It is the last quarter, and the urge to splurge is back. Everyone can share in the mood: visiting tourists looking for souvenirs, expats planning to go home for Christmas, those staying back and locals who are looking for ethnically-chic but functional items for the home. We'll let you in on Kathmandu's best-kept secret: it is a bargain hunter's paradise for exotica. Between Hauz Khas and Banglampu, Kathmandu offers you the best choice for shopping traditional handicrafts, weaves, jewellery, sculpture, woodwork, music and art. And the prices here will beat both India and Thailand. In fact, Banglampu now has a whole alley full of Nepali shopkeepers selling Made in Nepal cloth jholas and lost-wax sculptures for about three times the prices in Kathmandu.
Thamel might not give you the real picture of a "typical" Nepali lifestyle, but it does offer you a great deal to whet your craving for shopping. Hand-woven carpets, pashmina shawls, silver jewellery, bronze and brass work, dolls and puppets, T-shirts and funny football fan hats, traditional musical instruments. You name it, and there is a shop specialising in it. Basantapur and New Road are also definitely worth a raid, although these places are less traditional and more trendy. And if you care to cross the Bagmati Bridge at Thapathali to Patan, Kupondol and Mangal Bazar have loads of tempting goods on display. These shopping tracts are close to the fascinating Durbar Squares in Patan and Kathmandu, and will not mean a big revision of plans for tourists out on a sightseeing trip.
The details and artistic perfection of thanka and paubha art might appeal to you. A piece can cost you anything from Rs 200 to well over Rs 80,000, depending on quality, artistic excellence, the theme of the painting and who painted them. If you are among the about 10 percent of buyers who go in for works of the masters, you may have to pay much higher prices. Even smaller and less-complicated pieces by world-renowned artists like Uday Charan Shrestha and Prem Man Chitrakar will cost you around Rs 20,000 at the least and well over Rs 100,000 for the grand larger paintings.
Lama thankas painted by lamas from the Buddhist monasteries can be good bargains-they are artistically rich but less expensive because they do not carry world-renowned signatures. Works of Buddhist Tamangs from Ramechhap, Sindhupalchok and Kavre, for whom thanka painting is a traditional occupation rather than an artistic endeavour, are also available for lower prices.
These unknown Tamang painters lost out when expansion of tourism in the capital encouraged them to mass produce paintings, thus forcing them to forego the attention needed to create great paintings and also defying the rituals that go with thanka painting. Tradition demands long devotional rituals and prescribes a limit to a day's painting time to less than four hours so that intense concentration on detail is possible. The artists painting thankas for purely commercial purpose in the valley's surrounding districts are said to be working for more than 16 hours a day at a stretch.
There is a wide range of silver, bronze and copper statues available to choose from. Metal statues from India are also sold alongside Nepali carvings-the Indian ones look like Nepali carvings at first glance but a closer look will show the difference-Nepali statues have single moulding while the Indians ones are twice moulded. The Nepali sculptures are heavier and are notable for their fine craftsmanship. Price-wise, Nepali statues are costlier than the imported ones. "A Nepali sculptor might have confined himself to his workshop for months at a stretch to make the statue. His devotion and hard work should be paid superior value to commercially manufactured statues," says Sunil Krishna Shrestha of Picasso, a souvenir shop.
Another speciality of Nepali sculptures are their uniqueness-they are moulded from mud devices that are destroyed after each moulding, while the Indian statues are mass produced from multi-use metal moulding devices. Mass manufactured Nepali statues are also available, but after adding the profit margins of 10-15 percent maintained by trading houses and further by retailers, the price of a mass-manufactured statuette and a unique statuette collected directly from a Patan sculptor by a retailer may not differ much. However, the quality and value of that piece of work certainly does.
Bronze statues are least expensive and a copper statuette of the same weight can cost you twice as much. A simple silver statuette of Buddha is sold at Rs 500 to Rs 600 per tola (a tola is equivalent to 11.664 gram), but others can cost you more depending on the craftsmanship. A complicated one-thousand-arm Ava Lokeshwora, or a Mahakali or Bhairav statue in the mudra position, with ornaments and instruments in their numerous arms, can cost you Rs 600 to Rs 1000 per tola.
Then there are the Nepali carpets, which are popular with Nepalis travelling abroad as gifts for their foreigner friends and for personal use for those who have settled there. Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and Afghani carpets are also available and some might be machine made though they look otherwise. Nepali carpets are heavier, thicker, become more lustrous with use and are available in all sizes you fancy.
"Nepali hand-knotted carpets are available in the European markets also, but a large variety are available here for lower prices," claims Hari Pandey of New Dragon Carpet Centre. A 60-knot Nepali hand-knotted carpet can cost you about Rs 1,700 per square metre, a 80-knot around Rs 2,400 per square metre and a 100-knot carpet would be approximately Rs 4,800 per square metre.
Some carpet entrepreneurs have recently ventured a contemporary touch to Nepali carpets. Though they still rely on the traditional technique of carpet knotting, their creations are a departure from tradition in colour and design. "Carpet making is like painting. You should dare to experiment with colours and designs to be able to communicate better to your clients," says Pradeep Shahi of Carpet House.
Apart from these top sellers there are paper and metal handicrafts, silver jewellery, gems and Tibetan plastic beads, puppets and dolls in Nepali traditional costumes, clay ware, hand-knit woollens, furniture and house decorations. If you are going to further extend the traditional Tihar shopping binge, a hand-weave dhaka topi for men and a dhaka shawl or sari for women are suggested. Recent successes of Nepali fashion designers with dhaka cloth have proved that the textile can be tailored into anything from evening gowns to casual wear. There are hand-loomed row and soft silk that cost between Rs 600 to Rs 900 per metre.
Pashminas in three varieties of cotton cashmere (about Rs 1,500 for a 36 x 81 inch shawl), silk cashmere (Rs 2,300 to Rs 2,500) and pure cashmere (about Rs 3,500) are available. Also available are hand-loomed cashmere shawls which cost more than the machine-loomed, while the famous ring shawls cost something between Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000.
Then there is music to celebrate your Nepal memories. Meditative Nepali classical music by well-known masters and popular folk songs, made familiar by the humming of porters during a trek, are available in CDs. Nepal is a country of festivals and pujas, and there are CDs available with traditional music to commemorate the festivals. "Its only due to the lack of publicity that Nepali music does not sell internationally. From my experience, one good concert and the lucky musician sells like hot cakes," says Bhaskar Shrestha of Dexo Music Centre.
Window shopping is also fun in Kathmandu. "Salespersons accept your 'no' gracefully with a big friendly smile," says American insurance agent John Marshall Lee, who was doing his rounds. So go around, take a good look and make the best of your shopping trip.