Footwear made from natural fibres like hemp, wool or khus-khus are both eye-catching and pocket-friendly. Here are some easy-on-the-foot options.

Let's give the devil its due. There are reasons to hail cannabis. If it were not for the palmate-leafed plant (Cannabis sativa) there would be no hemp. The absence of hemp would have meant the non-existence of a remarkable cottage industry that makes eye-catching pulas.

Much before we became a world with a ‘go green' mission, the pula existed as a notable entry in the eco-friendly inventory, albeit oblivious of its significance. It has an enviable status now having been pegged on the list of attractive alternatives, the reason it has sprouted in a number of patterns.

Cannabis at your feet

Worn extensively but not found easily, the pula, in a way, is the state shoe of Himachal Pradesh, particularly the district of Kulu. Legend says shoes made with leather were considered impure for dev bhoomi or the land of gods, Himachal Pradesh. Thus the sacred bhang was put to use in making the pula. These feather-light slip-ons, quite similar in character to carpet shoes, are considered fit for work in the fields, walking on snow-bound trails, besides being permissible during religious ceremonies and inside temples.

Now usually flaunted by women, the pula has a delicately-embroidered, multi-coloured upper; a hemp fibre outsole; and a cloth insole. This makes it warm and soft and very desirable for cold climes.

Among all varieties of hemp fibre, the cannabis — or the indigenous bhang — is known to be the sturdiest. For use in the pula, it's plaited into ropes and then stretched, twisted and intertwined to firm it up. It's then arranged in meticulous fashion and stitched to form the durable outsole. As the hemp feels coarse to the skin, a cloth inner is usually attached as a protective lining. The most arresting feature of the pula is its vibrantly-contrasting wool upper with patterns which appear to be woven at first glance but are exceptionally created with a combination of deft needlework stitches. Modestly priced, a pula pair can be purchased for as little as Rs. 60 from tucked away shops in Himachal. These have recently found a growing market abroad, where they sell for a minimum of $ 40!

Ladakhi wool

Cannabis hemp is not the only natural fibre employed in crafting footwear. In several regions of the country a variety of grass is used in making traditional shoes, which till quite recently remained hidden in their pockets of origin. They have barely emerged out of oblivion, the reason shop racks don't stock them and the give-you-all e-shopping sites don't know off them. They belong to no brand; but though far removed from a world where the likes of Bruno Magli or Ferragamo, Santoni or Lattanzi boast of a loyal upper crust clientele, traditional shoes too have quite a following.

In Ladakh, the thickme pabu is a common sight. Pabu means shoe in the local dialect and the material used to make it is thickme, which is woollen fabric with particular round tie-and-dye patterns — meant to be a floral representation. Traditionally, the commonly used thickme has a maroon base offset by its surface motifs in a combination of mustard, white, black and blue. The pabu's insole used to be loosely stitched local grass — now jute is largely used — while its optional outsole is made with yak/buffalo skin. A compelling feature of the moccasin-like pabu is its pointed turned-uptoe that adds to its charmingly-distinctive look.

Both men and women can be seen sporting the pabu on the streets of Leh and in villages around. The retail price for a pair begins at around Rs. 250, with assorted detailing hiking its price. The high-end pabus, definitely worn by royalty and monks, can cost a few thousands and these have fine workmanship, with gold thread being used to further dress them in embroidered patterns. Some shoes have attached woollen stocking that stop at mid-calf, making their appearance quite akin to Wellington-boots.

Fashionable fibres

Apart from these traditional shoes, another recent trend is an upshot of back-to-nature consciousness: slippers and sandals made with a variety of fibre as banana, arecanut, and ramacham or vetiver, more widely known as the fragrant khus-khus. Most of these fibres are successful results of experiments carried out by various agencies in Kerala.

This trend spurred-off a few years back when kora grass slippers, now popularly known as the chattai chappal, became a rage, having caught the fancy of an entire college-going generation. Until then, kora, a marsh reed growing abundantly across southern India, was used to weave the humble Indian chattai or floor mat. To develop the kora grass slipper, the regular rubber chappal was tweaked and the new product hit the market in the right spots. The breezy footwear with brilliant-hued velvet straps attained a cool quotient soon. The replicas it has given rise to are proof of that. Pocket-friendly footwear, these carry a minimum price tag of Rs. 80.

Eco-friendly options

Pula: Made of hemp fibre, priced at Rs. 60, Himachal Pradesh

Thickme pabu: Made from woollen fabric with particular round tie-and-dye patterns, priced at Rs. 250 onwards, Ladakh

Chattai chappal: Made from Kora grass, priced at Rs. 80, all over India

Footwear is also made with a variety of fibre like banana, arecanut, and ramacham or vetiver, better known as the fragrant khus-khus