South Asia

The countries of this region are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. These countries have a very rich history of arts and crafts. A brief description of the crafts of each of these countries is given below : :


Afghanistan :


Afghanistan has a rich history of arts and crafts. All the ethnic groups of Afghanistan have very rich heritage of arts and crafts. The Mesopotamian civilization had its roots in Afghanistan. The Mesopotamians were the first people to use glazed brick as a construction material. They used it to make mud walls water resistant rather than as decoration. But glaze allowed the introduction of colour, and these colourful surfaces, decorated with beautiful geometric and floral forms, arabesque panels and elegant bands of calligraphy, eventually became an indispensable element of Islamic architecture, absorbing the creative genius that, in the Christian West, went into frescoes and sculpture.

Bangladesh :

Bengal’s Folk Arts and Crafts preserve an unbroken continuity with the archaic traditions of Pre-Aryan Indo-Gangetic culture. It is a peoples’ art in which a synthesis of the sub-continental indigenous elements drawn from the pre-historic, the Aryan, Brahmanic, Buddhist, Vaishnob and Islamic traditions can be found. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, from the end of the fourth century B.C., describes the fine quality of silk and other crafts made in Pundra, Suvarnakudya and Vanga or Banga.Bengal was famous in ancient times for river and sea crafts. The arts of navigation, boat building and maritime warfare developed because of the many rivers and the long seacoast.Not enough praise can be sung about the ingenuity, skill and adaptability of the artisans who have kept their traditions alive over many generations. In almost all the small towns and villages in Bangladesh there are areas where artisans practice their crafts. Heriditary artisans have sustained their family trades through the centuries: the tantis/weavers, kumars/potters, kamars/brass smiths, sutradhar/wood carvers, subarnabaniks/gold smiths, malakars/shoal craftspersons and others have pursued their traditional occupations to produce crafts for daily use, for rituals and for decorative purposes.

Bhutan :

In Bhutan the series of traditional skills or crafts is defined as zorig chusum (zo = the ability to make; rig = science or craft; chusum = thirteen). These refer to those practices that have been gradually developed through the centuries, often passed down through families with long-standing relations to a particular craft. These traditional crafts represent hundreds of years of knowledge and ability that has been passed down through generations.Although the skills existed well before, across the country’s isolated settlements, it is believed that the zorig chusum was first formally categorized during the rule of Tenzin Rabgye (1680-1694), the 4th desi (secular ruler). The following provides a brief overview of the thirteen traditional crafts: DEZO – Paper Making: Handmade paper made mainly from the Daphne plant and gum from a creeper root. DOZO – Stonework: Stone arts used in the construction of stone pools and the outer walls of dzongs, monasteries, stupas, and some other buildings. GARZO – Blacksmithy: The manufacture of iron goods, such as farm tools, knives, swords, and utensils. JINZO – Clay Crafts: The making of religious statues and ritual objects, pottery and the construction of buildings using mortar, plaster, and rammed earth. LHAZO – Painting: From the images on thangkas (religious wall hangings), walls paintings, and statues to the decorations on furniture and window-frames. LUGZO – Bronze Casting: Production of bronze roof-crests, statues, bells, and ritual instruments, in addition to jewellery and household items using sand casting and the lost wax method. PARZO – Wood, Slate, and Stone Carving: In wood, slate or stone, for making such items as printing blocks for religious texts, masks, furniture, altars, and the slate images adorning many shrines and altars. SHAGZO – Woodturning: Making a variety of bowls, plates, cups and other containers. SHINGZO – Woodwork: Employed in the construction of dzongs and monasteries THAGZO – Weaving: The production of the famous hand-woven fabrics of Bhutan TROKO – Silver and Goldsmithy: Working in gold, silver, and copper to make jewellery, ritual objects, and more practical household items. TSHARZO – Cane and Bamboo Work: The production of such varied items as bows and arrows, baskets, drinks containers, utensils, musical instruments, fences, and mats. TSHEMZO – Embroidery and Tailoring: Working with needle and thread to make clothes, boots, or the most intricate of appliqué thangkas (religious wall hangings). Articles for everyday use are still fashioned today as they were centuries ago. Traditional craftsmanship is handed down from generation to generation. Bhutan’s artisans are skilled workers in metals, wood and slate carving, and clay sculpture. Artefacts made of wood includes bowls and dishes, some lined with silver. Elegant yet strong woven bamboo baskets, mats, hats, and quivers find both functional and decorative usage. Handmade paper is prepared from tree bark by a process passed down the ages.

