May 20, 2010

The Flight of Varanasi’s Wooden Birds

It was only appropriate that it was in Varanasi where pilgrims seek meaning to life, completing the circle at death on the banks of the Ganges that I reaffirmed my faith in the circle of life for an entirely different reason – colourful wooden toys.

Until that evening on the ghats overlooking the river Ganga I had all but nudged away any hopes of ever seeing vendors selling brightly coloured wooden toys again, the staple of my childhood and growing years. On my travels across India ever since I had more or less reconciled to losing one of the bright sparks that colourful wooden toys fashioned by local village artisans imbue places with. Too many cheap plastic toys of Chinese variety abounded.

What arrives, must depart. What departs, must arrive.

On the banks of the Ganges, to the cries of a boatman inducing unruly birds in the river with feed so his customers could take turns in casting feed into the water and watch the spectacle of water birds squawking in delight as they floated down the river along the ghats, it was the brightly coloured wooden Parakeet an elderly vendor was hawking to pilgrims on the ghats that drew my attention to him. It was with some delight that I got up to my feet.

In his outstretched hand he held a Parakeet mounted on a wooden platform while a large cloth bag bulging with wooden toys packed tightly within hung from his shoulder. He spoke not a word as he moved along the steps only pausing by families with children or where he sensed a passing interest in his toys.

Wooden toys are not dead yet, I told myself as I watched him move the toy gently in a short circle. A weight dangling from a thread circled as he moved his hand, tugging at the head and the tail of the Parakeet in turns, jerking them to simulate the Parakeet feeding while its jaunty tail kicked the air in abandon.

The wooden toy seller spoke not a word in all the time he offered his toys for sale as he walked along, only venturing to speak on being asked the price of his toys.

Within minutes the brightly coloured wooden Parakeet had exchanged hands for Rs. 25, and after more years than I could possibly remember I owned a wooden toy again.

He had more bird varieties in his bag. I was tempted. But there was much travel left still and I needed some space in my bags for surprises further on along the road.

While I could resist the charm of a single bird the sight of three birds feeding together proved harder to resist.

In a shop by the roadside that ended soon after at the flight of steps descending to the Dasaswamedh Ghat by the Ganges, the shopkeeper stood up as we paused to look up the many items on display.

Cane baskets in the shape of birds along with other cane work hung at the entrance. While admiring the cane work on display he offered to show us more birds, wooden toys.

Soon the three birds were brought out and as with the Parakeet, they took turns eating out of the centre as he gently swayed the unit, the weight hanging by a thread swung in a gently arc, tugging each bird by turns into pecking at their feet.

“For Rs. 30 you can have it,” he told me.

He said he had his home nearby, at Durgakund. The wooden toys for sale at his shop are made at his home. A local craftsman skilled in making toys and employed by him at his home turns out these wooden toys.

“Most of the toys I have made at my home go outside,” he said.

“Outside as in?”

“To Delhi,” he replied.

I was surprised to hear Delhi as a market for wooden toys.

I did not probe further. While Delhi adjoins Uttar Pradesh and is home to migrants from rural areas looking for work on Delhi’s construction sites and elsewhere, a potential customer base for his wooden toys, I thought it more likely that his colourful wooden toys were headed for the export market, or to cater to the urbane set inclined to doing up their interiors to ethnic themes.

“If you’d prefer more than three birds, I’ve an option. A set of five birds,” he volunteered.

I shook my head.

“It’s only Rs. 50,” he said.

I shook my head again, and pointing to the set of three birds clacking together I said, “This will do.” He smiled. I smiled back.

In the backdrop of the hum characteristic of the ghats I tuned in to the clickety-clack of the birds as they took turns in feeding off the centre. I turned them over to see how they worked before righting them and drawing a gentle circle.

Watching them reeled back time by several years, to a gentler era when it was enough to imagine birds fly to have them take to the skies. A time when reality was what the innocence of childhood believed it to be.


Anjuli said...

loved the photograph and the commentary- enjoyed the clickity- clack of the video first of the single bird and then of the trio. Seeing their bobbing heads did transport me to memories of simpler times.

bobbie said...

Your post does bring back memories. Plastic toys from China will never take the place of the wonderful wooden toys of my childhood. Your videos are delightful.

Roshni Mitra Chintalapati said...

The parakeet is definitely more beautiful. Glad that you took both..these people definitely need to be encouraged! Its such an elegant idea which most people don't appreciate nowadays!

TALON said...

Wooden toys - handcrafted - are utterly charming. It's nice to know that everything old can be new again!

