The makers of iron utensils say that their business is over a century old
Besides its towering rajagopuram, religious lore and interesting architecture, the Srirangam temple is renowned for a few things heavy, black and glistening with coconut oil that rubs onto your fingers: made from iron in an assortment of sizes and shapes the kitchen utensils sold at the temple are a must-buy for most visitors.
“This business is over a 100 years old and at one point there were five shops selling iron dosa kallus, illupachattis, aruvamanais, appakarais and murukku kozhais among other things here within the temple,” says 76 year old Radha Bai, a regular at the temple. Among the two surviving shops that still sell the utensils, Das Irumbu Kadai boasts of a clientele that includes ministers, actors, politicians and top government officials like former Chief Election Commissioner of India, T.N. Seshan, M.K. Stalin, Manorama, Delhi Ganesh, Devayani, Madan Babu and Tiruchi Sekar among others.
Sitting within the shop, surrounded by stacks of dosa kallus, owner R.S. Selvaraj explains why the Srirangam utensils were so popular: “Just by their weight one can judge the quality of the iron used to make these utensils,” he says before bending over to pick a particularly large dosa kallu. A black circle with a hint of gradual depression to the centre, the dosa kallus weigh between one to five kilos each and have diameters ranging between eight to fifteen inches. “The heavier and wider the kallu, the lesser chances of the dosa or adai getting burnt,” he says. Similarly, the chattis and kuzhais, appakarais and sevai naazhis come in a wide range of sizes and weights. "None of them have any chemical coatings, which makes them not only safe, but also good for the body because they indirectly add iron to the diet," says Selvaraj.
The two shops indirectly keep alive groups of traditional utensil makers in the city: “For each item here, there are separate aacharis, who fashion them at workshops to sell to us,” says Selvaraj. The workshops, which were earlier located in and around Srirangam, began moving to the outskirts as the city’s population grew and complaints of noise pollution against them increased, according to Selvaraj. Today, most of them are located at places like Anna Nagar, Ariyamangalam and Yedamalaipattipudur.
However, there is one workshop near the Srirangam railway gate and A. Rangarajan, a traditional utensils aachari takes us through the process of making a murukku kuzhai: “The iron is heated to red hotness within the ulai (clay oven), taken out and placed on top of a stone called the panai kallu, or around the karavai (cylindrical rod with a tapering edge) where it gets beaten with a hammer into shape,” he says. Each utensil requires the labour of at least two men and the aruvamanai and the muruku kuzhai are among the toughest to make, according to him.
With the workshops moving on to electric blowers that fan the fire within the oven, they too are affected by the erratic power situation in the state. “Though we are at the workshop between 7 a.m. to 5p.m., the number of actual work hours has drastically reduced and we have fallen back on our delivery schedules,” says Rangarajan. While the shops within Srirangam temple are his main customers, his workshop also supplies to sellers at Kumbakonam, Chennai and Madurai.
Back at the temple, Selvaraj says he is unsure about the future of his business: “My children are now doing their engineering degrees and will find regular jobs; and the profits we make are getting smaller by the day, because people are not willing to pay more for plain iron,” he says. Housed within space rented out by the temple, the shop depends heavily on the flow of devotees and tourists for its business. To support his income, he has added a range of non-iron kitchen products like phulka making gauzes, graters, cutting knives, other metal utensils, juice squeezers and miniature kitchen toy sets for children among other things. However, he adds, “I will not set up a shop outside the temple because my utensils will lose their brand value and their most regular buyers.”