The Classic Craft of Athangudi
Flooring is one of the most important elements of a house and tiles are a very common solution to a modern-day flooring. However, the fabrication of these tiles creates a large carbon footprint which raises a cause for concern. But the famous flooring of Chettinad houses - the Athangudi tiles, have achieved what its modern contemporaries have failed to, when it comes to sustainability.
The rustic village of Athangudi in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu has preserved its vernacular tradition and craftsmanship in producing the famous Athangudi tiles. The craftsmen manage to maintain its grandeur and heritage to this day and age. These ethnic handcrafted cement tiles are brightly coloured, vibrant with intricate geometric and floral patterns and also give a glossy appeal.
The history of these tiles dates back to almost 5 centuries back, when the Chettinad region was a trading center. The Chettiars travelled far to various South-East Asian countries and invariably brought back home many beautiful items. This includes flooring tiles that were skillfully incorporated into the décor of their mansions. Later on, they began manufacturing their own tiles in Athangudi, taking inspiration from the ones they imported.
The process of making these tiles is simple, though meticulously done, tile by tile. They are made of locally sourced clay and sand and mixed with various oxides. With years, the craftsmen have shifted to modern materials to sustain the art, using m-sand and different cements. Today, these tiles can also be tailor-made according to user needs with any geometrical pattern or motif.
Picture Courtesy : Bibhudutta Baral, B. Srikanth and Raghavendra Chari
The manufacturing process is carried out with great precision -
A transparent Glass plate is fastened to a metal frame which acts as a mould to achieve the required size of the tile.
The interesting geometric patterns on the tiles are achieved with stencils made of cast iron placed over the glass piece within the frame.
The colour mixes are prepared by mixing finely-sieved sand and white cement with the respective coloured oxides in water. Artisans pour different colors as per the requirement in different compartments of the stencil to form the desired motif. Sometimes the color is poured directly on the glass top and swirled manually to obtain a freestyle design. Once the pattern is filled with color, a mixture of dry sand and cement is sprinkled on it. This helps in holding the colors in place.
The tile is then filled with a layer of cement mortar and pressed. Dry powder is spread again to achieve a dry, levelled surface.
The metal frame is now removed and the tiles are dried for a day before being immersed into water for the curing process for about 8-12 days.
To absorb the remaining moisture and retain sheen, the tiles are dried under the sun with rice husks.
Lastly, the tiles are made smooth in the edges by rubbing gently with stone.
The tiles require low maintenance and attain sheen and polish over time. The colors also become brighter with use and additionally, coconut oil can be used to keep them shining and to regulate humidity.
At present, these tiles have widespread use in residences, hotels and resorts across our country for an ethnic ambience. The versatility of the tiles make it possible to use them for flooring, skirting and dadoing. Border tiles with interesting patterns can be used to highlight staircases.
These tiles are not burnt at high temperatures using fossil fuels unlike ceramic tiles, making them eco-friendly by using less energy. Athangudi tiles are suitable solutions for hot and humid tropical climatic conditions of South India.
Flooring is a direct source of heat conduction to our human bodies. Using oxides helps in regulating heat and humidity by performing as good Emollients. They are respirable tiles that are porous and help in absorbing and rereleasing humidity dynamically, according to immediate moisture conditions. They also protect our knee joints from pain,in long-term usages.
Athangudi tiles are available at the cost of about Rs.45-55 per Sq foot (as of March 2020) and are available in various sizes as flooring tiles, skirting tiles and border tiles.