Riot Kitty said...

I love things that are made by hand and have true craftsmanship. As usual, your post made me 1) smile 2) want to go visit!

Matthew said...

That bird photo, in the boat, was amazing....You took that photo? Nice job, friend. Very nice job.

Sandhya said...

This seems to be an interesting post. When I saw the wooden bird, I remembered the wooden toys my children had when they were small. Our neighbour had brought a set of many wooden toys from Calcutta and my children played with them for many years - 2 sons.

We have got the tradition of keeping wooden male female toys during wedding alongwith the girls accessories like powder, creams, soaps etc.!

The three bird toy is beautiful. The best photo is the boat - unique in itself. The video has got some problem, may be from my end. Will check later.

abha said...

I enjoyed your blog. I loved the boat photo as well. Amazing!

Anu said...

nice one! we bought lots of those wooden toys when we went to varanasi.... and a lot of small marble ones too....unfortunately, it never even struck me to write about them:( but we missed seeing all those birds!

Anil P said...

Anjuli: Thank you. In days from our childhood, especially those of us who lived in towns and villages, Parakeets and other birds were to be commonly seen in the neighbourhoods.

Wooden toys based off these birds were easily relatable to by children.

Now, in the cities, especially in Bombay I doubt if children grow up seeing Parakeets in the wild, even little chance they can identify with these wooden toys.

Bobbie: Thank you. In village fairs wooden toys were easily available, as also in small towns. Now they are not as easily available.

Roshni Mitra Chiltalapati: Thank you. It's very important to encourage local endeavour.

Talon: Thank you. I hope all that is past can make a beginning again. How nice that would indeed be.

Riot Kitty: Thank you. You must make a trip to India sometime.

Matthew: Thank you.

Sandhya: Thank you. Those boats are on hire. The man who sells bird feed has a boat of his own, and will approach other boats ferrying pilgrims / tourists if they want to buy some bird feed from him for the birds.

Sandhya: Thank you. In those days I can well imagine Calcutta being a busy market for wooden toys.

However, lately, on my recent visit to Calcutta I do not recall seeing wooden toys for sale on in roadside shops in areas I visited.

Yes, I've seen it too. It is a practice one gets to see in most marriages in Maharashtra and Karnataka as well, a table to showcase hand-created artifacts though not all displays during marriages will have male / female wooden toys.

Would be nice to get a picture of the display table the next time.

The video might have stuttered owing to network problems. You could try again.

Abha: Thank you.

Anu: That's good hear. He had several varities of those toys, different birds.

Coffee Messiah said...

Yes, the cycle never ends, something proof positive here in the usa, sometimes for the worse ; (

Beautiful works of art and glad to hear you made a purchase!


French Fancy said...

Hello Anil and thank you for popping over to see me.

I love these wooden toys and despair that things like this are not filling the shelves in our local shops.

Glenna Jean Baby Bedding said...

Thanks for sharing this beautiful blog with us.

Lynn said...

Anything that reminds one of happy times in childhood is wonderful. I am glad you got your bird.

And the river photo is breathtaking.

Selina Kingston said...

Gosh what wonderful toys - what child could fail to be enchanted

Anil P said...

Coffee Messiah: At Varanasi, possibly among the most ancient of places, the cycle cycles inexorably.

Local artisans need to be supported in these days of Marts and Malls.

French Fancy: Thank you. If locals ask for them at the shops they're sure to begin stocking them up on the shelves.

Glenna: Thank you.

Lynn: Very true. Memories are the tangible of our living.

Selina Kingston: Thank you. No child would be able to resist these toys.

radha said...

We also get the Kondapali toys here. And each time they come up with newer toys and better finish. A lot of people buy them for their Dussehra doll display. My brother bought atleast 30 of their wooden spinning tops to take and give to friends in the US. They were exceptional.

A said...

Beautiful pictures and interesting read. Learnt something new.

Chandrika Shubham said...

Wonderful pics! Wonderful discription! :)
The parakeet is beautiful and a rare collection as such toys have evaporated from the market.

I also liked the post 'Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals'. :)

Grannymar said...

Great trip down memory lane to the old wooden toys of youth. I loved the rhythm of the three birds pecking.

Anil, I always look forward to your wonderful pictures they bring India alive for me!

Mridula said...

Beautiful picture, the boat and the birds.

And I am just visiting Bangalore, tomorrow it is back to Gurgaon.

Anil P said...

Radha: Yes, the Dussehra doll display, have seen colourful pictures of the many dolls that're displayed at Dussehra time.

