DNA is the basis of life. It is what makes each of us unique. Design is the DNA of society and unique to every culture. The more we learn about the structure of a society’s DNA, the more we see that design is the motor of life in every society. At the same time, design is also what distinguishes one group of people, one society, from another.
This book started with the intention to document the design of everyday objects: water pots and earthen cups, dishes,cars, clothes and all the things that make these objects relevant in daily Indian life. In the process of writing, I discovered that to understand these objects one had to re-imagine design itself—what it means, what role it plays in people’s lives and how its user influences the design of the product.
Design is a mirror of our attitudes and habits. Through the course of writing this book on Indian design, I found that uniquely Indian gestures like churning, combing and calculating were reflected in it. Objects used every day, like the bangles/bindi, pressure cooker, sari blouse, dupatta, tandoor, etc., all put a long tradition of design of household objects at the core of everyday life in the country. While other products like the Kalnirnay calendar, bahi-khata for bookkeeping, mandira, a tool used to churn milk into butter, all reflected these uniquely Indian habits.
Incense sticks are the oldest and purest form of perfume
Date of Origin: Before 700 CE
Amongst all the senses, smell is perceived as transcendental, because it is invisible. So designing with smell poses many challenges. Incense offers a response to this. While solid and simple in shape, burning it releases a fragrant smoke. In fact even the word perfume means just that – ‘through fumes’. Incense is therefore considered one of the ways to reach out to the divine. Amongst all the forms of perfumery, incense is the oldest and considered the purest.
Recycled footwear that became fashionable
Date of Origin: Mid-1970s, Kolhapur, Maharashtra
Kohlapuri chappals are the world’s cheapest and most popular recycled footwear. The quaint towns of Kohlapur and neighbouring Miraj, in western India, are the country’s oldest centres for leather tanning and footwear. Twenty-five thousand leather shoemakers belonging to the Chamaar caste of tanners and leather work here. The first Kohlapuri chappal was made by the Chamaar community in the mid-1970s, for themselves and other poor tanners of the area, from scraps of discarded leather salvaged from the factories.
Mainstay of transport, three-wheeled cycle with a seat
Date of Origin: Around 1880, Shimla
By 1914, the Chinese in India were using rickshaws to pull transport goods from warehouses to shops and shortly afterwards it became a convenient transportation for passengers, first on the hilly roads of Shimla and then in the bustling port city of Calcutta. Within three decades the cycle rickshaws started plying on the streets all over the country. The addition of the bicycle to the seat was an improvement from the hand-pulled earlier ones.
A banta or marble plugs this bottle that opens with a pop
Date of Origin: 1870s, Delhi
Goli soda or banta is lemonade that pops when opened, and goli is the marble stuck in the bottle to hold the fizz. This corkless bottle, called the Codd-neck bottle (after its creator Hiram Codd), is a late-19th century design made in the UK, but it is India that gave the drink hundreds of flavours and an indelible connection to youth, playfulness, taste and patriotism. Goli soda or banta is also how a whole generation in India remembers their childhood.
Adornment on a woman’s forehead
Date of Origin: 2 CE
When it comes to Indian-ness, nothing is more iconic than the bindi. Synonymous with femininity in the subcontinent, the bindi is worn between the eyebrows, a place considered to be the site of the sixth chakra, or seat of infinite wisdom. Derived from the Sanskrit bindu, which means dot, drop or point, the bindi has many meanings. For some, the bindi is no more than a sign of marriage and a symbol of auspiciousness.
A way of wearing both wealth and beauty on wrists
Date of Origin: 2500 BCE, Mohenjodaro
The 4,500-year-old statuette of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro, with her arms covered with bangles, found at the Harappa excavation site, embodies confidence and grace. For Indian women, these simple bangles transcend adornment and are a unique form of self-expression: when presented to a bride in a box, it is a symbol of marriage.
Prepared with an Ayurvedic formulation
Date of Origin: 1893, Bombay
Ayurvedic texts prescribe the use of rose, camphor,eucalyptus and wintergreen for pain relief. These
ingredients are to be combined into a paste and rubbed on the affected area. In 1893, an Ayurvedic doctor, Nageshwara Rao Panthulu, patented a version of this Ayurvedic formulation and named it ‘Amrutanjan’, which means quite literally ‘eternal life-giving ointment’. Heavily laced with large quantities of mint and wintergreen, it instantly became popular nationwide.
Home-made kohl to enhance the beauty of the eyes
Date of Origin: Unknown
Kajal is the cosmetic that India has given to the world, proof of which lies in the fact that every big international cosmetics company has created a kajal stick of its own. The cosmetic that accentuates the eye on its hood is called the eye-liner, and that which traces the bottom is kajal. Professional stylists use the eye-liner to define the lids and kajal to give the eye depth. But in India, it’s not just an adornment, it’s also a ritual born out of a therapeutic practice.
These stacked boxes are used to carry millions of meals daily from homes to offices
Date of Origin: 1890, Bombay
From the Japanese bento box to the Chinese takeaway or the baguette sandwich clutched in a Frenchman’s hand, every nation has figured a smart way to carry food. India’s response to this is the simple dabba, or the ‘tiffin carrier’, that in Bombay is hand-delivered to office everyday by the dabbawala. Its humble design but unassailable supply chain management is as efficient as DHL.
