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CARRYING FORWARD RICH TRADITIONS OF RAJASTHAN’S TIMELESS JEWELLERY

With her versatile design for craft-based jewellery studio Kanak Kriti, Vibha Shekhawat is keeping alive the traditions of the finest Rajasthani kaarigars.

Anshu Khanna

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“Ever since I was a little child, I was a witness to many baithaks where the women of the family viewed jewellery crafted by the finest kaarigars of Rajasthan. From haath phool to cummerbunds, from pachelis to kangans, they would be shown the finest within the comfort of their drawing room at Mundru House. And I, being the only daughter of the family, would sit in utter awe at the dazzle of each piece.”

Vibha Shekhawat, born into the Thikana of Mundru Village in Shekhawat, now runs a craft-based jewellery studio, Kanak Kriti, where she recreates every piece of jewellery that she saw her mother and grandmother acquire, pass down and cherish. From aads made in partaashkakaam (“Each piece crafted by hand from a thick sheath of gold by ancestral craftsmen who are masters in this art form.”), to pachelis encrusted with a carpet-like setting of tiny pearls, to haathphools that can be reinvented and reused in many forms, Vibha keeps every element of Rajput jewellery alive, insisting that Rajasthan has a rare tale to tell about jewellery craftsmanship. “I am simply trying to keep this legacy alive,” she says.

Granddaughter of the much respected philanthropist Mohar Singh Rathore, a Member of Parliament from Churu, Vibha has seen enterprise and social work coexist all her life. “Both my father and my grandfather (Nanusa) are into politics. My grandfather was a leading advocate, parliamentarian, and social and political activist.  He voluntarily donated land to develop gaushalas, establish hostels for rural boys and girls, set up exclusive UG and PG education institutions for girls. He is still revered like a legend, given the number of schools and colleges and the development work he undertook in Churu.  My father and my uncles continue in his footsteps,” she shares.

A family that is into mining marbles with a mine in Katni, the Shekhawats are also about to launch an idyllic resort on the Delhi-Jaipur highway that they have named Gordhan Resort, after their grand patriarch.  “It was actually a farm and holiday home for the family where we grew all our organic vegetables and fruits and also kept cattle. It was our way of keeping the connection with our village roots alive and now we want to give city folks a peep into this way of life,” says Vibha.

Vibha, in her school, MGD, made friends with girls who “hailed from diamond merchant and traditional jewellery families”. “Hanging out with them, I inadvertently saw myself steering towards jewellery design,” she says. And thence was born Kanak Kriti, a house of jewels that is known to craft not just heirloom pieces but also precious stones set in gold polished silver. “All my pieces have the finest precious and semi precious stones inlaid in them. I ensure each piece is set in a traditional style and no glue is used, making it very simple to reset them in another metal and another setting,” Vibha says.

Another specialty is how she creates jewels that can be used in multiple ways. “My haathphools can be used as rings, bracelets, neck pieces and mehri, which was traditionally worn by women on their foreheads,” she explains.

Vibha also takes care to keep the look and feel of each piece as authentic as possible. “My aads bring alive the navrattan setting in partaashkakaam exactly how they were made three generations ago.”

Her works are not just for women. She also creates masterpieces for men in the five elements that were traditionally gifted to a royal groom: a serpech for the turban, buttons for the achkan, a thick kantha in gold for the feet, a chain for the neck and a kada for the hand. “I make each of these pieces in a way that they can be used later—the serpech as a neck piece, the buttons as ear studs!” she explains. As for the dandy men, she has a whole range of tie pins, broaches and ear studs. “Let’s not forget that women and men in Rajasthan are a bejewelled lot,” she says. And with Kanak Kriti, Vibha ensures they keep their dazzle intact.

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Royally Speaking

The saga of a self-made jewellery designer

Anshu Khanna

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For Rajputs, their legacy is a source of immense pride. One that links them to history and their inherited heritage and leaves them with many fables to tell. Whatever their profession, position in life and personal sport might be, Rajputs are first and foremost propagators to their family lineage.

One such proud Rajput is Madhulika Shekhawat, a daughter of the small state of Sawar that was founded in 1627 by Maharana Pratap’s younger brother Shakti Singh’s grandson Gokul Das. A jewellery designer by profession, she is most proud of her lineage and shares several stories of life lived in the past, also taking inspiration in design from her family’s life and style.

