Traditional tile, modern style

Traditional tile, modern style

Eco-friendly red tiles are unique to Mangaluru. Located at the confluence of two rivers Phalguni and Netravathi joining the Arabian Sea, the region has great deposits of high quality laterite clay which spearheaded the tile industry.

India’s first tile factory was established in Mangaluru in 1860 by Plebot, a German missionary. Christened ‘The Basel Mission Tile Factory’, it was situated on the banks of River Netravathi at Morgan’s Gate and was a pathbreaking venture that gave the world the famous Mangaluru tiles.

These tiles are unique in design and can withstand heavy rain. The aesthetic structure of the tile allows ventilation during summer. Eco-friendly and roughly one third the cost of a concrete roof, these tiles were once the most popular choice. Earlier wooden support beams and rafters formed the base of the roof. Now, iron anglers have replaced the wood.

The British preferred these tiles for their government buildings. The unique design of these tiles and their capacity to drain rainwater without seepage and clogging caught the attention of the famous architect Fredrick William Stevens who used them while constructing the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. The tiles are exported to Myanmar, Seychelles, countries in the Far East, European countries like Spain and Portugal, East Africa, Sri Lanka and even Australia.

Good old days

Easy access to firewood due to close proximity to the Western Ghats, availability of cheap skilled labour and the existence of port in Mangaluru are the major factors that led to the rapid development of this industry. It reached its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s. With such favourable conditions, the tile industry flourished and led to the emergence of many more tile factories in the region. Abundant deposits of clay both in Gurupura on the banks of Phalguni River and in Bantwal on the banks of Netravathi River further facilitated the growth of the industry so much so that the region had more than 112 factories churning out these marvels in red clay.

Process of preparation is highly skill- based. The clay is first placed in a mould and shaped to exact measurement. Then, the company logo is stamped on the wet mould and the extra clay is taken off.

The tile is then sent to the furnace to be baked and glazed. Once ready, the tile weighs 2kg to 3kg. The red colour is due to the high iron compound found in the lateritic clay. Quality of the clay gives necessary strength to the tiles. In Mangaluru, we can see century-old buildings still sporting the original tiles.

In fact, there are quite a few heritage buildings in Mangaluru that showcase these classic tiles. Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Government University College at Hampankatta, historical churches of Mangaluru like the Rosario Cathedral, the famed St. Aloysius College and many other old buildings stand witness to the durability of these tiles. The striking red colour of these rooftops against the backdrop of swaying coconut palms are beautiful visions that should not be missed.

A sad decline

The speedy momentum of the tile industry slowed down when the concept of high-rise apartments came into picture. Owing to rising costs, the local preferences shifted from eco-friendly tiles to RCC roofing. Factories that produced 25,000 tiles per day now manufacture only about 15,000 tiles.

Non-availability of skilled labour and scarcity of clay also haunt the industry. The first quality tiles are in demand for ethnic homes but second and third quality tiles don’t have many takers.

These ethnic tiles that remind one of homely abodes with coconut trees must be preserved for posterity.

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