Shirodhara Massage Equipment
Date of Origin: Around 500 CE
Shirodhara has a similar effect as meditation on the human brain. Firstly it alleviates excessive pressure on the adrenalin glands by relaxing the nervous system and it also soothes and smoothens brain waves. The impact it has on the mind is so tremendous that it is not even considered a massage but more of a therapy. As its name suggests (Shiro meaning head and dhara meaning stream), it consists of pouring oil down the forehead from above and sustaining this flow from half an hour to around an hour.
An indigenous version of the steam iron
Date of Origin:1900 CE
When the daughter of a dhobi marries, her dowry contains very little—only a few necessities, and an iron. This iron, also called ‘istri’ or ‘press’, is different from modern irons. In reality it is a metal plate with a charcoal chamber built on top of it. The charcoal iron’s uniqueness lies in its form. Made from metal, traditionally iron or brass, it has a hollow interior that can be filled with hot coals.
A rolling pin with an accompanying board to flatten the dough and make perfect rotis
Date of Origin: 7500–6000 BCE, Parsam-ka-khera
Rolling wheat dough to a perfectly flat round shape requires great skill and a uniform application of pressure. To flatten dough to perfection, wooden rolling pins are used the world over. But the Indian rolling pin or belan is unique because it is always accompanied by a flat round mounted board, the chakla. It is only a combination of these two that creates the perfect kit on which wheat dough is laid out thrice a day, flattened, rolled and then cooked on fire to make a perfectly round roti.
A modern health supplement prepared with an ancient recipe
Date of Origin: Around 1 CE
Lifestyle drugs and health foods are coming of age now internationally but they have for a long time been an obsession in India. Chyawanprash is the commercial name of a 2,000-year-old elixir made of Emblica officinalis or Indian gooseberry and forty-nine other ingredients. First mentioned in the Charak Samhita, a guide to Ayurveda from the fourth century BC, regularly consuming chyawanprash is believed to increase life span by improving digestion and immunity.
The steel almirah is the most trusted vault of the nation
Date of Origin: 1920
For over a century, most of India has secured precious mementos and priceless heirlooms in the Godrej steel almirah. It was retailed at just `180 in 1920 and has since been the trusted vault of the nation. The reason for its popularity is that the Godrej almirah is basically an oversized safe with a very strong lock. In July 1908, Ardeshir Godrej invented and patented a lever lock without springs.
A ceremonial lamp that lights up every prayer service
Date of Origin: Unknown
Hindus believe that fire is one of the ways to communicate with the divine. This is why all important occasions begin with the lighting of a brass lamp. Its flame repels darkness and brings in light. According to the Bhagvad Gita, the ideal mind is steady like a flame, therefore flames are sacred and the lamps that hold these flames are important objects in the daily life of Hindus.
The spinning wheel that was as ymbol of Indian Independence
Date of Origin: 500–1000 CE
India is known for the finest cotton textiles in the world. Factory-made cloth that resulted in weavers going bankrupt in the early 20th century made the symbol of hand-made cotton thread and the charkha one of the most iconic objects of modern India. The figure of a person spinning a charkha became a matter of national identity and in 1931 when India adopted its first flag—a charkha was placed at its centre.
The world’s most secular calendar
Date of Origin: 1993
Calendars are the design of life, and few objects are at the core of everyday life as much as them. To design a calendar, one needs mathematics and astronomy, but to make it useful one needs a civilisation whose daily preoccupations are in response to the movements of the sun, the moon, the planets, day, night, and the changing seasons. The standardised Indian national calendar used today is a combination of a lunar calendar and a Gregorian solar calendar.
A tea caddy designed to carry tea or chai on a rainy day
Date of Origin: Unknown
The tea caddy is essential to India’s street culture. Known simply as a ‘chai holder’, it is a mobile holder fashioned out of metal with cylindrical compartments for carrying fluted glasses of tea. India is the world’s largest drinker of tea and the tea caddy is the most important conduit for delivering steaming hot chai to the neighbourhood offices and shops throughout the working day. Chai being the drink that links a disparate and chaotic nation.
A multi-purpose transportable hand-woven bed
Date of Origin: Before 1300 CE
A bed is just one of the ways to use a charpai. In India, as necessity often takes precedence over love of the object, the charpai morphs into a lounge seat for daytime discussions or even as an extension of the kitchen, as a sun platform for drying food. New charpais arrive dismantled as long sticks to make an open wooden frame, four legs, and metres of cord, all separate, and are built on the spot.
Winnows are used for sifting rice and wheat husks
Date of Origin: Unknown
Winnows or winnowing fans are used to sort grain. A few fistfuls of lentils are placed in the deeper part of the winnow and flung in the air. When the grain catches the bamboo, the clear, heavier grain stays on the deeper end and the lighter waste ends up on the shallow side and can be removed with a flick of the hand. A simpler method would be just lifting the fan into the air where the lighter chaff blows away with the wind.
