Traditional grass mats of South Asia

Traditional grass mats of South Asia


The Sylhet-born Gurusaday Dutta, a noted civil servant of yesteryears, a famous folklorist and writer, was renowned for his contribution to the preservation of the folk arts and crafts of Bengal.

Writing on the importance of handicrafts of Bengal, Dutta said: “Popular art in this region is not a crude art of humble peasants but the expression by every individual, according to his or her level of education and station in the social scale in a common national morphology, of a common ideology inspiring the whole community. In this common culture, there was really nothing corresponding to a distinction between mass culture and class culture. The craftsmen and their patrons belonged not to different but to one and the same cultural stream.

Transcending narrow geographical borders, handicrafts make their presence felt as a representation of humanity, connecting communities. In the present globalized economy, such connections have received a boost through various international platforms. The UNESCO world Intangible Cultural Heritage platform is one such. It provides exposure for various kinds of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

At its 12th session held in Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea on December 6, 2017, the Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO declared that Bangladesh’s traditional Shital Pati mat of Sylhet is to be included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity. It was a great moment for all lovers of art.

Kerala Kora grass mats

The inclusion of Shital pati mats takes the number of inclusions from Bangladesh to four. The others are: Mangal Shobhajatra on PahelaBaisakh (2016), the traditional art of Jaamdani weaving (2013) and Baul songs (2008).

Shital pati is woven from cane slips from the murta plant (Schumannianthusdichotomus).This plant is known variously as mostak, patipata, patibet and paitara. The murta plant grows around water bodies in Sylhet, Sunamganj, Barisal, Tangail, Comilla, Noakhali, Feni and Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The art of weaving shitalpati is joining grass with grass and interlacing leaves to create a wonder that exudes glossiness. It has a fine texture and imparts a sense of coolness to whoever who sits on it. The aesthetic appeal, utilitarian value and ethnic touch have made this mat a craze in the cities too.

Women play an important role in dried-grass weaving. Use of natural dyes are common in the South Asian region. However, in modern times, menfolk as well as chemical dyes are part of the production process. Each region has its own designs and motifs.

Though Afghanistan is known for its beautiful rugs and carpets, there are a few examples of reed and dry grass mat-weaving in that country. In areas of warm climate, like southern Afghanistan, raw materials are perfectly suited to mat weaving.

In mountainous Bhutan, bamboo weaving are part of the local handicrafts industry. Small bamboos, found in central and western Bhutan, are used for weaving mats, fencing, or roofing for temporary shelters.

In India, dry grass, cane and bamboo mat-weavings are popular. The bamboo sleeping-mats of Meghalaya are known for their craftsmanship. Woven chataai is used as screens in Tripura. Roll mats are popular among locals as well as tourists.

Sitalpati mats being woven

The art of Shital pati extends to the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. Its home in West Bengal is Cooch Behar district. Similar soft weaving mats come from the kora/korai river grass mats of Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh & Karnataka in South India. Jute floor coverings are popular in Kerala. These are woven in many shades and weaves, like, Boucle, Panama and Herringbone.

Power-loom and handloom are used for large scale manufacture as there is a significant demand. The Pulppaya grass-mat from Kerala, where the word pul in Malayalam means grass and paya denotes mat,  is made from the kora grass (sedge grass). Weaving is done by the Kuruvacommunity.

The process is a blend of indigenous material, craftsmanship and aesthetic sense and requires several stages of preparation before the canes can be readied to weave mats. They are polished and colored with natural colors. The end result is a soft and cool material comfortable to sit on in hot summers.

One of the oldest cottage crafts of Kerala is the thazhapaya/screw pine mat of daily use woven by women. In the Karunagapalli Taluk of Kollam district in Kerala, the plant grows on the banks of rivers and streams.These are peeled into thin strips and dried and woven. They are often dyed. The quality of the mat is determined by the size of the strips and the closeness of the weave.

Then there is the wonderful Silk mat / Pattupaai / Pattamadaipai (mat) from Tamilnadu in India. They are made in Pattamadai, a small town in Tamilnadu by the Labbai Muslims.  The mat uses fine cotton or silk in the weft. The use of silk pattu or thread for weaving gives it the moniker Silk mat or pattupaai. The use of silk thread also gives a sheen and a definite appeal.

