Motor two hours south of Chennai to discover southern India's antique-furniture haven. While low prices are sure to tempt, costs do add up. Most outlets can arrange to send your purchases home, but buying enough to fill a small container will help to defray shipping expenses.
VIA PONDICHERRY Dancer Vasanty Manet brings her funky savoir faire, fortified while living in Paris, to her so-called"heritage boutique,"which highlights the country's oldest prizes: elaborate ceremonial textiles, stone deities, locally crafted porcelain plates, cotton dance saris, and dresses created from antique fabrics. 22 Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry; 91-413/233-4677.
CALICO Manet, who also runs Via Pondicherry around the corner, moonlights as an interior design consultant. Her two-year-old pink emporium is filled with inventive furnishings such as Technicolor square wool cushions, satin floral quilts, and a collection of bags embellished with delicate sequins. 2 Rue Labourdonnais, Pondicherry; 91-413/233-4677.
AURORACHANA COCO & CLEMENS Antique furniture aficionados can find British and French colonial teak and rosewood four-poster beds, armoires, cupboards, and dowry chests here. Hundreds of beautifully restored relics collected from run-down south Indian palaces fill the makeshift sheds and workshops on the premises. Stuff your suitcase with little brass gods, prayer pieces, and filigreed metal vessels. Hope, Auroville; 91-413/262-2175.
MIRA BOUTIQUE Italian antiques dealer Marco Feira travels around India in search of rare and traditional gold and silver jewelry: Gujarati tribal earrings, marriage necklaces, devotional rings with precious stones. You'll also see his finds on sale in the lobby of Pondicherry's Hotel de L'Orient. Feira's wife, Liliana, designs Punjabi-inspired cotton ensembles under the Miniature label. Visitor Centre, Auroville; 91-413/262-3389 and Hotel de L'Orient, 17 Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry; 91-413/234-3067.
CURIO CENTRE Third-generation owner Rajiv Asokan spe- cializes in centuries-old southern Indian hand-carved doors, beds, pillars, vanities, and chests. Have time on your hands?Request a visit to Asokan's enormous warehouse—150 miles away—which feels like you've stepped into Aladdin's cave. 40 Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry; 91-413/222-5676.
This onetime spice center is still seasoned with the smell of dried ginger and turmeric, but it's in the charming maze of Jew Town, home to a 16th-century synagogue and a remaining handful of Indian Jews, that visitors will find colossal antiques emporiums and dilapidated Portuguese-style houses that brim with Indian gems.
INDIAN ARTS AND CURIOS When the owners of this 250-year-old Portuguese-style villa next to the ancient tem- ple moved to Israel, the doors of Jew Town's first furniture shop swung open. A keen eye for unique Christian relics, historic canvases salvaged from local churches, smaller sculptures, and even reproduction furniture keeps this spot humming with collectors. Synagogue Lane, Jew Town; 91-484/222-8049.
CINNAMON Sure, it's not hard to find delicate beaded picture frames, old deity-prints, and semi-precious jewelry in India, but no one puts it all together like Cinnamon. The sleek shop whips up a mix of home accessories, coffee-table tomes, handworked shawls, and fusion fashion that serves a chic and arty clientele from around the globe. Stuber Hall, 1/658 Ridsdale Rd., Parade Ground, Fort Cochin; 91-484/221-8124.
CRAFTERS Antiques fans across India are well acquainted with Sunny and Johny L. Malayil, the affable brothers who preside over a 12,000-square-foot former spice warehouse crammed with vintage and new furnishings. The Keralan duo, with five additional shops and more than 100,000 pieces in Jew Town, keep dealers and drop-ins satiated with sandstone deities, bronze cooking vessels, Gujarati dowry chests, architectural remnants, and Burmese lacquer boxes. VI/141 Jew Town; 91-484/222-3346.
MADONNA EXPORTS The three brothers Thaliath run the Madonna monopoly in Jew Town, a five-shop enterprise focusing on religious icons, especially all things old and Catholic. Their family has been selling antiques here for 25 years, stuffing their musty pink-walled palaces with panels, saints, dolls, and wooden boxes from China, Burma, and India. Be sure to ask for a tour upstairs, where massive furniture pieces are housed.VI/182 Synagogue Lane, Jew Town; 91-484/222-4006.
SPR FRAGRANCE In this no-frills shop a rickshaw ride from Jew Town, select from the Eden of essences that include flower, leaf, and wood oils from all over the country. Brothers Nazeer Pasha and Abdul Rasheed specialize in the rare and unexpected (think snakeflower, hemp seed, and oudh wood) for medicinal, aromatherapy, or perfume purposes. CC-VI/508 Bazar Road, Mattancherry; 91-484/222-2661.
'I love the beautiful south Indian glass painting of baby Krishna I bought in Cochin's Jew Town. It now hangs in my apartment in Bombay'
Ismail Merchant, director and producer
HEIDI LENDER has written for Vogue, Elle Décor, and Town & Country.