We shoved our way down crowded back alleys as men lugged crates larger than themselves on their shoulders. Everywhere we turned, there was something bright and glittery to see: the sari or saree, depending on where you are.
A brief walk from Chandni Chowk Station, with large signs to guide our way, the market was filled with the brightly colored garments, along with beautiful lehengas. We started walking the main road before making our way further in.
“Well,” I said as we made our back to the main road, “I guess we’ll need to go in somewhere.”
We passed by more storefronts with mannequins made up in dazzling, bejeweled saris. Some of these were the same ones we went past twice.
Finally we came to a store, took a deep breath and opened the door as we slipped off our shoes.
The faces of a family picking out a bridal gown from their positions on the plushly matted floor stared up at us. Everything in me wanted to turn back out.
“We’re looking for saris,” I told a man who came to ask what he could do for us, “for a wedding.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” he said as he ushered us to the back of the narrow room, tip-toeing past the family, with shelves stacked high with saris. He had us sit down, one on the mat, one on a small wooden stool. “Have you ever worn a sari?”
My friend shook her head no, and I nodded vaguely—three years ago, I remembered, being in a friends house being draped in the thick, purple and green sari over my blouse and pants—but did that really count?
“Well, up up,” he said.
I motioned for my friend to follow his instructions and another man came forward with a rope to tie the sari onto her waist. He draped it with expert fashion, pulling it through his hands to make folds once, twice, three times, more times than I could count.
“This is an easy sari,” he said. “The skirt is already draped, so the only thing she’d have to worry about is the piece that goes over the shoulder.”
It was true—a brooch rested on the waist that gathered the fabric into pre-folds.
“It would be easy for me to put on myself back home,” my friend said as she admired herself in a mirror.
I snapped photos and eyed a pile of lehengas in a corner.
The man followed my gaze and I asked, “Could I wear a lehenga to a wedding?”
I heard and researched to find that they were very formal and was nervous about wearing such a thing in a new situation.
He pointed to the other side of the shop where ornate lehengas that looked as though they weighed thirty pounds each were piled in a corner. The future bride tried one on in the middle of the room. “Those are bridal lehengas. But, these, these a friend or a sister could wear.”
He motioned to the man who tied my friend up in a sari to untie her. “Get up there. Try one on.”
I flushed slightly under the attention, but did as I bid and stood on a wooden step as the draper tied the skirt around me.
The skirt—oh what a skirt. Embroidered flowers in pink, orange, and reds danced across the entire thing with gold vines twisting among them. At the hem, thick bands of red, orange, and gold wrapped around the skirt.
He named a price—an astronomical price for India—although no more than I’d be willing to pay for pieces for a formal event back home, the amount boggled my mind in India so much I laughed out loud.
“Out of my price range,” I told him. “Can I see some of your cheaper saris?”
They paraded me in and out of a pink one, a blue one, and a lovely white, red trimmed one I loved—but didn’t love the price tag. After the man undraped me from the sari, we sat down to drink a chai tea while my friend and he haggled over price.
“I’m shopping like a man,” my friend whispered when his attention was drawn away, “I just want to get something quick.”
I nodded along, but after their price was settled, his expectant eyes turned to me.
“I’m not sure,” i told him. “This is the first shop we’ve been to and I want to see other places.”
He rebuffed me with a counter offer.
I shook my head and gave him a sum. This time he laughed at me before countering—I still wasn’t happy.
Finally I named a sum and said, “That for both the white sari and the lehenga.”
He shook his head as he thought. “Fine,” he said, “For both of them.”
I smiled and took out the business card he offered us early, “Great. Write it and the items on the card. I’ll be back later.”
He stared at me in disbelief. “You’re not going to buy them now?”
“I haven’t seen anything else—but I know these are beautiful. Write the sum down and I’ll probably come back for them.”
With a snort he did as I bid him and we shuffled out of the sari shop and down the street to another and another. With every shop, I grew more aware of what I liked and didn’t like, could turn down a sari in a second, took the time to examine blouse pieces and whether all the stitching held.
Eventually, I bargained my way down for two saris, one a vibrant pink covered with mirrors and cutouts, and the other an orange one laced in gold.