A: Thank you.

Chandrika Shubham: Thank you. True, not as many can be seen in the markets now.

The Book Series :-)

Grannymar: Thank you. Almost perfect rhythm.

It might be time to set up a wooden doll museum now that most places wooden dolls are out of vogue so to say.

Mridula: Thank you. A welcome change for a while.

Amrita said...

I must thank you for sending me off to this trip down the memory lane :)

But even as i wallow in nostalgia, I appreciate the info that you have supplied in this blog about the quality and cost of the toys available right here in India. It's a pity that parents prefer foreign brands over Indian products either due to ignorance or , worse still, due to the snob value attached to them

sangeeta said...

Clicked over from Amrita's blog and i was in for a surprise.......these wooden toys are a favorite with me too n i have played with the three birds circus in my childhood , i used to get a new one whenever we used to visit banaras for holidays.
The ghat and boating pictures were nostalgia inducing for me.

You get wooden toys at the railway station too and some shops display them in vishwanath gali , i have even seen local artisans making them .
Did you get to see artisans making marble figurines , especially elephants with a hollow jaal work for their tummy..i overload myself with all these things every time i go there.

I have seen these wooden toys in dilli haat too but nowhere else in Delhi .

You have a nice blog n i shall come again n read more next time , i am contended with this post for now.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Yes, I love wooden toys. I bought my son a wooden train set, wooden puzzles, and some Mexican handmade toys when he was younger. They do bring the feel of another era, Anil.
Thank you for your visit to Oasis blog. I enjoy your perceptive comments!

kenju said...

Love the last line, and it is so true. I pine for my lost innocence and that of my children.

marja-leena said...

Delightful photos and stories! I too love the colourful wooden toys and still have a few of our children's that are now enjoyed by the grandchildren! I think most of ours came from Scandinavian countries.

Anil P said...

Amrita: Thank you. Too often brand name of toys wins over local toys which are rarely marketed under a name.

Village toymakers will usually operate from homes.

Sangeeta: Thank you. The three-bird set has been there from your childhood?

I did not explore the market outside the big railway station. In the gallis of the old quarter I did see some shops cramped side-to-side with other shops, artisans fashioning the jaal work you mention.

Also finished products were placed at the entrance to the shops.

Thanks for visiting.

Kenju: Thank you.

Marja-leena: Thank you. It's quite a feat with the wooden toys you mention having survived three generations. Always good to see it though, in effect memories handed down.

sangeeta said...

ha ha...yes.
The three birds set i have seen since the last thirty years , it has been there since longer time i guess.... though in the recent times i don't get to see that very frequently.

Cate said...

Wooden toys are very mich in vogue with middle class New Zealanders, usually much safer and kinder to kids of all ages. I like these ones you found.

Amber said...

Wow. This is beautiful. The commentary and the pictures remind me of my childhood, or one that I have always imagined. Hand crafted wooden toys were always a source of joy for me.

Susan Abston Wiley said...

Hello, Anil. Once again, your gentle spirit and wonderful observations captured me and held me to the very end of your post. I especially enjoyed your photos and then the videos of the birds; they made me wish to be able to buy them for my grandchildren, who need to know the joys of beautiful, simple toys made from natural materials.

I hope, too, someday to learn that you have published your thoughts from your rambles through your countryside!

Ed Pilolla said...

just found your blog through anjuli. your photographs light my fire. i mean, i know you get a lot of love for your photos, clearly, but, well, here's some more. that photo of the boat in the river, and the others are so well composed. so balanced. and you compliment the photos artfully. glad to have stopped by.

Anil P said...

Sangeeta: Actually, nice to know that. May those three birds stay together even longer on the ghats.

Cate: Good to know that wooden toys are in vogue in New Zealand. That they are crafted by hand makes them even more alluring.

Amber: Thank you. I hope hand crafted toys will survive the assembly line production.

Susan Abston Wiley: Thank you. If you were to visit India there would be much variety in wooden toys to choose from.

Sentiment for wooden toys takes a different dimension once one learns that they've been made by village / local artisans working with basic infrastructure and relying on their skills to earn a living and keep their family afloat. I suppose the wooden toys become more alluring as a result.

I hope so too, hopefully sooner than later. Thank you.

Ed Pilolla: Thank you or the kind words and for stopping by from Anjuli's.

The scene along the river Ganges as it flows along the Ghats is actually very serene, and in many ways spiritual too.

