The unassuming horizontal stone slab balanced on two vertical stone posts is easy to miss in the bustle and brouhaha of Tennur Road. Seemingly out of place in the middle of commercial complexes, the traditional structure is a vestige of a time when passers-by not only took notice of it but rather heaved a sigh of relief on seeing it. .
Popularly known as `sumaithangi’ (roughly translated as load bearer), these stone structures were common when travellers trudged from place to place with heavy loads in tow. “There is little awareness of such traditional architecture,” says Suresh, proprietor of an art gallery in the city, who assigned a first-time artist to paint a replica of the sumaithangi on Tennur Road. The idea worked as visitors got curious on why three slabs of stone were the subject of artist Chitra’s painting. “Today, these are uncommon to find in villages, even more so in the heart of the city ”, Suresh explains.
The sumaithangi was generally used as a resting place to unburden loads. The structures are often on level with the height of an average person. Though it is seldom used today, the sumaithangi can be spotted at bus stops on the highway and on passages to villages. Going by information supplied by various artistes in the region, these structures can be seen on the outskirts of the city on the way to Manapparai, Vaiyampatti, Viralimalai, and Somarasampettai, to name a few.
The few stone structures within city limits lay forgotten, surrounded by undergrowth like the one in Tennur (close to a major hospital) or shrouded in brambles and plastic waste like the ‘sumaithangi’ at Rettaivaikal bus stop near Vayalur Road. Kanamma, an erstwhile construction labourer remembers farmers making use of the structure to unload baskets of vegetables they planned to sell in Vayalur and vegetable markets in the vicinity. The sumaithangi also offered migrant workers ample respite from shouldering heavy burdens.
Memorials to pregnant women
A closer look behind the brambles that engulf the sumaithangi at Rettaivaikal reveals a name and date inscribed on the stone – Indrani and 22-10-1994. The stone structure is said to have been set up by the family of the deceased woman who lived in the neighbourhood. Interestingly, apart from being load bearers, the sumaithangi was part of a local death ritual in Tamil Nadu. It was a custom for a sumaithangi to be set up as a memorial for a pregnant woman who died during childbirth, says Chitra. The next time you chance on a non-descript arrangement of three stones, you know there is a story of an unknown young woman who died just after ushering life into the world.