A story of sky and earth

A clay lamp taking shape. Photo: S. James   | Photo Credit: S_James

It’s a field day for eighty-year-old Alagammal at the Ayyanar temple ground. She squats on a stone platform and colours the newly made clay lamps in red ochre. The sun beats down but on this hot Friday afternoon, the 50-odd potters are all smiles. They break into an occasional banter while their hands and fingers move deftly to give shape to pots and diyas. The sky suddenly changes colour. “The rain has played spoilsport for our business this year,” frowns Alagammal. “The monsoons have delayed our work. We live at the mercy of the sky and the earth,” she says.

Over 200 potter families in Manamadurai engage themselves each year in making traditional clay lamps for Karthigai. Mounds of mud, small puddles of water, tiny houses with tiled roofs and the reddish ochre soil give a sepia tone effect to the Kuzhalar street in this small town in Sivagangai district, known for the mud wares since centuries.

“This soil means fortune to us,” says Palanichamy thatha, who started working on the pottery wheel as a 10-year-old. The potters of Manamadurai are nature worshippers who revere a fistful of mud more than anything else. Palanichamy narrates an age-old folk legend of how the community was gifted with the art of moulding clay by the Ayyanar Sami. In the olden days, the community’s job was mainly to make the horses for village temples. Then, they started making jaadis to store water, flower vases and pots for Pongal. “But Karthigai is more than Diwali for us. This the time we earn the most,” he beams.

The potters start making earthen lamps three months before Karthigai. On an average, a potter makes 1,000 to 1,500 lamps every day. The lamps are sold at One rupee each but for bulk orders, for instance 1,000 lamps cost Rs.600. Nearly seven sacks or 70 kg of clay is needed to make a thousand lamps. Popularly known as ‘Agal Vilakku’ or ‘Mann chitti’, the earthen lamps are a traditional part of Karthigai.

To increase production, many potters have switched to a motor-run wheel as it saves time. They are the beneficiaries of the mutual fund system initiated and implemented by the ‘Manamadurai Manpaandar Co-operative society’ under which motor wheels and power-run ovens are provided.

Demand for sand

The hope of selling more diyas every year, keeps these potters going. At a place where once thousands of families were involved in pottery, today only few continue the traditional work. “There is a huge demand for sand as the government has capped the mining. We are not allowed to take sand from any water body which is the main ingredient for making mud wares. The cost of clay has sky-rocketed in the past few years,” rues Odaiammai. Many of them have managed with last year’s stock of leftover sand to make the lamps this year.

“People don’t buy clay lamps as before. With oil prices up, the charm of lighting lamps is lost too,” she adds.

Many potters put the blame on wax lamps and candles that have taken away the following for clay chittis. Some of the potters have also converted into wax-lamp makers for a better livelihood.

Innovative designs

But, there are youngsters like Shanmugam who have taken up the family business braving oddities. Inside a dingy hutment, Shanmugam spins the wheel with ease and a smooth kalash takes shape in his deft fingers. It’s just been five years since he learnt the art from his father, but the innovative vilakkus he makes are famous all over the town. “I try to do creative designs and shapes in lamps and pots. The traditional clay lamp should be given a design twist to revive its lost demand among the new-age customers,” says the 20-year-old arts graduate.

The various designs in clay lamp are adukku deepam which is shaped like a kuthu vilakku, thenga deepam that looks like a coconut, hanging lamps, maada vilakku, kumbha vilakku and different sizes of the agazh vilakku. The price of the special edition of clay lamps ranges from Rs.30 to Rs.150. “We get orders for such varieties from big cities like Coimbatore, Chennai and Kochi. People buy them for art value more than the purpose of lighting a lamp. But, we won’t stop making the home style of mann chittis,” says Shenbaga. And the wheel continues to spin!


The potter’s clay is a mixture of Karambai mann taken from oornis, Vandal mann from Kanmois and sand from the river bed. And the soil of Manamadurai and surrounding villages is hailed as superior quality.

The mixture is wetted with water, left for a week to sag and then stomped continuously for two hours to make it smooth.

Once the mud wares are made, they are coloured with red ochre, left to dry in the sun for two days and then baked in an earthen oven at 120 degrees for 12 hours. Stacks of hay, twigs of the wattle plant and wooden logs are used as fuel.

The wares are repainted and sold as both wholesale and retail. Pottery is practiced in nearly 15 villages in the Manamadurai region and the products reach markets all over Southern India.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 1:17:16 PM |

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