Aditi Shekhawat.

A Shaktawat by birth she is married to the great grandson of the legendary Lt Col Thakur Kishen Singhji Meghsar, ADC, MBE Commandant, who led artillery wing of the Bikaner State Forces titled Bijey Battery (after Maharaj Kumar of Bikaner) to World War II in 1945. She shares, “Bijey Battery participated in various battles against the Japanese and played a prominent role in the defence of Kohima.” Post the mutiny of 1857, the British dismounted most artillery wings of the Maharajas, “except this one which my great grandfather-in-law led.”

A landed aristocracy, her in-laws are owners of large land parcels in Hanumangarh (Punjab-Haryana border), where, “we grow rice. My husband in fact is part gentlemen farmer and part hotellier”. He inherited a large haveli constructed by Kishen Singhji on the Gajner highway in Bikaner and converted it into a heritage hotel, Kishan Palace, 25 years back. Reminiscent of the arched and lattice worked havelis of the region it is also a home full of memories, “where the entire family once lived and my husband grew up.”

A self-made jewellery designer who uses only the finest diamonds, both polished and uncut in her jadaus, she is deeply inspired by the jewellery worn by women in the jenana and her very interesting pledge is, “Every woman must wear and own a diamond. Trust me, diamonds are not expensive. But they are priceless when in possession.”

It was per chance that she stumbled into the profession and in a near innocent way realised that “diamonds were the most stunning of stones and only a fraction more expensive than any other precious stones”.

“When I started working with kaarigars in Bikaner, I was very clear that I did not want to use either lab grown diamonds or pukhraj polkis that shine and sparkle like diamonds but are not a patch on diamonds.”

She insisted on setting each of her jewel piece with real stones and realised that it only took the price up by a fraction. “At the same time, making the woman feel so precious that she was swathed in a diamond.”

As her petite and pretty daughter Aditi joins her in the business, the two dream of opening a by appointment store where “women can drop by, feast their eyes on our creation, and also relive the Raj era”.

Aditi is currently studying at Delhi’s IP College, having schooled at Mayo College, Ajmer.

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Srinagar’s Karan Mahal: History reinvented

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The charming European-style villa that is perched upon Srinagar’s Shankaracharya Hill overlooking the Dal Lake is no ordinary mansion. Constructed in the 1920s as Karan Mahal, it served as the residence of Dr Karan Singh, the then crown prince of Jammu & Kashmir.

A charismatic leader of legendary stature, Dr Karan Singh served as Jammu & Kashmir’s Head of State and Governor for nearly two decades before moving to the national capital to form Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Having worn the prestigious garb of Raj Bhawan or the Governor’s Residence of Jammu & Kashmir, this quaint estate of his has made its mark on history for hosting the swearing-in ceremonies of many state dignitaries. In addition, Karan Mahal has welcomed the diplomatic visits of renowned historical figures such as Edwina Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru Nikita Khrushchev, Rajendra Prasad, Indira Gandhi and Joseph Campbell.

At its centenary, this historic residence of the Dogra Rajputs has been reinvented as a luxury hospitality venture by Dr Karan Singh’s elder son, Yuvraj Vikramaditya Singh, and daughter-in-law, Yuvrani Chitrangada Raje. Veterans in hotel trade and hospitality, the duo is famously known for their erstwhile custodianship of Taragarh Palace, their ancestral dwelling amidst Kangra’s tea estates. With their latest reinvention of Karan Mahal, Yuvraj Vikramaditya and Yuvrani Chitrangada Raje have tastefully rendered it as the hospitality industry’s latest buzzword.

Comprising of seven luxurious guest rooms and three lavish suites each with a private balcony, every section of Karan Mahal opens up to unparalleled views of the Zabarwan and Pir Panjal ranges. Its antique drawing and dining rooms breathe in the air of imperial glory with handcrafted wooden ceilings fastened with opulent crystal chandeliers. Handwoven Kashmiri carpets, exquisite artefacts and art deco furniture collectively thrive to tell stories from yesteryears, and indeed, it is here that one gets to relive tiny fragments of history that the world only got to read about thus far. When it comes to extending their hospitality, the regal house of Kashmir leaves no stone unturned.

