Channapatna Toys – The Epic Toy Story

With one hand, he held the saw to rotate the spinning wheel. In his other hand, he fashioned a chisel. 
Securing a small part of the lathe with his foot, he began to work his magic. Within moments, the slab of rock transformed into a perfect mini globe that finally became a bobbing head of one of those Channapatna toys. 

Vibrant rocking horses, dancing dolls and spinning tops call out to you the moment you pass through the arch that reads – “Welcome to the land of toys”. Channapatna, fondly called Gombegalu Ooru, never fails to lure you when you are driving on the Bangalore-Mysore highway. The brightly colored Channapatna wooden toys had been a part of every Indian kid’s life for centuries together. Though the demand in the toy world for the Channapatna dolls might have reduced in the wake of the more contemporary toys, the heritage art still thrives in this tiny town. In fact, the Channapatna toys GI tag has ensured that it remains associated with this village forever and that is what makes this toy story epic!

The heritage Channapatna toys
The heritage Channapatna toys

For many of us, the halt at Channapatna is the toys stores on the highway. 8 months back I decided to change that and wander further into the village to listen to the story of these timeless toys. What I heard and learned from this Channapatna toys factory visit made me respect this heritage art even more. I was still busy ruminating over this experience when I got a chance to visit another factory in Channapatna – courtesy of India Tourism Bengaluru. What emerges out of these two visits is the timeless toy story of Channapatna.

What are Channapatna toys?

Channapatna wooden toys
Channapatna wooden toys

It is highly unlikely that you have not seen lacquered wooden toys in the Indian market, especially in Karnataka. These are the toys of Channapatna. What separates them from the cheaper imitations is the quality of wood, the absence of sharp edges, and bright colors that do not bleed. These toys are handcrafted even today and that is what makes them special.

Channapatna toys history

It was the Tiger of Mysore – the famous Tipu Sultan who first introduced the art of wooden toy making here in India – specifically Channapatna. It was in the mid-1700s that he invited Persian artists to train the locals – thus establishing the first roots of this heritage handicraft in India. With his encouragement, the art flourished in Channapatna. Eventually, it became a skill that was passed on from generation to generation.

Tipu’s Tiger Organ Image Credits: Victoria and Albert Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O61949/mechanical-organ-automaton-tippoos-tiger/ [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There is a famous Channapatna toy made for Tipu Sultan which depicts a huge tiger slaying a British soldier. It is actually a wind instrument that makes the tiger roar and the soldier whimper with pain. You can see a small model of this in the summer palace of Tipu Sultan in Bangalore. The original is life-sized and was taken by the British. This can now be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

One of the other names that you will hear in connection to the Channapatna toys history is Bavas Miyan. There is not much known about him except that in this town, he is referred to as “Father of Channapatna toys”. He is said to have introduced the Japanese technology of manufacturing making the process a little more efficient. It is believed that Bavas Miyan dedicated his life to this heritage art.

Channapatna dolls - they are quite popular during Dasara festival
Channapatna dolls – they are quite popular during Dasara festival

Channapatna dolls became popular during the Dasara festival. They are kept during the Golu or the Gombe Habba. Even today, the demand for these dolls rises during this period. The demand for them in the children’s toy market has decreased owing to the competition from the more contemporary toys and cheaper Chinese imitations. However, there have been efforts being made to encourage Channapatna toys and the artists here. For one, the toys have been given the GI Tag. What that is – you can read in the next section.

A little about Channapatna toys GI Tag

GI Tag refers to geographical indication. It is a tag given to products that have originated from a particular region. The certification is awarded to those articles that have been produced using the traditional method. The GI tag is kind of an intellectual property right and is given in association with the World Trade Organization. The Channapatna toys GI Tag was administered by the Karnataka government in 2006. It helps protect this heritage art and ensures that it stays within the town. Recently, PM Modi gave a shout-out to these toys and urged a better distribution for them – possibly by making the Channapatna Toys available online.

