That the Chettinad is more than a chicken delicacy of same name, became evident while I walked around marveling at the old charm of a 150 year old heritage mansion and a sudden moment of realization made me look down on the floor….it dawned on me that the floor was as old as the structure above! And it still shone colorfully bright, felt softly smooth and like a richly woven carpet, lent the air of aristocracy to the whole structure.
I was roaming the corridors of an old Chettinad mansion with its floor covered in the age old Athangudi handmade tiles; bold and vibrant warm colors in floral and geometric patterns.
The Chettiyar community of Tamilnadu were traders with an appetite to increase their business to far off lands. They traveled by boats to foreign lands and amassed not only wealth but also imported products from Italy, China, Africa and more. They brought with them floor tiles to use in their palatial houses built with the newly acquired wealth.
The tiles however were difficult to maintain and repair owing to the distances from where those were acquired from. The locals soon developed a cottage industry and replicated the foreign design making their own hand-made tiles. The local flavor emerged in the use of traditional motifs and selection of colors.
With advent of vitrified tiles, the hand-made tiles which were once a style and status statement of the palaces of Athangudi are left with but a few patrons who still want to lend their homes a rustic ethnic charm. Now Athangudi village in Shivgagai, the Chettinad district of Tamilnadu, has become the hub of these hand-made tiles.
Sand, cement and red oxide are the chief ingredients of these tiles. A colored paste is poured in the design of metal frame mould placed on glass surface which is instrumental in imparting the sheen to these hand-made tiles. The workers pack this mould with clay sand cement and place the assembled tile in sun for three to four days for drying. It is then cured in water for another week and again placed in sun for final drying. The glass surface is removed to reveal a beautiful design on a sun dried clay tile.
Even though there is no oven baking involved, the tile colors and durability is enough to last a lifetime. The tiles however are bulkier and need skilled laborers for laying.
But with no palace or a sprawling bungalow to call a home, I had to leave those colorfully dark floral and geometrical patterned tiles as is. I fell in love with the patterns and had wanted to take one tile of each size to convert into some kind of functional home accessory but the weight of a single tile discouraged me.
May be someday if and when I own a bungalow like this , those ethnic tiles will adorn my floor space too.