India :

India is a country with a very rich heritage of arts and crafts. Each and every part of this country has its own unique arts and crafts with their own craft history. Literary records from the 2nd century AD paint a picture of abundance and splendour in the Indian arts and crafts scene. The Silappathikaarum (The Ankle Bracelet), a Tamil romance (roughly dated to the late second century AD), suggests that the markets offered a great variety of precious commodities prized in the ancient world. Special streets were earmarked for merchants that traded in items such as coral, sandalwood, jewellery, faultless pearls, pure gold, and precious gems. Skilled craftspeople brought their finished goods such as fine silks, woven fabrics, and luxurious ivory carvings. Archeological finds of spectacular burial jewellery notably necklaces, ear pendants and finger rings, characterized by a mastery of granulation and inlay in southern India appear to corroborate such accounts. Northern India also had its flourishing urban centres. This can be inferred from descriptions of an archeological site in ancient Taxila. The antiquity of Indian textile exports can be established from the records of the Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC – AD 20) and from the first century Greek source Periplus, which mentions the Gujarati port of Barygaza, (Broach) as exporting a variety of textiles. Archaeological evidence from Mohenjo-Daro, establishes that the complex technology of mordant dyeing had been known in the subcontinent from at least the second millennium B C. The use of printing blocks in India may go as far back as 3000 B.C, and some historians are of the view that India may have been the original home of textile printing. Patola (double ikat silk in natural dyes) from Patan and Ahmedabad, and decorative cottons in brilliant color-fast dyes from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast were sought after by the Malaysian royalty and wealthy traders of the Phillipines. Textiles also comprised a significant portion of the Portuguese trade with India. These included embroidered bedspreads and wall hangings possibly produced at Satgaon, the old mercantile capital of Bengal, (near modern Calcutta). Quilts of embroidered wild silk (tassar, munga or eri) on a cotton or jute ground, combining European and Indian motifs were comissioned by the Portuguese who had been attracted to Bengal, (as traders had been since the early centuries AD), by the quality of the region’s textiles. Kalamkaris – i.e. finely painted cotton fabrics produced in the Golconda hinterland and ‘Palampores’ – painted fabrics based on the “tree of life” motif that had become popular in the Mughal and Deccan courts were also highly regarded. Several textile producing centres were located in Northern and Central India, in the kingdoms of the Rajputs and the Mughals, each with their own unique specialization. While Kashmir was well known for its woolen weaves and embroidery, cities like Benaras, Ujjain, Indore and Paithan (near Aurangabad) were known for their fine silks and brocades. Rajasthan specialized in all manner of patterned prints and dyed cloths. According to texts dating from the Buddhist era, woolen carpets were known in India as early as 500 B.C. References to woven mats and floor coverings are not infrequent in ancient and medieval Indian literature. By the 16th century, carpet-weaving centres were established in all the major courts of the sub-continent. Under the patronage of the various royal dynasties that ruled India, particularly the Mughals, the Rajputs and the Deccani nawabs, the decorative arts and crafts reached unprecedented heights. (These traditions were continued, and even augmented by later regional nawabs in Bengal, Mysore, Central India, Punjab, Awadh and Kashmir). Hardwood furniture was a major product of Portuguese patronage, usually richly decorated with inlaid woods and ivory. The craft of papier mache, extensively promoted by the Mughals and later the Rajputs, also found favor with 17th century European traders who commissioned Kashmiri artists to produce for the European market. In India, steel was used for weapons, for decorative purposes and for tools, and remarkably high grade articles were produced. The old weapons are second to none, and it is said that the famous damascus blades were forged from steel imported from Hyderabad in India. The iron column, called the Kutub pillar at Delhi, weighs over six tons and carries an epitaph composed about 415 A.D. The craft of Bidri ware which originated in the Deccan, in Bidar and spread northwards to centres like Lucknow, required not insignificant metallurgical skills. The delicate inlay work required discipline and expertise, and additionally, required the knowledge of extraction of zinc (a primary constituent of the Bidri alloy).


