In the old days, every home in Tamil Nadu had one or two pais or mats made out of reeds. People slept on these mats, welcomed guests to sit on them, and for toddlers to sit down on them and play. After their use, the mats were rolled up and kept in a corner. We have lost the grace of sitting on the floor, not realising that it is a form of exercise and good for your lower limbs! There were mats of various dimensions, and the long, narrow ones called bandhi pais were used for sitting down in a row on the floor and eating. They were woven for weddings and gifted to the bride and groom often with their names woven into them.
Soft and pliable silk mats are produced in a village called Pattamadai, in the Thiruneveli District of Tamil Nadu. They are different from the common pais or mats which are commonly available.. The mats are made of kora grass which grows in river beds and other marshy lands, and harvested in the months of September/October or February/March.
What makes the pattu pais special and different to others? It entails a complicated weaving process, which is unique to this region. The grass is cut when it is still tender and green, and dried in the sun, boiled and dried again. The strips are first washed in running water, then immersed in water for a whole week sometimes. The grass swells, and when it dries completely, it is taken for weaving after it is dyed in the colours preferred. Natural dyes were the only colours used, but later for the sake of convenience synthetic dyes were introduced. Red, green and black were commonly used, but today there are a whole range of colours and designs to choose from and some even have zari borders. After weaving the mats are polished.
The fine silk mats are woven with reeds which have their outer skins shaved off, and split into very fine strands, which are used for the weft in weaving. The warp is cotton, and water is sprinkled throughout the process of weaving. They are called pattu pais because they are so delicately woven and so soft that they feel like silk, and can go into a box or even a handbag. The mat weaving is a closely guarded trade secret among the Muslim Community of Pathamadai from ages.
Coarser mats are also woven and today they are made into runners, place mats, shopping bags, file cases etc which throws the market wide open. With modern design intervention and reintroducing natural dyes, this handicraft has had new direction and will hopefully be kept alive both in the local and international market for generations to come.
A valuable craft the Pattamadai mats were presented to celebrities like the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.