Go for it! A destination that offers a unique combination of heritage, culture and leisure, Channapatna in Karnataka is much more than a toy town.
Did you know that former US President Barack Obama requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Channapatna toys when he came to India in 2015? Incidentally, the then First Lady Michelle Obama had bought Channapatna toys at the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum in New Delhi when she visited in 2010.
The small ‘toy town’ of Channapatna, located 60 km from Bengaluru, however, has a history of toy making that dates to the reign of Tipu Sultan, who is believed to have invited Persian artisans to train the locals in the art of making the wooden toys.
Today, the art form is seeing a revival and has also been granted a geographical indication (GI) tag under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Government has also created a Channapatna Crafts Park on the outskirts of the town where several industries are working on making these toys.
What makes these toys unlike any other is largely to do with the process of creating them. The wood for these toys is an ivory wood (called Hale Mara in Kannada) that is grown locally and the branches of the same are used, without uprooting the tree. The tree is cultivated and can be full grown in four years.
P Mohamed Ilyas carries on the legacy with his sons, including Suhel Parveez, who belongs to the fifth generation of the family through Bharath Art and Crafts. Parveez explains, “The toys we make are made with light wood and are environment friendly, child safe and use natural dyes. We are now making a concerted effort to continue the legacy and evolve and innovate to adapt to new markets. We have joined hands with designers and artisans and are training women in the local community and have the first BIS certification for quality assurance in toys.”
It helps that almost everyone in Channapatna has an artistic bent of mind and you can find artists in many homes here. At this factory, over 30 women work every day and all of them have undergone specific training as well. The best part is that sustainability is the focus of all operations here and even the waste wood is converted into incense sticks.
The process of making the toys is fascinating and you can request a factory tour at any of the workshops here. Some factories also allow you to try making the craft (at a fee of approximately about ₹500 per person). The soft ivory wood is shaped and then coated with lacquer made from vegetable dyes. Usually, simple tools are used to shape the dolls. The larger workshops use mechanical lathes before applying the lacquer. Lac chips made from a natural resin are heated over a coal fire and are melted over a wooden stick and natural-coloured dyes are added to the lac. For instance, turmeric powder is mixed with the lac to create a shade of yellow and this then attains a toffee-like consistency. It is shaped into sticks of different hues and then used to colour the surface of the toys.
The entire process makes for a great way to come up close with a craft that has survived the test of time. However, do note that many stores also sell cheap Chinese imitations, so you must make any purchases at authorised stores only.
Other aspects to Channapatna
A wealth of culture: Being in Ramanagar district, one of the other places that you must not miss is the Janapada Loka, a folklore rejuvenation centre. The open-air museum has several installations as well as the Lokamata Mandir, which is a closed exhibition space.
The 15-acre museum displays 5,000 folk artifacts and was started by HL Nagegowda, who was a civil servant and folklorist. The best part of the tour of the place is that it is conducted by local artisans. Malliah, one of the persons who works here, for instance, is a singer from the tribal Goravara community. From the costumes of the women of Halakki Vokkaliga in North Karnataka, to the embroidered costumes of the Lambanis at one end, to seeing the articles of everyday use like pig traps, weights, kitchen utensils, measures and earthen pots, there is never a dull moment.
Walking around, you will see several hero stones, sculptures and figurines that depict a slice of rural life. There are also homes of some communities like the weavers that are replicated as models.
One of the most ornate and elegantly carved temple chariots that dates to 1902 belonging to the Someshwara Temple in Bengaluru is on display here. The wooden structure has intricate carvings that depict gods and goddesses as well as animals and birds. It is interesting to note that there is a panel that depicts Queen Victoria’s ceremonial procession too.
Vineyard experience: If you have had your fill of history and culture, you can head to the Sula vineyards nearby for a meal as well as a vineyard tour. There is a cover charge of ₹200 due to the current pandemic situation, that can be redeemed against any spends inside. You can get a tour of the vineyards for this fee and if you wish to taste the wines (six variants), the charges are ₹500 per person.
The vineyards are relatively small here and currently only red wines are made in the facility. The rainwater system ensures that the place uses less water than required. There is a drip irrigation system in place as well. There are palm and rose plants on the edge of the vineyards as these are relatively more sensitive to pests and work as an indicator of the same to put control measures in place.
There are grape-stomping sessions as well on weekends (₹500 per person for about 20-25 minutes) that you can sign up for after calling the vineyard. The in-house restaurant has a cozy vibe and alfresco seating with pillars covered with bougainvillea.