There're many boats along anchored off the Ghats for hire by pilgrims and tourists alike.

Sorcerer said...

amazing photographs!!
loved the writeup..
was searching for some travelogues

Red said...


A long time ago I had one of each but they were not as bright green as the ones in your pix. Gosh lotta water under that bridge.

Great pix made a good nostalgic read

am said...

It gave me a feeling of happiness to read your words and see your photos and your YouTube videos.

My father, who was born in 1914 in Minnesota, was given a moving wooden toy like that when he was a boy. It was made in China and was given to him by Christian missionaries who had been in China. After he died in 2003, the wooden toy was given to me.

From boyhood on, my father always wanted to travel. After his retirement, he was able to fulfill his life-long dream of travel. He traveled to Varanasi in the 1970s. His dreams of world travel began with the gift of a moving wooden toy!

Lauren Quinn said...


Indian Bazaars said...

Liked so much your "...reaffirmed my faith in the circle of life for an entirely different reason - colourful wooden toys"

Recently, as I was chatting with a taxi driver in Bombay, as soon as I heard that he was from Allahabad, all I wanted to know was whether you still get those wooden toys at the railway station! He said you do.

In Bangalore, where we live, we discovered to our delight a vendor outside the Bull temple selling lots of simple wooden toys. We bought one with four red & yellow hens pecking at the centre. Absolutely wonderful things, these wooden toys!!

Anil P said...

Sorcerer: Thank you.

Red: Thank you. This lot of toys must've been produced recently.

Varanasi is not likely to change much anytime soon. I hope it retains its character, so essential that it does.

Am: Thank you. The wooden toy your father was gifted must mean so much now for the memories they hold. And what wonderful aspirations a gift of a toy can induce, making one curious of the land where it is made. What is the toy like?

In those days, handcrafted wooden toys must've been crafted with care. Plastic changed all that.

It would be interesting to know more of his visit to Varanasi in the 1970s. It was less crowded then.

Lauren Quinn: Thank you.

Indian Bazaars: Thank you.

I've heard that in Bangalore, rural industry supplies the demand for wooden toys. Was the toy you bought, the four hens pecking from the centre, similar to the one I've included in my post above?

How much did the wooden toy cost in Bangalore.

Nisha said...

I have played with these toys, they were so much fun. Sometimes I feel we should go back to that time and place.

priya said...

Great narration and I missed buying that when I was ther last year. Great pics indeed.

Indian Bazaars said...

The toy with four hens that we picked up works on the same principle, but the colours and the form are quite different. It is amazing how different these toys are from one place to another. I don't quite remember how much we bought it for.

For many years now, we have been buying Etikoppaka toys, from andhra, for gifts. There is a website: We like the tic-tac-toe game and their caterpillar is so beautifully designed!

Joy said...

I love, love, love all the bright colors.

Anil P said...

Nisha: To a less harried time? Why not :-) Information glut can make time pass quickly, maybe if one were to unplug oneself from the information stream, chances are we could slow things down for ourselves by a bit.

Priya: Thank you. There're many types of wooden toys to buy in Varanasi.

Indian Bazaars: Is it? Different how? Might be interesting to see a picture of the fourhens you speak of.

Thanks for the link. I'll check it.

Joy: Thank you.

eve's lungs said...

When I was a kid we got wooden toys anytime somebody visited Benaras -Ihave 2 sets of childrens cooking vessels , one in lime and black , the other in red and black .Also these birds -they were a perennial favourite as were the woven baskets - my grandmother had quite a collection of these !

Anil P said...

Eve's Lungs: Wooden, toy cooking vessels, that reminds me, I would see these on sale in village fairs in Karnataka. I suppose I somehow missed seeing them in Benares.

Interesting to learn of the toys you were gifted from Benares. Is there a chance the toys from Benares you mention being gifted have survived till date, and your grandmother's collection as well?

If they have I could do a follow up post on this one of the Benares ka wooden toys, with individual stories of readers to go with it.

Ida Nielsen said...

I'm in love with the third picture. Amazing!!

Anil P said...

Ida Nielsen: Thank you. To my eye it looked to be from a freshly painted batch.

Gauri Gharpure said...

I absolutely loved this post.. i first came across channapatna toys and fell in love with the bright colours and fine craftsmanship.. but these wooden birds I have seen for the first time..

butool said...

hi anil ,

I run an inititative called design mela on . Its aim is to celebrate mass-consumed low-cost indian design. i invite you to write on the wooden toys of varanasi or allow us to use your post with due credits . Please feel free to revert back at