Hailing from Kolhapur, a southern district in the state of Maharashtra, I am possibly one of the most famous footwear in the world, definitely the most well-known one in India’s shoescape. I am the Kolhapuri chappal, India’s handcrafted genuine leather slipper, and this is my story.
Being handcrafted, eco-friendly and intricately designed, I am a favorite with people of all ages and appeal to men and women alike from all walks of life. The traditional design and ethnic look makes me perfect for formal wear, but the comfort and durability I provide make me great for everyday use as well.
Legend has it that I was first worn all the way back in the 12th century. In an attempt to create a caste-free society, King Bijal of the Bidar district (near Hyderabad) and Prime Minister Viswaguru Basavanna invited a Dalit shoemaker named Haralayya to eat with them. To show his gratitude, the shoemaker created a pair of shoes using skin from vegetable tanned skin and his own thighs as well and his wife’s. Out of respect, Basavanna wore the chappals on his head, not feet. He sent the chappals back to Haralayya, but on the way, his assistant Madhuvarash stole the pair. When Madhuvarash put them on, he was instantly paralysed. He was advised to go apologise to Haralayya and soak in the liquids used to dye the pair, but he refused. His daughter went to apologise on his behalf, and took back some of the dye, which helped him recover. As a token of gratitude, he married his daughter to Haralayya’s son – a big step towards a caste-free society. Regardless of whether this story was true or not, the Dalit community has began making vegetable dyed Kolhapuri chappals and finding patrons since then.
The more recent, less morbid version of my past explains why I enjoy the popularity that I do. In 1870, there is proof that multiple bag tanning centres were established in the Kolhapur region. 60 years later, the Saudagar family from the region began designing a light and exquisitely decorated version of the Kolhapuri Chappal, which was distributed and sold by Mumbai’s merchants. Soon, everybody in India wanted to own a pair of me, and not too long after that, the popularity spread across the globe.
Originally, I was made from buffalo hide, and weighed upto 2 kgs owing to the sole’s thickness like in the Jada variety. Durable as that was for Maharashtra’s heat and terrain, I am now usually made as the regular Kolhapuris or the Paper Kapsi variety to be worn indoors, which are extremely light and made with a thinner sole and thinner leather.
The time and effort that goes into making a single pair is immense, and it can take up to 6 weeks to make a pair of Kolhapuris! First, the leather hide from goat, buffalo and bull leather is washed twice to remove the blood and dirt. This is soaked in a lime for 10 days, after which the hair is removed. The hide is then soaked in water to remove all traces of lime.
Tanning, a process that turns animal skins into durable leather which will not decompose, is the next step. The hide is soaked for two days in a liquid containing crushed myrobalan and water, following which the leather sides are dipped in a colouring bath. The leather sides are now stitched into a bag filled with Babul bark and Myrobalan nuts. This gives the leather a medicinal effect, preventing it from affecting the wearer’s skin adversely. For two days, the bag is regularly filled with tan liquid and water. The leather is then left to dry in the sun to complete the tanning.
Finally, when the leather is ready for use, the sole and upper body of the Kolhapuri chappals are stitched by hand with a leather cord. Depending on the decoration and design, the embellishments like gold and silver gota patti (zardozi embroidery), colourful pompoms and threadwork are added at the last stage to give it a traditional yet contemporary look.
I am available in various styles, sizes, design and colors, with the cost differing based on the leather quality and intricacy of the patterns. The traditional Kolhapuri designs are known as Pukari, Bakkalnali, and Kachkadi, named after the villages where they were made. Other popular varieties are Paytaan, Kanawali, Kapashi and Dongari, each of which vary slightly based on the design.
In recent times, I have been redesigned to appeal to modern tastes, and heavily embellished with gems, stones, silver, and gold and other ‘designer elements’. While this ensures the continuity of the craft, the business itself is suffering with craftsmen moving to alternate livelihoods with the changing legal environment when it comes to animal protection in a craft that needs a regular supply of quality leather.
Only time will decide the fate of these beautiful handcrafted leather chappals that have been around for centuries. If lost, the entire town of Kolhapur will be deprived of its livelihood and a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, one that is deeply rooted in Maharashtra’s heritage.
Check Direct Create’s curated Kolhapuri collection, here!