From this experience, I have some advice to bestow on bargaining on saris and other objects in India:
1) Understand that even when you bargain, you aren’t going to get the best deal.
The reason for this is two-fold. One of them has to do with your company. If you shop with Indian friends, then this might not apply to you. But simply being a foreigner in India means that the prices are going to be hiked up astronomically high and even when you bargain them down, it will still be more than an Indian would pay for it. But, don’t lose heart over this. The difference in price for people from America and Europe is a few cents to maybe ten dollars. It’s not a bank-breaking difference for us, but it can be in India.
Another is that, as tourists, we tend to shop in the tourist places. That’s what the rickshaw drivers will take you to, that’s what we can find information about on the internet. And in the tourist-centered areas, prices will automatically be higher. Again, we can bargain down, but it’s not as cheap as the places we couldn’t possibly find out about.
2) Be prepared to walk away from something—and leave it.
When you look at an item, think about how badly you want it. What would be the most you would pay, and what would be ideal. Always start bargaining under the ideal. However, if you reach the most you would pay and the seller isn’t budging, then walk away. There is one reason to do this. The first is that often you’ll be called back and your price will be met. But, if you start walking away and they don’t call you back, keep walking. It didn’t hit the price you decided you would want it for so you didn’t want it that badly. Do this in sari shops, when shopping on the street, everywhere. Become good at walking away.
In Jaipur, there is an entire street devoted to the creation of bangles, and they are beautiful. At one point I stopped to admire a piece and the woman told me how much it was. I shook my head and named a different price, to which she told me know. I tried a different one, higher, and she still said no. The bracelet was beautiful, but I reached my price and I walked away. She didn’t call me down.
On the walk back to the entrance of the street, I stopped to admire bangles from a man and his father. His father hunched over a flame, creating a new one as we spoke. I picked out a thin bangle and they started finding me a set. My friend heard the price and tried to talk them down before I said anything. They denied her quickly with a scoff.
I examined them for a while and named a price slightly higher than hers. They shook their heads and I walked away. They called me back.
I walked away with a box of bangles for the price I wanted.
3) Practice your stank face.
While sari shopping, it was difficult not to notice the looks on everyone’s faces as they shopped for saris. Indians did not smile as they did this. Their faces looked carefully reserved and disdainful as yards of different fabrics were unfurled in front of them. On occasion, they would flip one over, maybe have it draped, but mostly sat in silence and quickly denied some pieces.
We quickly adopted this habit. When you walk into a sari shop knowing a color and design you like and ask them for it, they’ll quickly show you things. If you take one look at something and can say you dislike it, that shows you have more experience doing this than the average traveler—and that you have ideas for what you want. You become a more serious shopper when you practice the stank face.
4) Get draped.
When you shop for a sari, you can ask them if they’ll drape it. Most of them will. When you get draped, they’ll tie a sari rope around your waist over your clothes and wrap the fabric around you into a basic sari drape.
Draping is helpful for two reasons. The first is that it allows you to see what the pattern looks like on. Maybe the design is too bold or to plain on the body and it’s draping that helps you see that. The other is that it helps you to know what color looks good on you.
For example, I tried many orange, red, and pink ones that I adored. A beautiful royal blue sari was presented to me. But, when it was draped, I looked half-dead. The blue was so rich and my skin so pale that it made me look a bit like Jack in the Titanic towards the end. Without having it draped, I wouldn’t have known that wasn’t my color.
5) Always bargain.
Bargain for tuk tuks. Bargain saris. Bargain bracelets and souvenirs. Everything is available to be bartered for. And if it isn’t, they’ll say so and you can walk away.
Of course, the exception to this would be for entrance fees and meals at restaurants. Those are just as set in stone as anywhere.
The worst thing would be to not have tried to bargain. You’ll end up way over-spending.
Sari shopping is a very interesting experience in India. It’s like princess treatment as your dressed up and shown magnificent pieces of fabric. If you’re in India, it’s something you must do. If you’re not in the market to buy a sari but still want to see what it’s like, find a salon and give them a tip when you’re finished so that it’s not a complete waste of their time.