A Madurai village's waning craft might be the solution for eco-friendly Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations

Vilasery idols could be the cure.
A Madurai village's waning craft might be the solution for eco-friendly Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations
A Madurai village's waning craft might be the solution for eco-friendly Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations
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In Tamil Nadu, a day of scorching heat ordinarily forces people to pull out their umbrellas. But for the people of Vilasery, it’s very good news.

Tucked away in a swathe of villages that line a hillock 10 kms away from Madurai city, Vilasery houses over 250 artisans who pull out their clay idols to dry when the sun shines down upon them. But this isn't just any clay - it's one that Vilasery is specially known for. It's a delicate mix of clay and the fine sand that stagnates after a bout of rains. 

"We are as good as farmers, everything depends on a good monsoon," says Kamala, an artisan who claims she learned the trade from her mother "faster than other children."

Over the past few days, the clouds have started to appear, kicking off a massive drive across the village to rake up clay and carry trucks of fine sand, also known as ‘manal’ or ‘vandal’. As she gleefully spreads the mud, Kamala is mumbling a prayer to the rain gods for granting her a generous serving of clay.

She spreads it out evenly outside her tin-roofed shanty, defining the corners with her fingers to make it look like a rectangle. 

Kamala spreading out clay in the scorching heat

 The ‘manal’ is already mixed into the clay - artisans say it helps the idol last longer and prevents it from breaking. It’s is a long-held tradition on which that they don't intend to give up. However, the main threat here is the quarrying of fine sand, which is classified as illegal by the Tamil Nadu Government. Labour associations have cracked down on the use of ‘manal’ and have granted the artisans an allowance of no more than 25 kgs if it to be brought in by trucks. 

"We have been asked to make idols with just clay. Then the Vilasery idols become as good as a normal idol. Where is our identity? What will be our source of income?" asks Mahalingam, who runs a small shop for artisans in the village to sell their works. In the faded greenhouse out of where he works, his gangly son lays out painted ‘golu’ dolls and large Ganeshas. The son says that the Ganesha is a popular option for many immersions. This, Mahalingam points out, brought in good business after the SC rule disallowing Plaster of Paris (PoP) idols from being immersed in Mumbai's Arabian Sea.

Manal, a fine deposit used to make Vilasery idols

 "The quarrying claims have no basis," says Mahalingam, scooping out a handful of fine, coarse ‘manal’. Mahalingam and many other artisans have to rely on temporary permission. “A family is permitted to carry 25 bullock carts of soil from Vilasery irrigation tank during daytime. Also, the soil should be taken from the tank within three months. But, as many people do not have the facility to store such a huge quantity in their houses, people have been seeking permission to provide a permanent order to take soil from the water body,” he says…but they’ve not had any luck yet. 

Vilasery’s idols can prove to be useful, considering Vinayaka Chathurthi is fast approaching.  The Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has tightened the screws on idol immersion to reduce the stress on the coast and waterbodies that take in thousands of idols, many of which are made of Plaster of Paris, non-biodegradable and toxic chemicals. Immersion of such idols causes accumulation of huge quantities of solid waste even if the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guidelines are followed. The artisans of Vilasery hold an advantage - the ‘manal’ from which their idols are made will settle back on the sea-bed, and the problem of solid waste accumulation can be solved. 

Mahalingam has no plans of making his business big, but smiles at the mention of the recent order. “I’m happy. I have a steady business here as of now, no complaints. Maybe if more people know about us, we could consider,” he says. His 5-year-old grandson has already begun shouldering his grandfather’s legacy, playing with a mound of clay. “He doesn’t follow my instructions though, we just let him do what he does. I don’t know how for long our trade is going to survive,” says Mahalingam with a bittersweet smile. 

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