Facts about Channapatna wooden toys

Channapatna toys - a heritage craft that has been around for 200 years
Channapatna toys – a heritage craft that has been around for 200 years

Here are some facts about the toys from Channapatna -things that make it special.

  • These 200-years-old toys are still hand-made.
  • The wooden toys from Channapatna are usually made from Aale mara wood. The scientific name for this is Wrightia Tinctoria. It also, known as ivory wood. Occasionally, sandalwood and rose wood are also used.
  • Vegetable or edible colors are used to brighten up the wood. This makes the toys safe for the kids
  • What makes the toys even more safe is the fact that there are no pointed edges on any of them
  • The waste from the shaving and chiseling of the wood is used to make incense.
  • Most of the factory owners have been making these toys for several generations. There are several of them like Bharath Art & Crafts who hire women and train them in the making of these toys.
  • Channapatna toys have made their way into the White House. Michelle Obama liked them so much that she bought some for her family.
  • Special toys were made and sent from Channapatna for the Prince of Bhutan when he was a toddler.
  • The educational toys from Channapatna were given as gifts to the employees of Microsoft.

How are Channapatna toys made?

It was very easy to get smitten by the colorful Channapatna dolls. However, I fell deeply in love with them after my Channapatna toys factory visit. Frankly, it is the art of making these handicraft dolls that totally bowl you over. In one visit, you can witness the magical transformation of a boring piece of wood into a stunning turn top. Let me give you a virtual tour of a Channapatna toys factory – both home & traditional factory as well as the modern one with machine lathes.

Chiseling and filing of Aale mara wood (ivory wood)

Aale Maara wood used for Channapatna toys making
Aale Maara wood used for Channapatna toys making

Aalemara wood is allocated to the various factories by a central authority. The log is cut into manageable pieces. The artisan first attached one of the pieces of a lathe. In the case of the traditional machines, the lathe is operated manually using a bow. The artisan uses one of his hands to spin the lathe with the bow and with his other hand, he chisels the piece of wood into the desired shape. The wood is quite soft and the shaping does not take more than a few minutes.

A traditional way of making Channapatna toys using a manual lathe
A traditional way of making Channapatna toys using a manual lathe
One of the oldest craftsman in Channapatna
One of the oldest craftsmen in Channapatna

A special mention here to the gentleman in the picture. Kingalaya is over 70 years old and for all his life, he has been making these heritage toys in his home factory. He says he learned this art from his father and continues to train the youngsters in the village.

Chiseling with the electrical lathes - Channapatna wooden toys
Chiseling with the electrical lathes – Channapatna wooden toys
Tools used in a Channapatna toys factory
Tools used in a Channapatna toys factory

In the case of modern lathes, the rotation is done through electricity. The rest of the chiseling and filing is done by the artisans. Irrespective of the machine, all the artisans work with a variety of chisels and files. Once the piece is smoothened, the artisan replaces these tools with his choice of color. The piece remains on the lathe.

Preparing the colors for Channapatna dolls

Preparing colors for making Channapatna toys
Preparing colors for making Channapatna toys

The colors for Channapatna wooden toys are prepared by the artisans using shellac chips (lac) and edible colors like turmeric (Haldi). The lac chips are melted over a fire and once they become semi-solid, colors are added to the mass. The lac mix is mixed over the fire until the color becomes uniform. The mix is then mashed into a color stick and that is what is used in the next step of making Channapatna toys.

Colors ready to be used for preparing Channapatna toys
Colors ready to be used for preparing Channapatna toys

Applying the edible colors to the wooden toys

An artist applying colors to his piece
An artist applying colors to his piece

Once the artist has finished chiseling the piece of aale maara wood is complete, he or she starts applying the color. I was super fascinated with this part of the Channapatna toys-making process. As the wooden piece spins on the machine, with one hand the artist holds the color bar to uniformly apply it to his design. On the other hand, he polishes the colored part with a leaf of a locally available cactus. Check out this short video below to know why it is super cool to watch that.