A completely immersive experience is garnered further by their age-old familial recipes that range from traditional Dogra, Nepalese and Kashmiri dishes. Given their diverse ancestral roots in the various Himalayan regions of India and Nepal and even in Gwalior, Jammu & Kashmir’s present-day scions cherish these culinary legacies that are now open to being savoured by one and all.

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REMEMBERING THE BRIGHTEST OF THE BABIS

Princess Aaliya Babi Farhat of Balasinor reminisces the life and last days of famed yesteryear star and close relative, Parveen Babi, on the anniversary of her death.

Anshu Khanna

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It’s a title that is attached to many royal Nawab families of India. A Pashtun tribe, the Babis owe their origin to Bahadur Khanji Babi, son of Usman Khan, who migrated to India and entered the Mughal service and received the hereditary title of ‘Babi’ in 1554 from Emperor Humayun.  Nawab Babi became the title of the ruler of the Indian princely states of Sardargadh, Radhanpur, Balasinor and Junagadh.

However, the one celebrity who took the Babi name to the world was the sultry, stunning and incredible actress Parveen Babi. Daughter of Janab Wali Mohammad Khan, the dynamic administrator in the Junagadh state, and the elegant Jamal Bakhte, Parveen was recently remembered by Princess Aaliya Babi Farhat of Balasinor in her post where she also shared pictures of the actress as a baby at her mamu’s birthday. It sent me back to the moment when, at a coronation ceremony in Rajkot, I had met another Babi who spoke in equal reverence of the family and the actress.

EXTREME RIGHT IN WHITE DRESS IS PARVEEN
PARVEEN WITH HER MOTHER
AT A WEDDING

Her post was so endearing that I reached out to Aaliya to know more of an actress whom people like me grew up admiring. She shared, “Parveen was very close to the family. She was born to her parents 14 years in their marriage and I must admit she was very pampered. Her father and my grandmother were siblings and in theory she was my mother’s aunt (phuphi) but she looked up to my mother right till the end. In fact, her father even named her after my mother’s home name, Parveen. He was so fond of her that he decided that if he was blessed with a girl, he would call her Parveen.”

She recalled further, “When I went to Sophia College in Ajmer, ever so often girls would ask me if I was related to Parveen, and the moment I said yes, they would be full of admiration for me! She did her schooling and college at St. Xavier’s, Ahmedabad and my maternal uncle and mother (Rajmata Saaheb Farhat Sultana Babi of Balasinor) were her local guardians.”

However, the most incredible tale of all was how it was the Balasinor family who gave the actress a befitting send-off. Rajmata Saab Balasinor, known for her magical prowess for their royal cuisine, is also known for her statuesque demeanor and her kind heart – a character that was well reflected in the regal way she rose to the occasion and ensured that Parveen got a decent burial. Aaliya relived the moment, saying, “There were so many people claiming to be her family that the police were confused. Ehsan Khan (Dilip Kumar’s brother) reached out to my mother sharing how they must give her a decent burial. Mummy flew to Mumbai, met the Commissioner and was given claim of her body, especially when people like Nana Chudasama vouched for the fact that we were the relatives closest to her.”

All that she desired was to give Parveen a decent burial, which she did by getting a plot for a grave right next to her mother, and “after which, she returned home,” surely satisfied in the thought that one of the most iconic Babi girls had been given a decent send-off.

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MUSHROOMING OF A CAUSE: PREETI RATHORE & MAANVEER SHEKHAWAT

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Ex-engineer Preeti Rathore and marketing professional Maanveer Shekhawat are making headlines as Pink City’s most power-packed couple, and for good reason. The two resigned from their conventional jobs in order to invest themselves fully in their joint passion for sustainable farming. Both Rathore and Shekhawat have found their calling in natural quests since their childhood years, and fate had its way of aligning them with their mutually treasured cause. After quitting his corporate job, Shekhawat steered towards becoming a restauranteur, while Rathore set up her home bakery label. Shortly after turning five, their firstborn was diagnosed with Celiac disease. What began as extensive research to chart out an organic path to their son’s healing ended up in a pathbreaking decision that altered their family’s lives altogether. 