Maldives has a very rich arts and crafts heritage. The specialisation that existed among the islands could have been the result of availability of raw materials, like the special reeds and grasses used for weaving mats, or may owe its origin to traditions followed by the islands. The skill and traditions of craft have been handed down the generations in families. The main handicraft items of Maldives can be categorized as jewelery – silver, gold, mother of pearl & coral, lacquer ware, mat weaving, coir rope, coconut products, textiles and boat-building. Hand made household items like coconut graters, granite stone spice crushers with a stone rolling pin, wooden mortar and pestle and coconut shell spoons are produced in the Maldives. Ribudhoo Island in Dhaalu (South Nilandu atoll) is famous for making gold jewellery, and Huludeli, in the same atoll, is known for silver jewellery. Using ancient techniques the craftsmen make dainty chains and bracelets over tiny charcoal fires. Beautiful jewellery and decorative items are made from mother of pearl and black coral, including rings, bracelets, necklaces and carved model dhonis. Lacquer work is a highly skilled decorative art in which the craftsman first shapes the wood to create the object he wants, using a lathe. Different kinds of wood are used to make boxes, bowls, vases and other turned objects, including chess sets. The weaving of mats of various sizes and shapes, and the making of containers, food covers and lamp shades from reeds or strips of dried stems of coconut palm leaves, is practised in many islands. Cadjan weaving is also common. Cadjan is a mat made from coconut leaves sewn together with coir rope. It is used for thatching houses and for fences. Coconut shell and palms are used to make toddy holders, woven palm leaf baskets and mats (sataa), folding carved Koran rests, wooden scoops for bailing boats, fittings for hookah pipes and woven trays for winnowing rice. The traditional boat “dhoni” modelled on the Arab dhow, has evolved and been adapted to local requirements by the Maldivians. Built in various shapes and sizes, the dhoni is used for all kinds of purposes – inter-atoll transport, family fishing boat, local ferry, tourist excursion boat, dive boat delivery truck and mini-fuel tanker.

Nepal :

In Nepal, the production of handicraft is an age-old occupation. Novel handicrafts are also developed in harmony with changing market taste. The Pashupatinath temple and the Boudhanath temple bear testimony to the rich crats heritage that prevailed in ancient Nepal. The advent of the Licchavis brought in the first golden era of Nepalese art and culture. They were great patrons of arts and crafts. Pagoda-roofed structures came into vogue. Sculptors fashioned exquisite images of their Gods and Kings. It was during this same period that the temples of Changunarayan, Vishabjynarayan, Sikhomanarayan and Ichabgunarayan were built.Other notable masterpieces include the Reclining Vishnu of Budhanilkantha, the gilting of the roof of Pashupatinath Temple, the struts of Hanuman Dhoka and the Basantapur Tower, the Uku Bahal in Patan, and the Indreshwar Mhadev Temple at Panauti. Nepali craftsmen excelled in stone carving, woodcarving, brick making, metal work and painting. The renaissance during the Malla eras saw further development in the craft of image making. Stone carvings of the earlier times gave way to mental craft. All the spires of important temples and shrines were crowned with gold; this technique of gilding involved a chemical compounding process. Skill in metal craft reached a high degree of excellence and Patan, or Lalitpur (city of arts) became the center. The best example of that period can still be seen today in the 14th century Kwa Bahal, the Golden Temple. Tibetan pilgrims who came on pilgrimage to this site were so enraptured by the sight of it that they called it “Yerang” meaning “Eternity Itself.” The artisans of Bhaktapur pursued the traditional craft of stone and woodcarving. Evidence of their excellence is still visible today as one observes the 55-Windowed Palace, the Peacock Windows, and the Nyatopola Temple – all built during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla. From the 11th century, religious manuscripts were being embellished with paintings. Buddhism inspired the earliest of these. Drawn on palm leaf strips, these simple ink sketches were accented with basic natural colors. After the 15th century, paper began to replace the leaf.