A centuries-old tobacco-smoking equipment
Date of Origin: 1500 CE
It is believed that the hookah originated in India in the sixteenth century. One of the physicians in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Irfan Sheikh, is attributed to having invented it. It’s from here that the use of the hookah spread far and wide through Persia and into North Africa. All hookah-smoking countries have their own designs but Indian hookahs have a particularly rich and diverse material heritage.
A hand-held fan for respite during power cuts
Date of Origin: Unknown, wall fixtures 1800 CE
The punkha was the only way to battle Indian summers. Paintings attest that when it first debuted in the late 18th century, it consisted of ornate drapery that hung from a wooden beam and a pulley system with a rope pulled by a servant dedicated to this task, which ensured a constant breeze. British India became addicted to this mechanism and by the early 19th century, all rooms in houses—including verandahs and churches—were equipped with this device.
Simple and sustainable earthen cup
Date of Origin: 2600 BCE, Indus Valley
Kulhads are not just a plain form of hand-moulded earth, they also embody sophisticated sustainable design enmeshed with a tradition that is as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation. Kulhad cups are the simplest form of pottery that can be ‘thrown’ on a potter’s wheel. The only raw material required is the sediment deposited at the bottom of the river bed.
Cow dung cakes used as fuel as well as building material
Date of Origin: 5500 BCE, Mehrgarh
Even though it’s free, widely available and the cost of production is negligible, cow dung is probably the most undervalued design material in the world. Except in India, where cow dung is used for many things—from making houses and toys to what is perhaps one of its biggest uses: fuel and even electricity. As livestock manure is available the world over, this centuries-old fuel from India is slowly being embraced worldwide.
A black bead necklace worn by women as a symbol of marriage
Date of Origin: Unknown
The mangalsutra, as it’s called in north India and thaali in south India, is one of the five symbols of a married woman. A firm red bindi on the forehead, bright crimson vermillion running through in the parting of the hair, multiple red bangles on the wrists and a few toe rings—these are the other everyday adornments and empowerment of a Hindu bride. In Sanskrit, the mangalsutra means an auspicious thread.
A metal pot with a simple design and multiple uses
Date of Origin: 2300 BCE, Daimabad
The use of lota (a word with no English equivalent) has been epic. A shapely spherical object, its scooped neck makes it easy to hold between fingers. Traditionally made of copper or brass, possessing an orange hue to a bright yellow or a subdued golden patina, the lota dazzles and makes all Indian kitchens glow. A multipurpose metal vessel for all walks of Indian life, it is used for fetching water, performing religious rituals, and even practising yoga.
A flat mortar-and-pestle grinder
Date of Origin: Unknown
The origin of sil battas can be traced to the Tittiriya Samhita, a guide to rituals written during the Vedic period. It lists 10 objects that an Indian kitchen must have. This includes a large stone slab called drasad used to crush or grind the soma creeper with the help of a smaller stone called upala placed on the drasad. In a history of over three and a half millennia, the sil batta has been used continuously almost every day.
The six-yard-long piece of cloth that drapes the body beautifully
Date of Origin: Late 19th century, Calcutta
Stitched clothes were considered impure during rituals in ancient India. The sari, in its drape, follows this Hindu philosophy of purity but combines it with a sense of beauty and practical climatic concerns by draping woven cloth loosely over the torso and the legs. This tradition is still prevalent in many parts of the country like in Kerala and the Northeastern states. The sari remains one of the world’s oldest national dresses worn even today.
A garland of bank notes for the groom
Date of Origin: Unknown
To the unknowing eye, there is nothing quirkier than a bridegroom in an impeccable suit with a matching tie, a beautiful red turban with gold trimming and a big garland of real bank notes. This pomp is an integral part of Punjabi wedding finery though by no means restricted only to Punjab. In fact, it has been lavishly embraced by most of north India.
A politician’s favourite jacket
Date of Origin: 1940s, New Delhi
Indian fashion has often found creative solutions to wardrobe conundrums. The Nehru jacket is an iconic example of this: it is a shorter version of the smart yet slightly stifling sherwani—a long 17th-century coat. The Nehru jacket freed the legs and looked handsome with a pair of gabardine trousers. This fusion of fashion perfectly suited the East-meets-West elegance of the 1940s. Its hip-length structured body resembled the suit jacket but its upright collar was distinctly Indian.
The finest woven wool product ever designed
Date of Origin: 1700 CE,Leh, Srinagar
The pashmina shawl is a status symbol all over the world today. The diamond-shaped squares, a result of the fine tapestry technique called tapestry-twill, that cover its surface are a mark of the finest woven woolen product ever designed. It was the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, a noted patron of the arts, whose obsession with its design first turned it into a craze in the 17th century.
A thin multi-purpose towel
Date of Origin: Unknown
Gamchas are the Indian version of handkerchiefs. A gamcha is probably the most humble piece of clothing in the country, but it is also the most versatile—it is even used for catching fish and making mishti doi! It originates from the Prakrit word ‘angoccha’ or scarf, a piece of cloth considered respectable male clothing. It can be worn slung loosely on one shoulder, scarf-like or tied on the head as a turban.