Rathore in particular was tremendously drawn to the nutritional value of oyster mushrooms, a lesser-known variant of commercial toadstools such as button mushrooms, porcini, and shiitake mushrooms. A German measure for subsistence during the first World War, oyster mushrooms have gained worldwide repute for their environmental adaptability and medicinal value. Not only would Rathore’s organic mushroom harvest provide the ideal health supplement for her son, but also made for a niche grocery item for her husband’s restaurant inventory. By then the parents of two, Rathore and Shekhawat headed to Himachal Pradesh, where they received professional training for digital mushroom farming. Afterwards, they returned to lay the foundations of their very own organic farming initiative, which they named Ambrosia, a Greek word translating into the food that conferred longevity and even immortality to all those who consumed it. 

“Our business idea is to provide food that is healthy and free of harmful chemicals. We started our farm in 2019 and took our kids along to grasp practical knowledge around our venture. I would say Ambrosia isn’t just a farm, it’s an emotion that lives through us and our dedication towards quality. A sustainable lifestyle is derived out of wholesome food that also cultivates to the Earth’s benefit,” says Preeti Rathore. As the first success story in Jaipur’s organic mushrooming ventures, the couple lays key emphasis on the twin benefits of their agricultural venture, which attends to the global issues of malnutrition, unemployment, and environmental degradation simultaneously. They add, “To begin with, the agricultural advantage of mushrooms is its perennial nature and versatility. Mushrooms thrive even in areas that suffer a shortage of land and water. Vertical farming with in-room racks is an excellent alternative for conditions of land and water scarcity and is cost-effective too. Furthermore, mushrooms are guarantors of zero waste farming, for their post-harvesting agro-waste needn’t be burnt at all. In fact, it is ideally re-used for mulching purposes, thereby restoring the soil’s depleted carbon content without generating any toxic emissions or fumes.”

Given India’s deplorable ranking of 94th out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index Survey published in October 2020, the Indian government has added mushrooms as a regular component of children’s mid-day meal schemes. A cheap and vegetarian derivative of protein, mushrooms make for a promising contender in our nation’s battle against malnutrition. Even in the more premium food sectors, mushrooms are reclaiming their forgotten status as nutritional powerhouses. Ironically, mushrooms serve as an effective solution for those contending with obesity, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension, endocrine disorders. Mushrooms eliminate the body’s free radicals and strengthen one’s immune system. Rathore further adds, “Oyster mushrooms are truly mouth-watering and their distinct texture makes them the meat of the vegetarian world. Mushrooms, in general, can be adapted across multiple dining formats, from soups, salads, and entrees to pickles, fermented beverages and seasonings.”

Their personal pledge to cultivate an organic and sustainable lifestyle brought their son’s Celiac disease under control, and Rathore has succeeded in reversing her thyroid dysfunction. “We believe in leading by example; my thyroid problems are cured by switching to organic products and a sustainable lifestyle. Making these small lifestyle changes helps not only us, but also benefits the environment. We hope to create a better world such that our children can inherit a safer planet from us”, she elaborates.

Recently, the global outspread of Coronavirus caused Ambrosia to diversify their product line. Their range of oyster mushroom products multiplied into raw, sun-dried, and powdered variants, and the duo also conducted awareness drives that expanded consumer knowledge beyond the standard button mushroom variant. These, they package in biodegradable containers. They have also conducted online training programs for potential mushroom cultivators. Rathore and Shekhawat ensure us of constituting the ideal household that segregates their waste into dry and wet sections. The former is used to make compost while the latter’s plastic waste is remodelled to create eco-bricks. “We started to undertake these measures at home and are now generating awareness around the realistic possibility of cutting down one’s carbon footprint through measures that are elementary and simple”, they jointly conclude.

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When perfumes become an extension of personality

Rupal Shabnam Tyagi

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Growing up, I was exposed to the wonders of Mother Nature, the untouched wilderness evoking romanticism smeared in tranquillity. These experiences got an encouragement after I got married to a family which was into agriculture, medicinal and aromatic plantations, growing exotic herbs and mango orchards. One of the most remarkable things about the life of the royals is that they have always remained in touch with nature.

