Once a part of the kingdom of the Pandyas of Madurai, Chettinadu or the land of Chettiars comprised of 96 villages founded by the Nattukottai Chettiars or Nagarthar meaning townsfolk. This aristocratic community were seafarers, bankers and businessmen. This wealthy stretch of land in Sivaganga district is famous for its architecture, art, utensils, tiles, weaving and cuisine.
The Chettinad kottan is a hand-woven basket made from the strips of palm leaf in a distinctive pattern. This craft was a favourite pastime for the older Chettiar women of the house. They would sit around in groups in the large courtyards of their grand mansions making these colourful baskets. These baskets had both ritualistic and ceremonial significance. These traditional kottans were considered to be an unwritten consent and unspoken invitation and often contained vetrilaipakku (betel leaves and areca nuts). These would hold gifts and offerings during contractual agreements, weddings, sacred rituals, when people went abroad and when the daughter left for her new home after marriage.
Kottans are made from the locally available palmyra palm also called panamaram (Borassus flabellifer). This celestial tree is revered by the people of Tamil Nadu as kalpa vriksha and found in abundance. These green fan-like shaped leaves are dried in the sun for 5 – 6 days till they turn to a light brown colour. The stalk is cut from the leaves and excess fibre is removed using a broomstick. Then, each leaflet is separated by hand and the stiff part near the stalk is cut with an aruvalmanai (a cutter with a metal blade mounted on a wooden block). The central vein of the leaf is carefully removed either with the cutter or satyagaam (a needle-like instrument with a curved sickle-like blade and a needle at the other end) to be used later to finish the basket rims.
The leaves are dipped in water to make them flexible so that they can be easily cut and split into the desired lengths using another traditional instrument. The split leaves are sorted according to their lengths and uneven edges are trimmed and cut. The leaves are tied and wrapped in an old cotton cloth and stored for some time.
The leaves are dyed either in the backyard of the house or in the kitchen generally in natural dyes in subtle tints and shades but these two colours of bright pink and dark blue are extremely popular. The dye along with water is heated to a boil in clay pots or aluminium vessels over firewood. The wet leaves are put into the dye bath and dyed till the desired colour is obtained. Salt is added to cement the colour. These dyed leaves are washed and dried in the shade.
The dyed palm leaf strips are held at the feet while arranging the base vertical strips. The base of the basket is always a square or rectangle. Once the vertical strips are arranged and the width of the basket is determined, the horizontal strips are woven into the vertical strips to make the base of the basket. The sides are built by bending the vertical strips upwards and finished slowly by introducing two horizontal strips at a time till the shape and structure is attained. A strip of the central vein of the palm leaf along with the loose strips at the edge of the basket are tightly bound using twine in a wrapping technique and the edges are overlapped and stitched together.
Another rim is added outside to give it extra strength and these two layers are held together with twine or leaf at regular intervals and stitched with colourful twine. The rim of the basket is normally either round or oval depending on the base and this finishing technique is called nool vaai katturadhu wherein the rim is finished with cotton thread in different patterns.
Another Chettinad technique used is sohi where an extra strip of palm leaf is drawn through the weave of the finished basket to create a surface embroidery-like decoration in different patterns and contrasting colours. Some variations of sohi used are arai sohi, nettal sohi and kokki sohi to create patterns of visiri (fan shaped), vanki (v-shaped), diagonal and diamond patterns.
The cut kottan technique is used while creating a design with two contrasting colours which involves using slender strips which have been cut wherein another strip is inserted into the cuts alternately in a meticulous manner so that the woven pattern of weft and warp is seen clearly both inside and outside.
These unique weave designs which has also received the UNESCO stamp are Gundumani weave (plain weave), Malayalam weave (twill weave), Cross olai weave (plain weave variation) and Surul (plain weave variation with two corners and are used as money purses).
Contemporary designs of kottans with crochet, beadwork and embellishments with coloured threads are now created by these highly skilled women in the Chettinad region. The stunning colours, weave patterns and designs are exceedingly attractive, environmentally friendly and durable.
Chettinad kottan was awarded the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2013.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)