They are a rare blend of the east and the west and have interesting modes of production that speak for their durability, says architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi

Durability has always been among the major criteria in the design and build world. While it was earlier regarded as a hallmark of quality, today it is also a mark of sustainable design, for longer the life of the initial investment of efforts, energy and resources, the more eco-friendly is the material. This is one area where Athangudi floor tiles score over the others.

Athangudi sounds more like a place name than an option for floor tiles, but today the product has made both the place and tiles famous. They are made mainly in Athangudi village of the Chettinadu region in Tamil Nadu. The traditional mode of production continues till date, maintaining a legacy and grandeur. Athangudi tiles are basically cement tiles like mosaic, but unlike the machine pressed and produced mosaics, they are handmade over glass surfaces.

During the early days of their production, they were patronised more by the rich, being a costlier option and newer technology in those days. However, they also deserve an additional honour for being a part of the cultural heritage of the Chettiar community.

The affluent Chettiar community brought home ideas and artefacts from their trade travels, resulting in European and Asian items finding their way to Chettinadu. Until then South Indian floors were clay or stone based and plain in finish. It can be hypothecated that the patterns of carpets, easy to handle 10”x10” sizes of European tiles and glazed surface finishes of Chinese ware might have influenced the local masons to produce the Athangudi tiles. If so, they are also a rare blend of the east and the west.

To appreciate Athangudi tiles, it is important to understand their modes of production as well.

The mix of cement and coloured oxide in a liquid slurry state is individually poured into patterned moulds upon a glass piece. A thin layer of local sand is laid; the tile is then filled to three-fourth inch thickness with cement, sand and small stone aggregates or jelly to get the tile.

It is cured in water for a minimum of 21 days and readied for laying. Imagine, all this is done to every tile individually, building up an amazing handicraft industry. While the red colour tiles look like red oxide flooring, varied geometrical and floral patterns are also available. The traditional patterns are still being continued with, hence Athangudi tiles are among the few choices available today to create an ethnic ambience. However, unlike red oxide, these tiles come with greater smoothness and shine. In designs, finish, quality and durability, Athangudi can compete with any of modern manufactured flooring materials, of course with its own advantages and disadvantages. Used in the right place and context, Athangudi tiles are among the sustainable solutions ahead of us.

(The writer is an architect working for eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com)

Keywords: architecture