I still remember this tradition in our house in Nehtaur, UP, where women, when they are expecting their first child, go to their ancestral house to spend time amidst nature. This has been a ritual in our family, so that the expecting mothers are taken adequate care with traditional beauty practices, helping them to balance their physical and emotional wellbeing.

During this time, I was introduced to something very pure and magical. I was given buttermilk baths, refreshing massage therapies with infused oils made with fresh blooms and herbs from our family plantation. Sometimes, rose petals, essential oils were sprinkled in the bath which was very soothing and refreshing. It works on the complexion, enhances appearance, tightens pores, and hydrates the skin.

Besides the beauty rituals, we enjoyed long walks in the mango orchards enthralled in the aroma of juicy and raw mangos, fresh produce from the farms, and milk from our own dairy. These experiences were so invigorating that I started reading about them and learnt the endless possibilities of natural healing.

I remember, having some detoxifying sessions in jute woven bed and soaking up the warmth of burning coal laid below the bed. From munching some homegrown beetle leaves after a meal for digestion to using henna leaves for cooling, I cannot be more grateful that these experiences happened to me.

I was a software professional, but the regular visits to our family-owned aromatic plantations and mango orchards stoked my interest in aromatherapy which led me to pursue the discipline in-depth and become a qualified aromatherapy practitioner and perfumer from London. Wikka’s journey has been one of zero compromises in the formulation of products that are guaranteed to work miracles on the mind, body and soul. Most of the products of my wellness brand are inspired by the traditional beauty rituals I experienced in Nehtaur. We use a lot of farm honey for moisturisation, blends of honey and oil for the face pack, natural fragrances to evoke mysticism and give you that natural and dewy look.

Talking about the use of natural fragrances, I would like to highlight that I am a firm believer that our perfume is the biggest advocate of our own self. It expresses one’s personality and vibe carrying the trait of bringing back cherished memories. People should always wear perfume that adorns their personality traits. Well, the practice of wearing a signature scent is prevalent since ages. Every tradition in history has placed these signature scents at a very high pedestal. My great-grandfather-in-law Prince Dalip Singh of Nehtaur, who was also a Bar-at-Law in London for over 25 years, used to designate his presence at every gathering with his signature smell. It was a blend of wild musk with roses which complimented his personality, a powerful yet caring individual. He used to narrate his memories related to the fragrance of his signature attar and how it helped him stand out in the crowd of royalties, where each person had a unique fragrance of their personality. Hearing these age-old tales and the anecdotes from history inspired me to dig deeper into this subject and I landed up in England to study perfumery. I was already very passionate about perfumes since 2002 and fortunately took up a professional education for a better understanding of all its aspects. For me, technical knowledge is very important in any line of practice. There, I lived in the outskirts of the country and practised under a master perfumer.

For me, Wikka has been a healing journey, a product of ancient knowledge and treasures of the royal household—brewing beauty concoctions with the wisdom of family traditions and advanced with the modern virtues of aromatherapy. We grow the herbs, get them distilled and the purest of oils we incorporate in the Wikka products. Every product has been well-thought-out.

As an aromatherapy practitioner and perfumer for over 15 years now, my vision was always to create a world of purer times. A brand which people can rely on and products that are completely natural and free from adulteration.

The writer is the founder of Wikka Perfumery. She is married into the zamindari of Nehtaur based in Uttar Pradesh.

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BRIJ RAJ SINGH BHATI: THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

The demise of Maharawal Brij Raj Singh Bhati has brought great grief to his kin and well-wishers, but his son Chaitanya Raj is ready to take forward the family’s legacy and work to empower the people and heritage of Jaisalmer.

Anshu Khanna

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The December of 2020 brought a pall of gloom over the city of Jaisalmer with all the flags flying half-mast to mourn the death of its erstwhile ruler Maharawal Brij Raj Singh Bhati, who succumbed to a failed liver at the early age of 52. A dynamic yet introverted leader, he passed away at Medanta, surrounded by his two sons, Chaitanya Raj and Janmajayee, and wife, Raseshwari Kumari.

