Channapatna’s Toy Village: Gombegala Ooru

This village in Karnataka is never short of rocking horses and wooden toys.

Courtesy: V&A Museum

A town dedicated to toys? What could possibly have brought this fantasy to life? The alleys of ‘Gombegala Ooru’ or the Toy-Town of Channapatna, Karnataka is home to over 5,000 artisans, who make wooden bobble heads, rocking horses, spinning tops, ‘Pattada Ane’ (royal elephant), Bhajana Mandali (music concert), and mythological figurines.

The artisans walk barefoot despite wood chips being scattered on the ground, because they worship these precious dolls and treat the workshop as a temple. The toys are crafted with  organic materials like the local aale mara (ivory wood) and vegetable dyes, and the rising aroma of wood and lacquer are coupled with every shade of colour you can possibly dream of.

A toy factory-cum-shop in Channapatna. Photo credit: Chithra Ajith.

The history of Gombegala Ooru dates back to almost 200 years ago, when Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysuru was gifted a lacquered-wood toy from Persia. It left him in awe, and so, he invited the Persian artisans to teach the artisans of his kingdom the art of toy making.

Later, a famous Channapatna toy was crafted for Tipu Sultan, depicting a huge tiger [an analogy for Tipu] slaying a British soldier. This famous toy is actually a wind instrument that makes the tiger roar and the soldier whimper with pain. The original life-sized toy is now present in the V&A Museum in London.

A portrait of Tipu Sultan by an anonymous Indian artist in Mysore, ca. 1790–1800.
Tipu's Tiger, automaton, 18th century. Image: Courtesy V&A Museum.

Today, the craft of making these eco-friendly toys has been conferred with the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, but despite this, the art form is being threatened in the wake of mass-produced, plastic toys for children. As a result, many families are having to migrate to other cities to take up other professions to earn a livelihood. In order to preserve the legacy and to prevent urban migration, certain agencies have begun training the women in other crafts too, such as embroidery and lacquer work so that they can sustain their income.

Life-size wooden dolls at a Republic Day parade. Image: Courtesy The Hindu
Each toy is hand-crafted and painted, such as these delightful performers.

But there are geographical challenges too: the new Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway has hit the business of these traditional craftspeople. With no cars stopping on the way to Mysuru, Madikeri, or Mandya, this village, that once held special memories for families and children, is gradually turning into a ghost town of wooden toys.

A lathe-turned and smoothly lacquered toy couple. Image: Courtesy Google Art & Culture.