Kondapalli is a small town located a few kilometers from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. Historically located on the banks of river Krishna, it has a mighty fort on a hilltop guarding it. However, times changed and many things changed. However, what remains an unbroken tradition is the making of Kondapalli toys by traditional artists.
Kondapalli toys (or Bommalu in the Telugu language) you might have seen in the form of dancing dolls, with wiggling heads. They are the marquee toys of this small artisan village of Andhra. When you visit the village, you see many other varieties of toys being made in houses, mostly with open doors.
Artisan houses announce their presence with aesthetically painted front walls. They typically had red walls with while Kolams or Rangolis drawn over them and borders enhancing the boundaries of doors and windows. Some traditional toys like Bullock carts were displayed right outside the houses and little shops. Some of them were loaded with sacks of grains, depicting them as the mode of transportation. It reminded me of the carts found at Indus Valley civilization sites that I had seen at National Museum in Delhi.
As we walked around the village, we saw carved wooden frames in sparkling white lying around in the Sun. They were being dried before they can be given colors to make them look vibrant.
In the verandah of houses, we saw men and women patiently painting one toy at a time. They rarely looked up to see us passing by, or standing next to them to admire their work.
Toys for Navratri
Kondapalli toys are used for festivals like Navaratri when these toys are displayed as Golu on a tiered display. In Andhra, they are also a part of Makar Sankranti celebrations. I assume in some way they are a part of every Indian festival.
We saw beautiful Ganesha, Krishna, Dashavatar, and some other deities. The dancing dolls, sometimes also known as Thanjavur dolls are the signature toys of Kondapalli. Then there are animals and birds. We saw a lot of everyday life in these toys depicting rural professions. Then there were contemporary toys like cars and jeeps. I also saw the national emblem of India carved in wood. You would have usually seen these at government offices. I have a similar one from Nalanda. You can always request a custom-made toy or a wooden gift.
Kondapalli toys have been awarded GI or Geographical Indicator Tag in 2006. This means these toys can only be made in this village.
History of Kondapalli Toys
It seems the artisans came from Rajasthan some centuries ago and settled here. Remember the Kavad there is also made of wood and similarly colored with bright colors. It is believed that these artisans trace their lineage to Rishi Mukta, who is the patron Rishi of many artist communities. Locally they are known as Nakarashalu and in classical terms, they would be called Arya Kshatriyas. Besides toys, they also create vahanas or vehicles and Rathas or chariots for temples and deities.
As I sat watching the toys being made, I was told that a locally available soft wood called Tella Poniki or Ponuku is used to make these toys. Being a light wood, it keeps the toys light despite their big size. They are kind of made in an assembly fashion. Wood is treated by drying before it is given a shape.
Different parts are cut out separately. Later they are joined using a traditional paste made from sawdust and tamarind seeds. A coat of white lime is applied before color is applied to them. In the good old days, vegetable dyes were used to color toys, but now they invariably use commercially available water, oil, or enamel colors.
Men typically do the wood cutting and carving part and women take care of the painting. That is exactly how I saw the work being divided in the metal craft village of Ektaal in Chhattisgarh.
You can buy these toys at state handicrafts emporiums like Lepakshi or online.
While you are at Kondapalli for toys, you can also visit the fort that is quite close by. Initially, this region came under the western Chalukyas and Kakatiyas of Warangal. This 14th CE fort though built by the Reddy Kings – Anavema Reddy and Pedakomati Vema Reddy. Later it passed into the hands of Gajapati Kings of Odisha, Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, and then Qutub Shahis of Golconda. It briefly came under the French before passing on to the British who established a training school for soldiers.
Though in absolute ruins, it still gives you glimpses of its glorious past from a high vantage point. It was strategically located on the trade routes leading to the east coast, especially from Golconda. No wonder artisan villages flourished in its neighborhood with easy options to trade.
Fort consists of a Durbar Hall, a Gajashala or elephant stable, a market area, a place where ammunition was kept, a prison, and some religious structures. An arched hall here is a big attraction for tourists. Vintage photographs now adorn the walls of this hall.
Only in a few places, I could see the patches of carving where the plaster has managed to survive. Trees have grown around the crumbling walls of Kondapalli Fort.
Travel Tips for Kondapalli Village
Kondapalli village is about 20 km Northwest of Vijaywada. You can easily drive from the city. Vijayawada is well connected by air, train, and road.
I did not see any eateries at either the village or the fort, so carry your water and food or plan to return to the city for that.
You can spend 45 mins or so at the fort.
At the village, it really depends on your interest level.