The Memory keepers

After the mansion hopping, we drove down to Athangudi village. One of the striking features of Chettiyar mansions is floors made of tiles in bright colors and patterns. In the olden days, the tiles were imported. When they found it difficult to replace the damaged tiles, the enterprising Chettiyars set up a cottage industry with local artisans to make tiles with traditional designs. It was noted that the soil from Athangudi was most suited for the process and this small village has become the centre of a thriving cottage industry.

We got down in front of a house and met a lady who took us to the backyard. There was a small shed with three people and we observed the meticulous process of tile making. Every single tile is handmade and the raw materials are sand, cement, and colors.

A mould is placed on a glass piece fitted with a metal frame and is filled up with a mixture of sand, cement, and color. After the color sets, the mould is taken off and the frame is sealed with cement. It is then left to dry in the sun and cured in a water bath for about 8-10 days.

The friendly artisans floored us with their skills and speed; one of them shyly mentioned he is on YouTube. Students of Architecture, designers, heritage enthusiasts, and of course tourists like us visit them often. It was interesting to know that the tiles acquire more sheen as they age and don’t require much maintenance.

From the tiles unit, we moved to Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre. Kandangi sarees is yet another legacy of the Chettiyars. They had set up a weavers colony to promote traditional weaving. What started off as a home-based cottage industry is now run by cooperative societies.

Two ladies were working on the loom. For someone who had not given much thought to the making of sarees, the synchronized movements of the weavers was fascinating. This is skilful, laborious work; one misstep would mean repeating the entire process. The bright coloured sarees with checks and stripes are known for their durability.

Next to the work shed is the showroom. Posters with film stars and politicians draped in kandangi sarees are on the wall. The salesman pointed out the Geographical Indication (GI) tag on the sarees; this has helped to limit the production of cheap duplicates from the power loom sector; it is also difficult to find skilled weavers as youngsters from traditional weaving families are keen on lucrative alternate professions. For me, the weavers are the best brand ambassadors and we have to do our bit to support them. All of us took home a piece of handloom.

At the hotel, someone had mentioned an antique market and we were keen to check it out. Many of the Chettiyar mansions were demolished and the fittings and artifacts found their way into the antique shops. It was Sunday so most of the shops were closed. We got inside one tiny shop which was filled to the rafters with stuff in all shapes and sizes.

The shopkeeper told us they have a warehouse where they keep the heavy stuff like pillars, doors, cast iron vessels, etc. Every piece has a story. I can picture an old lady here browsing, touching the knick-knacks, and weeping like a child when she sees her late mother’s key. Wonder why are they not in a museum.

On the way back we saw an old mansion. There was an elderly man in the foyer and seeing our group he invited us in. The patriarch introduced his family members who took us around the hundred- year -old house. After seeing the museum like vacant mansions and the abandoned crumbling houses, it was a pleasure to be in the grand old house full of people.

Randomness, serendipity, nostalgia, and old world charm: spending time with the Chettiyar family was the best part of our trip.