Cactus leaf used for polishing
Cactus leaf used for polishing
Using the cactus leaf to polish the colors on Channapatna wooden toys
Using the cactus leaf to polish the colors on Channapatna wooden toys
Colors being applied to the toys

What kind of Channapatna toys are available today?

Channapatna wooden toys - Tic-Tac Toe
Channapatna wooden toys – Tic-Tac Toe

After visiting a Channapatna toys factory, it is practically impossible to leave without picking up one of those wooden beauties for yourself. The most popular Channapatna toys are rocking horses and dancing dolls. Spinning tops and the cup and ball game are the other ones that seem to be quite a in demand. Another one that I saw a lot of people not able to resist is the evergreen game of tic tac toe – except that the dots and crosses are replaced by pretty Channapatna dolls.

Channapatna dolls - the ones I bought
Channapatna dolls – the ones I bought

Channapatna dolls make great showpieces. On my first visit, I picked up a set of musicians while on my 2nd visit, I could resist buying a set of dolls dressed in traditional attire of different Indian states. There are plenty of other toys – big and small that are bound to appeal to you as gifts or even for your home decor. I am sure you will be spoilt for choice when you do one of those factory visits in Channapatna.

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What is the best way to reach Channapatna?

Channapatna town is located 90 km from Bangalore. The town falls along the main Bangalore-Mysore highway, just after Ramanagara town. There are regular buses from both – Bangalore and Mysore that take you to Channapatna. You can even hire private cabs or book an Uber to reach Channapatna.

The closest airport to Channapatna is Bangalore. Channapatna has its own railway station and there are daily trains to the station from Bangalore and Mysore.

How can I visit a Channapatna toy factory?

You can get in touch with one of the most popular toy makers in Channapatna – Bharath Art and Crafts. They can be reached on +91 9916777324 or on +91 8027251663. You can call them a day in advance and book your tour for INR 500 per person. They allow tours on all days except Sunday when the factory is closed. You can even make your own toy here for an additional price.

Another option to visit a Channapatna factory is to request one of the shops for a tour. The locals are extremely friendly and will be happy to show you around.

Where to stay in Channapatna?

There are a few hotels and lodges in Channapatna that offer you a comfortable stay. You can use the booking resources below to book one. Alternately, you can make Channapatna a day trip from Bangalore. Given the distance, you can easily finish the same in half a day.

What to eat in Channapatna?

There are quite a few highway restuarants that offer you local food near Channapatna. One of most popular stops is Kamat Lokaruchi and is just 7 – 8 km from the town.

Where can I buy the wooden toys in Channapatna?

There are numerous shops in Channapatna town where you can buy these toys. They are all over the place and you do not really need to go looking for them. Buying these toys at the factory gives you a slight advantage in terms of prices. It is slightly cheaper in the factory as compared to the stores. However, the stores offer you a wider variety.

Can I buy Channapatna toys in Bangalore?

Yes, you can buy Channapatna toys in Bangalore. They are available in Cauvery emporium as well as a few other smaller outlets.

Is it possible to buy Channapatna toys online?

Channapatna toys are available online on popular ecommerce platforms. I have shared an Amazon link in my booking resources for the same.

Travel Tips

  • You can include Ramanagara and the various treks around the place in your itinerary when visiting Channapatna.
  • There is a lovely ethnographic museum next to Kamat Lokaruchi on Mysore road that you should definitely visit.

Booking Resources

  • You can use this link on Booking.com for picking a hotel in Channapatna. Use the same link to browse for hotels in Bangalore – in case you are planning a day-trip from here.
  • Klook.com is a good place to book a cab from Bangalore to Channapatna.
  • As mentioned earlier, you can even purchase Channapatna toys online through Amazon. You can use this link to browse through the collection.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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