The quaint village of Pattamadai in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu is famous for its centuries-old handwoven mats made of korai grass. These exquisite mats found its place on the international market when it was gifted to Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation in 1953 and since then has been presented to dignitaries around the world.
The traditional mat weaving technique is practised in the villages in and around Pattamadai. The weavers attribute the superior quality of the mats to the korai grass (Cyperus corymbosus rottb.) that grows in abundance in the alluvial soil on the banks of the Thamirabarani river and one of the most popular types used in the mats is karungadukorai.
Locals say that many years ago, Syed Khalifa Meeran, a Lebbai by birth settled down in Pattamadai along with his family to preach. His family were highly skilled in mat weaving and sought to supplement their income by making rough quality mats. Soon, his successive generations mastered the craft and monopolised the industry.
However, the credit for fine quality mats is given to Hassan Bawa Lebbai, a descendent of Syed Khalifa Meeran. It is said that one day when he was drying the wild korai grass, a sudden thunderstorm with strong winds sent him rushing indoors. When the rain stopped, he came out to find the korai grass floating in the Thamirabarani river. As he began to collect the wet grass, he found much to his surprise that the grass was soft and smooth. He separated the fiber from the waste and found that he could split the korai fiber into a number of fine strands. Earlier, he could obtain only about 30 – 40 but now he could get about 100 – 120 strands. He started weaving with these fine strands and found the product to be extremely soft. He decided to experiment by first cutting the korai grass and then soaking it in Thamirabarani river water. The result was excellent quality mats and soon, fellow artisans also learnt this secret and began the production of fine mats that are unrivalled in quality, softness and smoothness.
Even today, the korai grass is harvested in the months of September – October and February – March. The outer part of the stem is used for weaving while the inside portion is removed with a sharp-edged knife. Strips of grass are dried in the sun till they turn yellowish-green in colour. They are boiled in a pot of water and dried again and stacked up in bundles and soaked in running water so that the grass will increase its size by up to three times. It is again dried in the sun and then the outer layer is separated and graded.
Both natural and chemical dyes are used depending on the design of the mat. Indian colours of black, brown, indigo, red and green are generally preferred. The types of weaves done are coarse, medium and fine.
The weaving is done on a floor loom which consists of a warp (lengthwise yarns) supported by mukkali (tripod made of bamboo) and the weft (crosswise yarns) is inserted in the needle and passed over and under the warp. Water is used to soften the grass during the weaving process. The mat is checked for any unevenness after weaving and then dried in the sun for a while. It is then polished with a polishing stone to give it a smooth finish.
These environmentally friendly mats are ideal for hot and humid weather conditions, durable and hardy. Traditionally, these mats were woven for a bride and a groom with their names inscribed along with the wedding date and presented as part of the wedding trousseau. However, now both power looms and handlooms are used to create these beautiful pattui pai which literally means silk mats because of their softness.
Pattamadai mats or pais received 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)