Bombay's antiques roadshow

From the thieves' market to fine bazaars, there's a price range to suit everyone looking for India's treasures. Amanda Ball reports
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The Independent Culture
I BATTLED my way through Bombay's overcrowded Chor Bazaar (or thieves' market), dodging the tuktuks, cars, people, goats, cows, pye- dogs and hopping rats (though these were hard to spot). Now I had only the dust, the fumes and the noise to contend with.

But this is India, and you expect all your senses to be assaulted. I had come hunting for the treasures of India's past, so I was prepared to scramble through the crowds, where gold and silver merchants ply their wares alongside allegedly stolen cars and bicycle parts.

It's as if the elephant god Ganesh has raised his trunk and hosed the area with terracotta-coloured dust. I stumbled past the stalls selling paan and little jewels for girls' foreheads, past the trolleys offering puris, past a security guard, through a glass door, and I was in another world - one with air-conditioning, white marble and a distinctly Arabian atmosphere, where all that glittered really was gold.

Explaining that I was interested in antique pieces caused bemusement, but finally elicited a trip to a central counter. I was presented with a heavy gold necklace, which fell like tendrils, each piece ending in a cabochon ruby. The salesgirl was ecstatic: "Oh, you simply must have this. This is beautiful on you."

"Well, you couldn't wear it every day, could you?" I said. "Why not?" she retorted. As I would rather people see me, not my weight in gold, when I enter a room, I decided not to buy it - but just for fun I checked the price.

Weighing the piece, the assistant frowned, picked up a calculator and presented me with the figure: 225,000 rupees (about pounds 3,750). Maharanis' treasures don't come cheap, yet since gold is priced entirely by weight whether it's a precious antique or made yesterday, I may have missed a bargain.

Along the street, among the hole-in-the-wall shops of the silver salesmen, it's easier to find antique gems. It's worth the hunting to see wonderful jewels and caskets you never knew you coveted.

Many of the gems are tikka, which once adorned the foreheads of brides. These have now been turned into pendants. Take your pick from the bevy of expert stringers, crouching on low stalls by the kerb, covered with every colour of miniature tassel.

I watched as Saleem, aged 55 and crumpled like an old tea-bag, but lithe enough to crouch with flat feet on the floor all day, selected a golden thread entwined with magenta cotton and threaded a necklace to fit a tall young Muslim woman in a saffron sari. "See, I can do it double quick," he smiled at me.

The Zaveri Bazaar, part fine antiques shops, part junk shops, is less crowded than the thieves' market. The goods here are not cheap, but you can sometimes see fabulous items that you would be unlikely to find elsewhere, such as Indian lamps and chandeliers.

I'd been inspired for this trawl by a light I'd spotted at the Maharajah of Jodhpur's massive palace hotel, the Umaid Bhawan. In pride of place in the dining-hall is a stylised silver lion sprouting antler-type growths from the sides of its head, the ends of which splay out each adorned with a crazier-than-the-last coloured glass shade.

India's chandeliers are not spun sugar creations of finely cut, clear crystal; they are great dolloping dangles of heavily-coloured ruby, emerald and sapphire glass. Craftsmen trying to imitate European styles just couldn't help Indianising them. The results are often garish, overblown, Victorian kitsch - at about pounds 20,000 for a chandelier. I didn't buy anything.

In every store I was welcomed like an old friend. Someone asked me: "Look. I have this English painting. Very old. Very big. Little rip. No problem. Repair easy. Nice frame. How much should I ask?"

I'd seen similar in many a local auction at home, not ripped from side to side. "About 20,000 rupees [pounds 330]," I guessed. He looked at me in horror, "Ah no, I will go bankrupt."

I caught a cab to Collector's Paradise at Apollo Bunder, near the Regal Cinema. Lino floors, plain whitewashed walls and glass cases contain row upon row of old watches, stacks of old Leica cameras (pounds 400), and goods imported from England during the days of the Raj. All of them were more expensive than they would be at home, such as a three-piece silver and enamel brush set at pounds 90. These old everyday items give a nostalgic atmosphere, and among them are some fine antiques. For a more rigorous selection, you need to visit shops in the best hotels, such as those in the ultra- smart arcades at the Taj. Or hunt out the tiny, entry-by-bell shops such as Heeramaneck.

Here, I popped in one lunch time and found the shop's narrow corridor blocked by the elderly sales assistant, mid-tiffin.

He bought out fine Indian silver items and Raj cigarette cases - a pretty, enamelled one made in London in 1929 for the Indian market cost pounds 300.

Finally, I went in search of bigger items. Antiques warehouses are almost impossible to find, as they are hidden down back streets and are barely visible until you're in them.

I wandered down a quiet, rubbish-ridden alleyway and into a courtyard. On my left was a hovel masquerading as a first-floor factory. On my right, covered in a thick layer of soot, were laundry lines laden with patched- together pieces of fabric - the sheets and clothes of the poor. I walked through a door in the corner and found myself in an Aladdin's cave of treasures.

Dagina Bazaar is packed to its 20ft-high ceilings with old fountains, doors, arches and bullock carts. Moorthy, the owner, greeted me warmly. "Look around. See if you like." At the back, a group of men, cross-legged on the floor, were recaning an elaborate chaise longue. They looked up in surprise - this is a place for insiders, a haunt of the trade. Unknown faces are rarely seen. I came across a witty, foot-high dummy board of a maharajah, pounds 200. Moorthy was enthusiastic. "It lights up. I'll show you." He plugged it in and switched it on, and the room lit up. "Hey presto."

I laughed loudly. Moorthy took one look at my face, and grinned. This, he realised, I had to buy.

Arrivals: there are plenty of cheap fares on indirect routes to Bombay/Mumbai. For non-stop flights, Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627) has good fares from Heathrow on Air India.

More information: India Government Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677)