The next stop in this series about Shopping in India is the local “market”. It’s just a collection of vendors selling everyday items to locals, but probably my favorite place to shop. Every town and many local neighborhoods within large cities have a market day. While they look like mass chaos, it’s worth falling into the madness just for this experience.
Food sections of the markets are quite fun. You find fruit and vegetable stands, with vendors selling the local produce you don’t find in the US unless you are in a Whole Foods Market. I love the mangoes, lychee, jack fruit, custard apple, and bananas (which are quite different and even more delectable than what you get stateside). There are also apples and pears, but I can always get them at home. My favorite memory from my first trip to India was eating mangoes from a small vendor in a market near our hotel in Chennai. My then fiance was so excited to introduce me to what he insisted were the best mangoes in the world. (Warning: Doctors and travel sites will tell you to only eat fruit you can peal or are cooked. I don’t always follow that advice but I have a stronger stomach than most).
For me, the household items are some of the most fun booths to see. In the US when I need a household good such as a new hairbrush or a pot, I run to the local Target. In India you can find it all at your local market. My husband is always amused at what I find fascinating. For example, at the market you can find an entire cart dedicated to plastic buckets and pails for bathing. In the US, we often are wasteful with our water during showers. But most households in India have a large bucket to collect the hot water, then use a small pail to pour the water on you and rinse off the soap. While I’ve had to search for a bucket and pail her in the US, they are always readily available at the market in India, in all different sizes and colors.
Another cart might just sell stainless steel plates, bowls, pots and other cooking utensils. It was a big surprise to me how popular stainless steel plates were. They are a staple in every household. The bindi (dots that Indian women wear on their foreheads available in fancy shapes, colors, with rhinestones, etc.) booths are fun, where you can buy multiple packages of bindis in all different shapes and colors. My first time in a market I went nuts and must have bought 20 packages. I’m still using the bindis I bought from that trip. Glass bangles are plentiful and bright, coming in all colors and sold by the box. Those have made great gifts for young children, friends and my mom. I usually spend a pretty penny on hair accessories, getting all different clips, hair elastics and headbands for myself and now my daughter. For some reasons they have a much bigger selection, especially for children, and they are much cheaper.
You can find cheap cushion covers, salwar kamiz (long decorated tunic and pants) sets, and shawls at the market, but in general I would not trust the quality. I have gotten lucky in the market, but only when I went with my mother-in-law who took me to a trusted vendor. On the other hand, I’ve also bought cushion covers when I went shopping by myself, to come home and have the zipper rip on me at first use. The market is for interesting and unique trinkets, but not for the quality textiles or handicrafts you want for yourself or for gifts. You are better off finding a store frequented or recommended by locals, or a Ministry of Textiles shop.
Finally, for the real fun part, the market is all about bargaining. You never pay the asking price (which is typically hyper-inflated as soon as the vendor knows that you are not a local), even when there is a fixed price sign. It’s always open to negotiation. I often start with 50% of what they ask, and I’m sure I’m paying a higher price than most locals. My mother in law ends up paying about 1/2 of what I pay! Don’t be afraid to walk away, there are plenty of other vendors with similar items. And if you are still thinking about that item 30 minutes later, go back and re-negotiate! The vendor will be happy to see you and you’ll be happy with your purchase. I used to get frustrated and was always worried i paid too much. But as time has gone on, I’ve gained a more relaxed attitude. At the end of the day, I always remind myself that what I could have saved in the process of tougher bargaining is probably a few dollars which is not a lot for me, but would mean a lot for the vendor!
Remember, the market is all about the experience. Meeting new people, the sights and sounds, a unique window into the everyday lives of the Indian household, and bargaining for the fun of it. I love the market because you never know what you will find and every one of them is an adventure in its own right.