Weavers of dreams

Weavers of dreams

Tucked away in rural Tamil Nadu, Pattamadai is the birthplace of fine reed mats. Malathi Ramachandran writes about skilled weavers who have been creating these masterpieces for centuries .

Deep in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, if you veer off the beaten track and drive about 15 kilometres down country roads flanked on either side by rolling green paddy fields distantly circled by the Eastern Ghats, and occasionally glimpsing River Thamaraibarani as she coyly keeps pace with you, you will surprise upon a little village that is a fountainhead of incredible woven crafts. 

That is just what we did. Taking a cue from a mention in a guide book that raved about the exquisite hand-made reed mats in a little village of traditional weavers, we detoured from the Tirunelveli-Kanyakumari Highway even as the sun began to set behind the hazy hills. After half an hour into the hinterland, the cab driver turned into an uneven path winding up to a clutch of low-browed, thatch-headed houses and stopped unceremoniously in front of the most unassuming one that said simply, Pattu Paay Kadai or Silk Mat Shop. 

“The best shop,” he said with a wide smile. “Best quality mats here.”

Ducking into the low doorway, we were greeted by a warm smile and walls lined with reed mats in bright colours and patterns in different sizes and shapes. Mohamed, the owner, welcomed us and soon we were enjoying a hot cup of tea as he told us the story of the pattu paay and how his family has been linked to it for three generations now.

Cultural significance

Called paay in Tamil, chatai in Hindi, and reed mats in English, these cooling, eco-friendly floor coverings came to be woven in this village because of the abundance of fine quality reed known as kora on the banks of River Thamaraibarani. The natives of Pattamadai (pronounced putter-mud-ai), predominantly Muslims, have perfected the art of weaving the mats and traditionally passed on the skills to their children. 

But now, with the younger generation seeking greener pastures in education and job opportunities, people outside the families have been trained and they work in their own homes to complete orders. 

“I am a third generation weaver,” said Mohamed, “carrying on the tradition started by my father Peer Mohamed, and his father. In fact, even my sisters are master weavers and my sister Ibrahim Bibi won the National Award for Master Craftsman in 1992 for her work in weaving fine silk mats.” He added that she had also won the Poompuhar Award in 1995 and received appreciation and sponsorship from the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts and the Crafts Council of India. 

Speaking about national recognition, Mohamed pointed proudly to shelves sporting rows of plaques and framed photographs. “As you can see, former prime minister Narasimha Rao is receiving a special mat from us as a gift when he visited this shop once.”

We gazed fascinated at a series of photographs that showed the former PM first with his customary grumpy expression as he received the gift, and then his face breaking into a rare smile as the mat was unfurled and his name was seen woven into the pattern!

Apparently, the shop’s tryst with celebrities goes back a long, long way. In 1946, governor of Madras Sir Archibald Nye and his lady had called on the weavers to see their mat weaving and had admired their superior craftsmanship. In 1953, on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth of England, a fine silk mat of Pattamadai was presented to her. Over the years, these high quality mats have been presented to several prime ministers of India and governors of Tamil Nadu.

“We are now awaiting the GI mark (Geographical Indication) from the Tamil Nadu government for putting the name of Pattamadai on the tourist map of the state. We want to be known exclusively for our mats just as Tirupathi is known for laddoos, Tirunelveli for halwa and Kanjeevaram for silk sarees,” he explains.

Silken wonders

I gazed around the shop and drank in the bright, organic colours with contrasts like orange and black, yellow and blue, green and red, and the bold, attractive designs of the mats displayed all around. They are irresistible. But still, there was a nagging question in my mind. What made these Pattamadai mats so special that the world has been beating a path to the door of this little village?

Mohamed smiled, and in reply, took out a long cloth tube from a cupboard. He carefully removed a rolled up mat from within and unfurled it with a flourish. We let out a collective gasp of admiration. 

It was a fine silk mat, the equivalent of a Pashmina among shawls, a French chiffon among sarees, a Cashmere among sweaters. So thin and fine, it could be folded up and put into a handbag!

He explained. “Normal reed mats are made in several places in Tamil Nadu, like Karur, Seergali, Vandavasi and Kollidam. In Pattamadai, the mats are of a special quality because the reed is a natural Korai grass that grows on the banks of River Thamaraibarani and that is unique in softness and flexibility. We first soak the korai in the river for four to seven days, depending on the fineness of the final product required.

Then the outer husk is painstakingly scraped off using a knife, before the soft inside matter can be used.

“Starting from 40 to 50 counts for normal quality, the weave goes up to 120 counts for fine mats. That is what gives these mats the feel of a soft silk fabric. The costs also vary from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000.”

I noticed that many orders were ready, bearing names woven into them. “These are marriage orders. It is a Tamil tradition for the girl’s parents to give the young couple a kalyana paay (wedding mat) with their names woven into it. In fact,” he smiled saying, “Even actor Rajnikanth had placed his order with us for his daughter’s wedding, with the words ‘Aishwarya weds Dhanush’ woven into the paay!”

I had chosen a number of mats in different sizes, colours and designs by now, but was still holding on to the ‘fine silk paay’ that had been unfurled so ceremoniously a few minutes back. It was a gorgeous deep pink and purple, and woven to resemble a dhurrie.“These are made only on order,” Mohamed said apologetically.

I refused to let go of it. We don’t come here every day, I demurred. There was a long moment of deliberation, and he relented at last. The mat, that would one day become a family heirloom, was mine.

As we drove away from the little village, it was with a sense of joyous discovery. And the  feeling of having met Rumpelstiltskin there.

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