One of the earliest examples of the exemplary craftsmanship of the ‘Lock City’ of Dindigul, famous for its unique handmade locks is seen on the door of the Dindigul Malai Kottai (Hill Fort). This lock on the fort’s door is at least 400 years old if not more and was commissioned by the Madurai Nayak king Muthu Krishnappa Nayak for Rani Mangammal. The handmade Dindigul locks are considered to be the safest and the trickiest to crack if one does not have the right keys.
The abundance of iron in this region is one of the reasons for the flourishing lock industry in Dindigul. This industry was set up by the Sankaralingachari Brothers as per authenticated historical records. In the 1930s, a mango-sized lock, drawer lock and square lock was made by the resourceful Parattai Achari that is in use even today!
These locks are manufactured in parts of Nagal Nagar, Nallampatti, Kudai Paraipatti, Yagapanpatti and Kammalapatti. The locks vary in size from four inches to two feet and can weigh up to two kilograms!
The raw materials to make these locks are iron sheets, brass sheets, key blanks, side plates and rods. The levers, guide and keys come from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh and sheets from Tirupur and Madurai. The method of production involves moulding, welding and assembling by hand using the knowledge that has been passed down generations. Most of the locks made are of either iron, brass or steel. The smallest lock takes about three hours to make while the largest could take weeks.
Some of the most interesting types of locks created here are the bell lock (when the key is turned, a melodious ringing sound is heard), maanga poottu or mango lock (this padlock is designed in the shape of the mango and can to be opened only by the ‘female key’. When the key which has a circular hollow opening at its tip is inserted into the padlock, the hole in the key latches onto a rod in the internal mechanism of the lock. This is used for homes, safes, cupboards and drawers), nithra lock or saavi pudicha pootu (a mango padlock that has two keyholes placed next to each other designed to confuse a thief. If the key is inserted into the wrong hole, then the lock jams. This is often used in warehouses.), another version of the mango lock (has an iron rod that extends beyond the keyhole. The lock can be opened only if the rod is positioned at a certain angle.), mango button lock (this opens only after you press a hidden button while turning the key), padlocks with two sets of keys (where the larger key can work only if the smaller one remains inserted in the keyhole), vichitra mango lock (this has three keys – one for the lower hierarchy, one for the middle and one for the owner. The owner can use his key to lock out either the lower-level employee or the middle level one by turning his key first to the right and then to the left.), a type of mango padlock (where one set of keys is to open, one to lock and the third set of keys to perform both functions) and the bullet lock (it has nine levers that operate five cylindrical steel rods simultaneously and the rods fall into place with every turn of the key).
This cottage industry is unfortunately dying a very slow and painful death as the machine-made locks from Aligarh that are cheaper and lighter are preferred. Dindigul locks are more expensive but are a lifetime purchase. Each lock is unique and its assembly is only known to the craftsman and the owner and thereby can never be duplicated. The Dindigul locks for decades were every thief’s nightmare and the lock has to be disassembled if the key is lost.
Though the demand for these inventive locks is there, the production capacity is too low to meet the demands. According to records, there were over 1,800 locksmiths working on this ancient craft in the 1980s but this was now dwindled to less than a hundred. The harsh working conditions, labour-intensive and time-consuming work to make perhaps two locks per day with very little remuneration to show for the effort does not elicit much interest from the younger generation. Though the masters of this craft are willing to share the knowledge, there are no takers.
These locks have been purchased by the Government for railways, prisons, treasury, dams, godowns and important offices as well as by temples and religious institutions.
The indigenous innovative handcrafted Dindigul locks was granted the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2019.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)