Strategizing my outfits for my cousin Saad’s 10-event, two-continent wedding last winter was an exercise in project management. I plotted out every ensemble and the corresponding accessories that would travel with me from New York to San Francisco to Hyderabad, India. I made charts to work out which heels and purses could do double duty for multiple functions, but for each gharara or churidar I planned to wear, I needed just the right composition of crystal-studded bangles to match.
A rainbow of magenta, teal and lime for the pre-wedding sanchak-mehndi party. Thick gold cuffs for the nikah, or marriage ceremony. A dainty mix of shimmering black and pink for the walima, or reception. From the hundreds of bangles I still store neatly in clear boxes at my parents’ house in Massachusetts, I devised perfect pairings for each day of the festivities — and a few extras, just in case.
My expansive bangle collection is proof that I’ve spent many afternoons bargaining in the Laad Bazaar in Hyderabad. (“If we take her to Laad Bazaar, she won’t come back,” my grandmother used to say about me.) This city, my parents’ hometown, is known for these glittering lacquer bangles; weddings and religious festivals — neither of which are in short supply in India — are a reliable excuse to amass new sets. Hyderabadi women regularly refresh their collections with the latest designs; brides from across India come to the bazaar to match bracelets to their trousseaus; and tourists come to the lively thoroughfare for the ambience and the sparkly souvenirs.
“Diamonds are diamonds, but these look stunning, too,” said Swapna Mehta, a Hyderabadi jewelry designer. She frequently seeks inspiration from the markets near the Charminar, the 429-year-old monument that’s the cynosure of Hyderabad’s Old City. “When I was getting married, the only go-to place to buy gotas or lac bangles was Charminar.”
Laad Bazaar occupies the artery to the west of the Charminar. The first few steps are always the most disorienting, as you blink to adapt to the blinding displays: thousands of bangles twinkling in shop after shop, light coming off the glass cases like fireworks. Hawkers sell bundles of bangles on street carts in front of showrooms where salespersons beseech you to browse: “Madam, madam, one minute.”
There’s plenty of finery on sale in the bazaar and the nearby markets, including antique jewelry from the era of the Nizams; delicate crystal bottles of attar perfume; embroidered borders, or gota masalas, for traditional Hyderabadi khada dupattas, or bridal outfits. But it’s the bangles that draw most of the traffic to the bazaar, which locals often call Choodi Bazaar: bangle market.
Shopping in the bazaar is as much about enjoying Hyderabadi hospitality and humor as it is about commerce, and as with many things in Hyderabad, there is no rushing the matter. I usually arrive with swatches of colors I want to match and then settle in for the long haul, leaving the negotiations to an unaccented relative. (“We give those higher prices to foreigners, not you,” one shopkeeper assured us. Prices can range from 100 rupees, about $1.35, for a simple pair to more than 20,000 rupees for custom-made bridal designs.) Set after set is presented with a flourish, and if they don’t have the color or size you want, a boy might be sent to a relative’s shop nearby to get it, while the salesperson distracts you with tea and conversation.
“It’s symbiotic,” Deepthi Sasidharan, a heritage consultant and director of Eka Archiving Services, said. “Like any other bazaar, there are family businesses where there are father, sons and cousins who have four or five shops between them.” And the alliances span beyond bangles.
“Afzal Miyan will do a fabric for you that has a specific kind of stone or bead that you need and that can be matched perfectly by a bangle seller three shops down,” she said. “So you get this perfectly synchronous set of clothes and bangles and jewelry that looks as if it’s all been made together, but it isn’t. It’s just craftsmen who have, over hundreds of years, perfected and made their tasks synchronous.”
People I asked have different takes on the history of Laad Bazaar, but a popular origin story, recorded on a placard at the Charminar, dates it to the late 16th century. It says the Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah, founder of Hyderabad, established the market for the wedding of his daughter; the tangle of bangle shops came later. Laad means lacquer: Hence the name of the market, where there are an estimated 200 shops dedicated to the bracelets.
The bangles are handmade by artisans in nearby workshops, and Mohammed Zubair, owner of Khaja Bangles and Jewellers, explained the process to me. Lacquer comes from resin, which is melted over a furnace and molded into a circle, then embellished with crystals, beads or mirrors.
“We’re famous in the whole world,” he told me, listing the destinations he’s traveled to for exhibitions, including the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. His shop is now working on a set in honor of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, which will include an American flag and an Indian one.
The intricacy of the patterns the artisans etch out of crystals is remarkable, and the palettes and designs seem to evolve with every visit.
“I’ve gone to one of the stores and been like, ‘Can you make this pattern for me?,’ and they’ve told me, ‘We can make your face if we want,” said Suhani Pittie, a designer, who in one piece mixed lac with imitation leather to create a modern look in black and white. “They’re vociferously trying to understand their target audience and modulating their designs.”
The wedding industry and a full calendar of festivals keep the Laad Bazaar busy. Zubair has a master’s degree in business, but returned to work with his father at the store his grandfather opened in the 1950s. Another shop owner I spoke to said his son finished a degree in mechanical engineering, but decided the family business was more lucrative.
There’s a reason I usually battle traffic and go to the Old City on every visit, and it’s not just for the bangles. While the bazaar preserves and promotes a long-beloved craft in the modern era, it also helps preserve a slice of Hyderabad’s syncretic culture.“When you walk through those lanes, it’s such a melting pot of so many different things, and everything has survived,” Pittie said. “I’m not just talking about people from different religions who come together and bring in their own aesthetics, their own culture, their own languages, their own food. They’re all coming together to create this beautiful business hub, which thrives, and to be able to be a part of it, even today — I think it’s amazing.”