of the gods, family portraits look down at an angle as you walk the long empty corridors. Vast halls built for balls and weddings now contain only dry fountains overgrown with grass: real grey gardens. Even these few days of hopping around the South are enough to get me revved up about a new set of designs. My bags can bear no more and I’m sure to pay excess baggage for all my treasures. We head back north, charmed by another fascinating corner of India alive with history, culture, food and design. Once again I am amazed that after all of these years and trips to India there are always new adventures around the corner. That’s the wonder of India I try to bring into my collections. Best, John Robshaw