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Northern Karnataka, India: Home region of heirloom shoemaking

by Kristen Morabito |

As Athani-made footwear grows in recognition around the world, we set out to illustrate the fullness of our shoes' home region: Northern Karnataka, India.

Our vision was a winding road trip and photo journal to shed light on the origins of our shoe collection and its longtime makers.  

We began in Bombay, as many prefer to call it—required reading on that here). Why here? It's the hometown of friend and trip photographer Sana Javeri Kadri, as well as our Operations director Abbas. He runs a shoe stall amid Colaba Causeway's hustle. 

 

Mumbai

We stayed with Sana's family, and immersed ourselves in the urban rush. Sana led us through outdoor markets, flavor-packed street food, Iranian cafés and hidden city temples with the special ease reserved for born-and-raised city kids. 

One morning, she introduced us to friend and art critic Skye Arundhati Thomas, a third-generation resident of the city's Bandra neighborhood. Bandra quickly won our hearts with its hilltop cathedral, masses of funky neon custom-poured candles for sale, craft coffee and wide cobblestoned streets. 

 

A few days later, we were acclimated and ready to head south. 

Badami

Our first stop. We had to climb those red sandstone walls, and we found the perfect guide: Ganesha Waddar. He's been climbing since he was a kid, and now runs his own business in Badami. If you're looking for a lesson or need to rent gear, he is your guy. 

 

 Badami's also home to mind boggling vesara style temples, built right into the red rock by the the Chalukyas—who ruled from Badami, Karnataka in the period 543 – 753 CE.

 

It was stunning to wander through these cave temples, AND a welcome relief from midday sun (Karnataka tends to be dry and hot, even in the cool season). 

 

 

The Badami street scene: inspiration in all directions, coming through truck ornamentation / shoe repair / snacks.

 

 

Kolhapur

To really understand shoe culture in Northern Karnataka, a stop in Kolhapur is an obvious necessity. This town is a buzzing capital of regal sandal-making with a famous wrestling stadium in its royal plaza-turned-town square. 

We learned a ton about shoemaking history here, between samples of in-season local produce like grapes and guava (and excellent watermelon display). 

 

 

In Kolhapur we learned more about the history of Athani-based shoemaking, which is foundation of our collection. 

Sometime in the last two centuries, artisans in the area came up with a new design: woven leather slip-ons with a distinctive braid around the edge. Before long, these slides and shoes became recognized as an Athani-based design. 

Athani

Our final stop on the road trip: Athani. More specifically, its neighborhood called Shell Colony—where the shoes you see in our collection have been made for generations.