In Tirunelveli’s Pathamadai village, the craft of mat weaving has been passed on from one generation to another.
“I have three daughters, two sisters, all of us do this work. We have been doing this work for generations. We don’t go out to work. Some people roll beedis, we don’t know how to do that work. From the beginning we have been weaving mats,” says 57-year-old Zeenath Beevi, a mat weaver.
Like Zeenath, more than 300 Muslim women in Pathamadai make mats for a living today.
Pathamadai village is known for two varieties of mats. The fine mat is made from cultivated korai, a type of grass. But it is pattu pai or the silk mat that Pathamadai is famous for. Made from wild korai that grows along the Thamirabarani river, the pattu pai is so delicate that it uses 140 korai threads for every nine inches of the mat.
Zeenath, who began weaving at the age of 12, now heads a self-help group with 19 women weavers. Her group makes around 250 mats in a year, with the cost of each ranging from Rs 2,000 for a fine mat to Rs 5,000 for a silk mat. The bulk of these mats are used in wedding ceremonies. But the profits are minimal, with women taking home a meagre 100 rupees a day, just enough to feed their families.
“During the wedding season, we get orders. We are busy through the night, and even change weavers to finish our orders. But otherwise it is dull, business just runs,” says Zeenath.
While women are at the forefront of the Pathamadai mats today, it’s not always been so. With long hours, backbreaking work and paltry wages, the men in Pathamadai not only chose to give up mat waving, but many also moved abroad to earn a living.
Zeenath says, “Earlier, it was men who would weave the silk mats and women would split the korai and manage the house. But you could weave only 6 inches in a day. The men used to have interest in those days. But now we are in the time of speed. And even Rs 300 or Rs 400 isn’t enough. That’s why men are going abroad, sons are being educated. The men now don’t have the patience to do this work. And that’s why women are doing this work.”