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The Kandangi – Chettinad’s (chequered!) pride

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Magnificent mansions, a distinct spicy cuisine, a flourishing antique market and last but not the least its own weave – you must be wondering which place I refer to. Well, it’s not a quaint town in Europe that I describe but our very own Chettinad tucked in south east Tamil Nadu. Doesn’t it almost seem as though its straight out of a fairy-tale?

For the uninitiated, Chettinad is not a place but loosely refers to approximately 78 villages located largely in the present day Sivaganga district of south eastern Tamil Nadu, dominated by the affluent Nattukotai Chettiar community of businessmen and bankers, who prospered in the 19th and early 20th century due to flourishing trade with Burma and south east Asia. Karaikudi is Chettinad’s foremost town.

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The Chettinad Mansion at Kadanukathan, Karaikudi

The wealth acquired on account of trade was invested in building palatial houses with sprawling courtyards embellished with pillars. But for me the icing on the cake as far as Chettinad goes, is the Kandangi – the native weave of the region. Handloom sarees hold a special place in my heart as they have the personal touch of the human hand and the impressive imperfections that accompany human labour, which only add more gorgeousness and exclusivity to the final product.

This is why I have always tried to blend tourism with weaves and craft. For a diehard handloom lover like me, the warp and weft enhances the overall experience of exploring a new place. Top on my agenda in Chettinad, as you would have already guessed, was witnessing first-hand, the Kandangi being woven.

The first time I bought a Kandangi was almost 15 years ago. That was the time when I did not even know how special it was. I casually sauntered into a saree store located on Pune’s M. G. Road and a parrot green Kandangi with bold mustard yellow borders was on display. It was almost like love at first sight! I bought the saree without a second thought and then inquired with the storekeeper about its specifications. I had decided then, that sometime, I would surely visit the place, where such weaves are brought to life. Where there is a handloom saree, there is always a way to get (to) it too! It was finally in August, 2019 that I visited Chettinad along with my family.

The beauty of Chettinad tourism is the first hand feel of everything. You can fleetingly live like an opulent merchant in the palatial mansions, because many of them have now been monetized and hence turned into boutique hotels.  One can actually witness coarse cotton being turned into the magical six yards – the Kandangi (meaning chequered in Tamil).

The winding machine used for the Kandangi

One such place that I visited is Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre in Kanadukathan, located in the Karaikudi Taluka; it is an enterprise run by Ms. V. Krishnaveni. She has kept the tradition of the Kandangi weave alive. Here, one can observe the entire process of weaving the Kandangi and also acquire as many as one can afford(!) to buy.  Buying from an enterprise like this ensures that the weaver is adequately compensated for his or her skill and effort, doing away with middlemen. The Kandangi is manually made using a winding machine, loom, shuttle and bobbin. It is a joint effort of the families who live in the villages of Karaikudi and it forms part of their livelihood.  A weaver works on a Kandangi for almost a week. Here is a video of the Kandangi being woven.

The Kandangi being woven

What’s special about the Kandangi is that it is woven in earthen hues such as red, yellow and green. Traditional patterns such as stripes and the hallmark bold checks combined with broad contrasting borders are the highlight of the Kandangi.  The Kandangi which historically began as a silk saree, probably around the 17th century, was later turned into a cotton weave as the local demand was for a drape that was convenient, suitable for the hot weather, easy to maintain and durable. And so, silk gave way to cotton though one still finds occasional silk threads in some of the sarees.

The more, the merrier! Image Courtesy Incredible India

The chief distinguishing mark of a Kandangi sari is its mub-bagham (triple) colour design.  The Kandangi is low on maintenance. The yarn is treated thoroughly and so the saree does not shrink after washing. Starching and ironing are optional. These are two things that usually keep away many from buying and wearing cotton sarees. The low cotton count, however, makes it quite heavy. But then, that is the small price you pay for the invaluable elegance it bestows upon you when you drape it. Greatness comes with a burden! Finer quality cotton is also being used now for weaving.

The Kandangi saree now, fortunately has a geographical indicator (G I) tag, due to the efforts of the Amarar Rajeev Gandhi Handloom Weavers Cooperative Production and Sales Society Limited based in Karaikudi.   The Kandangi was given the GI tag by the Geographical Indications Registry in August, 2019. The GI tag ensures that none other than those registered as authorized users (or at least those residing inside the geographic territory) are allowed to use the popular product name. This is important as the market is flooded with sarees that are only imitations of the Kandangi.

A peek into my own collection

So, the next time you think of going on a holiday, do consider going to Chettinad, lead a day or two of your life like a well to do merchant, residing in a palatial mansion gorging on spicy, lip smacking food; and yes, when you come back, your bags, I reckon, will be much heavier than they were in your onward journey, as you can resist anything but the temptation of buying the stunning Chettinad Kandangi.

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