Half of all the royal families of India joined the family in grief, given the familial ties that the Jaisalmer royals have with so many ruling dynasties. His wife Raseshwari, hailing from the Rana family of Nepal, has her sisters married in Nabha and Gondol. The princesses of Jaisalmer are now the bahus of Kasmanda, Mayurbhanj, Sailana and Sahaspur Belari. Dr Karan Singh’s late wife was the late ruler’s aunt, and his nieces and nephews got married to the scions of Kangra, Jhabua and Mysore.

Maharawal Brij Raj Singh. (Below right) Jaisalmer royal family.

It is cause for little wonder then that the Dastur ceremony (a coronation in the past) of his son, Maharwal Chaitanya Raaj Singh Bhati, personified the phrase “the king is dead, long live the king”. As chants from a hall full of purohits filled the air, Chaitanya, all of 27, took the seat of power to run the various enterprises helmed by his father. Shares his aunt, Sushma Kumari, “Chaitanya had our heart with the poise and grace he showed right through this sad and grueling ceremony, his young widowed mother by his and his brother, Janamajayee’s side.” Added Shailaja, a cousin, “The women of Jaisalmer showed great fortitude. Our grandmother, who has now lost both her sons, and the Maharani, rendered alone at such a young age, were symbols of grace.”

The Maharajas of Jaisalmer trace their lineage back to Jaitsimha, a ruler of a Bhati yadav clan during the 9th century. With him the title of “Rawal” commenced. “Rawal” means “of the royal house”. In 1156, Rawal Jaisal established his new capital in the form of a mud fort and named it Jaisalmer after himself. According to most historians, the Sikh Jats of Majha and Malwa Doaba and the rulers of Kapurthala state in Doaba in Punjab trace their direct lineage to Jaisalmer royal families over the centuries.

The Jaisalmer region was pat in the midst of the Silk Route, the camel caravan trade route which connected northern India and central Asia with the ports of Gujarat on the Arabian Sea coast of India and went on to Persia, Arabia and Egypt. Jaisalmer’s location made it an ideal staging post for imposing taxes on this trade. These taxes brought in a sense of great prosperity and flourish to this state, with not just the rulers, but also the Patwas who collected tax, benefitting from the Silk Route and turning their homes into majestic palaces and havelis carved out of the gold-hued sandstone, an indigenous material.

As trade moved to the sea and Bombay opened up as a port of trade, Jaisalmer lost its richness and prosperity. Ravaged further by famines and droughts, the city got its glory back only a few decades back when the mystical French travellers discovered the beauty of Jaisalmer – its sand dunes, lyrical by-lanes and splendidly carved havelis – placing it on the international tourism map.

This is the glory that the very young Maharwal has pledged to keep alive. Chaitanya Raj, an alumnus of SOAS, England, is first and foremost a philanthropist at heart. He has moved home to the family palace in Jaisalmer to support the locals with hemp farming, helping them create merchandise out of the produce. He and his mother are working hard to bring back tourism to this distant land and the glory of Jaisalmer as a center of reform, progress, patronage and culture. An example of this initiative is the Gyaan Center.

A revolution that had been quietly brewing for the last few years, Gyaan Center is a project of the Citta Foundation, spearheaded by American artist Michael Daube. A marvelous piece of architecture designed by New York-based architect Diana Kellogg and built around a stone structured palace donated by the Jaisalmer royal family, the center houses not just The Rajkumari Ratnavati School for girls but also a women’s cooperative that aims to empower the women of the region through craft employment and enhance gender parity in the region. A project wholly supported by Chaitanya and Raseshwari, who even donated the land it is built on, Gyaan Center by Citta Foundation is an architectural marvel. Its oval form is meant to reflect the curvilinear shapes of the local forts and the universal symbols of female strength.

Recognising the support of the Bhatis, Michael applauds the family saying, “The royal family of Jaisalmer supported the plans for this project and offered the use of a magnificent stone palace in the desert, located only 15 km from Jaisalmer, to develop the school. The centre is a unique combination of tourism and the ability to have many artists and volunteers visit the site, meanwhile, supporting education and economic development in the region. This scenario is the perfect configuration for stability, self-sustainability and the growth of the project. Tourists can visit the renovated site, pay entrance fees to sustain the school, purchase items from the women, who now have a venue to learn and create international standard crafts based on their local skills.”

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