Crafts of India : Athangudi Tiles
Chettinad, homeland of the Nattukotai Chettiyars, is a cultural and culinary hub of south India. With its delectable cuisine, magnificent temples and intricately built mansions, Chettinad has much to offer those interested in art, architecture, and food.
Here in Chettinad is a village known for its contribution to traditional 18th century Chettiyar mansions—where the courtyards and spacious rooms are adorned with works of art. Athangudi village, in the Shivagagai district of Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, is an enterprising area where tile making has become a trademark local craft.
Earlier, when affluent Chettiyars imported tiles from the European nations, it was found that they were difficult to repair after wear and tear from aging. Repairs were expensive due to non-availability of spare tiles. It was then that the people of Athangudi set up this cottage industry to make replicas of imported tiles in more vibrant colours and designs. It was not long before the village began to thrive and became one of the most renowned hubs of tile production in India.
The Athangudi tiles are entirely hand-made, with white cement, sand, and pigments. Cement, baby jelly, and sand along with synthetic oxides define the composition.
Commonly found in Chettinad houses, The tiles are cast from locally available clay that is burnt and glazed. Colours are mixed with white cement and poured using a mould on a glass base, which helps give the tile a smooth surface and sheen. After the design is packed with cement, it is left to dry in the sun and then cured in water for a couple of days before being sun-dried again. The laying process involves a special technique and the use of sand, cement, and lime. Masons are trained to deftly place the tiles at exactly the right level, allowing for variations in the tile thickness and weight, without camouflaging the imperfections of how they are laid.
The tiles are mostly a play of colours with geometric patterns and line drawings, sometimes just plain colours, or conventional floral patterns. The designs and the colours are what set them apart from regular ceramic market tiles. Though they need not be machine polished, to preserve its original sheen it is best to rub them down with husk and later follow with a mop soaked with a few drops of coconut oil.
The tiles are known to age beautifully and tend to gain sheen as one keeps walking on them. Even the fissures that develop in such handmade tiles add to the beauty of this type of flooring and complete the antique look that most homeowners aim to achieve with these tiles. However, it is recommended that heavy objects are not placed on such floorings due to the lack of compact layers.
Dark earthy colours and a black and white border are the traditional Chettinad style of assembling these tiles, but even those looking for more colour and personalised designs will not be disappointed.
A beautiful Annapakshi motif in these tiles, in the living room or even in a courtyard, can add much grandeur and visual appeal to any home.
For those looking to keep it simple, try a red Athangudi tiled floor with minimal furniture and bright wall décor.
However, owing to heavy competition in the market from vitrified, ceramic and other tiles, coupled with a relatively slow manufacturing process, Athangudi tiles have faced a steep drop in demand and are in great need of support and encouragement.
If nothing else, these tiles are memories of a bygone era and testimony to the great skills and craftsmanship that the Chettiyar Community propagated back in the day.
For those looking to spruce up their homes in the newly fashionable ‘old fashioned’ way, Athangudi tiles should definitely top the list.