Pakistan :

With the Indus Valley civilization, identified by the two principal cities of Mohenjo Daro in Sindh and Harappa in Punjab, begins the story of crafts of Pakistan. This civilization, which spanned more than 950 miles from north to south, had well planned towns and elaborate systems of drainage. The material used for building was brick – testifying to the availability and calibre of a class of people engaged in masonry work. Also found during the excavations were steatite seals, with fine and realistic engravings on them displaying craftsmanship of a high order and pointing to the use of precision tools. The art of sculpture was also quite developed and some of the surviving pieces show impressive craftsmanship. Terracotta miniatures – monkeys, squirrels, bullocks, deer, birds, statuettes of women, carts, etc, – probably used as toys by children or as ornaments show that the community had people engaged in occupations other than agriculture and trade. That cotton spinning, weaving and dyeing were prevalent in these cities is corroborated by the discovery of fine cloth at Mohenjo Daro. From about 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. invading Aryans overran the region bringing other skills with them – carpentry, metal smithy, basket weaving, weaving and pottery making. It seems that around the sixth century B.C. Peshawar Valley had a prosperous agricultural community and was famous for its fine sheep wool. Excavations at Taxila have revealed the use of iron in the sixth century B.C. Two centuries after the Iranian invasion came Alexander (327 B.C.). The Greeks introduced new skills to the region particularly carpentry, sculpture, pottery, jewellery and the minting of coins. The first four centuries of the Christian era witnessed foreign invasions, from both north and south. However, the surviving stone and metal works of the Kushan and the Gupta periods suggest that during this period conditions were stable enough to attract craftsmen from Iran, Bactria and Central Asia. The Islamic influence brought a change in the aesthetic values and also exposed the region to the Islamic movements in the field of arts and crafts in different parts of the world, particularly in architecture and woodcrafts, ceramics, tile-making, calligraphy and ornamentation and metalwork. The Mughal aesthetic and the Islamic art form, with its emphasis on perfect synchronization, balance and order depicted through floral and geometric designs is still predominant in Pakistan. It can be seen in all art forms from architecture to textiles, and continues to form the basis of design in urban Pakistan today. Post-independence(1947) period has seen substantial state help and initiative for the crafts sector. The institution of mastercraftsmen awards and the recognition of the accomplishments of craftspeople have been facilitated by the activities of the National Crafts Council. Steps to promote the export of handicrafts are being taken.

Sri Lanka :

Sri Lanka’s craft heritage is an ancient one; at once diverse, exotic and magnificent in its craftsmanship. The legacy of centuries of master craftsmanship, ingenuity and inbred skill, these goods are turned out using age-old techniques, tools and natural indigenous material, mainly in the homes of craftsmen or occasionally at rural craft centers. They are essentially cottage industries. Sri Lanka’s ancient social system following its Indo- Aryan roots, assigned certain trades and pursuits to socio -occupational groups or castes; it was mainly within these divisions that traditional skills were preserved with a high degree of purity and characteristic identity. A marked degree of regional specializations exists, based on the availability of raw materials as well as other factors such as royal patronage in the past and the demand for products. Sri Lanka’s classical architecture, sculpture and painting is predominantly Buddhist. Stupas sprinkle the countryside, and there are several extravagantly large Buddhas sculptures, notably at Aukana and Buduruvagala. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have the most impressive archaelogical legacy, but Kandy is the most thriving cultural centre today. Colonial remnants include Dutch forts, canal and churches and British residences, clubs and courthouses. Galle is the finest colonial city on the island. Woodcarving, weaving, pottery and metalwork are all highly developed crafts, and Sri Lanka is especially renowned for its gems. Ambalangoda is the best place to see Sri Lankan masks; Ratnapura is the centre of Sri Lanka’s gem trade.