Based on the weave, there are three different types of silk mat available in the market. They are coarse weave, medium and the fine weave. Traditional motifs and natural dyes have given way to contemporary motifs and synthetic dyes. An increase in the domestic and international demand has led to the mat being mass produced using power looms.

In the Maldives, the Thun’duKunaa mats are a treasured item given as a royal gift in the past. They were precious gifts given to the Dutch and British Governors of Ceylon by the Sultans of the Maldives. They were woven by womenfolk traditionally. Currently the island of Gadhdhoo is famous for these mats. Gadhdhoo does not grow the reed. It gets the reed from Fiyori island of Huvadhoo.

The gift item is woven with the aid of a simple loom and a knife which is used to slit the screw-pine leaves. The leaf or hau, is collected and left to dry in the sun and then it is dyed with four natural colours, black, brown and yellow. The thinner mats are woven with simple knots and the thicker mats have more complex knots.

Traditionally, the best Gadhdhoo mats were used by the Maldivian Royal House in Malé. Such was the royal association of these mats that part of the annual tribute from the Huvadhoo Atoll Chief to the royal court used to be in the form of Gadhdhoo mats.

The saanthi mats (small square, pattern weaving) and sataa (large square pattern weaving) are made from the screw pine (pandanas) leaf. The northern islands are particularly known for this. Lamu Atoll has grass mats. There are other kinds of non-dye and non-patterned mats in Baa Atoll.

Bangladeshi women sitting on a sitalpati mat

In Nepal, one is often offered the paddy-straw woven mats or gundri mats to sit on. They are woven by womenfolk. But nowadays men to lend a helping hand. They are made in the months of Maagh and Phagun (January-March) from straw (paraal) which is from the rice stalk harvested during November-December.

Weaving follows a simple but efficient technique. Strings obtained from a strong grass (babiyo) are tied between wooden poles, and the well-dried straw from the last harvest is woven through those strings into a dense fabric.

In Pakistan, the rushes and kana reed with a core of soft pith grow in abundance along the banks of rivers and are used to make prayer mats and runners. Both men and women help in the process. A couple of split rushes are used as a weft to cross the warp threads, the first going under a certain number of warps and then going over equal numbers. The firm edges are woven by varying the number of warp threads in the two stages of crossing. The end result creates a thick and soft mat.

Coiled rushes are used to create thick mats. Coiled rushes are wound into modules which are then sewed together. Date palm fronds are used to make mats and the well-known chataai. Date palm fronds are dried and dyed pink or black and woven into a chequered pattern.

Entire summer shelters are also made from woven palm fronds by certain semi-nomadic groups in Balochistan, who also produce the hand-twined palm-fibre rope for sale. In the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan wild grass (mazri) is used. Wheat straw, palm leaf (pish) and willow are alsoused in weaving. These woven mats are used for floorings as well as roofs and walls.

Maldives Thundukuna mat being woven

In Sri Lanka, the slender reeds of the Havan Pan (Cyeresdehiscens), Gal Laha Pan (Cyperuscorymbosus), Thun-hiriya (Eleocharisplantaginea), Gatapan (Scripus erectus), and Pothukola(Scleriaoryzoides), which are abundant on wetland river banks and in the marshes, are harvested, cut into thin slivers and woven into intricate mats.

Several natural dyes are used. A deep red is obtained by boiling patangi wood (Coesalpiniasappan) with korakaha leaves, gingelly oil and other herbs. Black is obtained by boiling gall nuts (Cynips), aralu (Oroxylumindicum) and bulu (Terminalia belerica). Yellow is obtained by boiling veni-vel (coscinium fenestratum).

These were traditionally used as floor coverings, for sitting as well as sleeping. So famous is the pan-woven mat that an old poetic verse from Sri Lanka speaks of a royal appreciation of this humble piece of furniture. The verse says that Maha Sammatha Raja, the first mythological king of the world, appreciated the beautiful padura that was substituted for a mattress on his bed. The minister of the king asked two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, to weave a mat for the king. The mat they wove was so beautiful, that the king was pleased and rewarded them with treasure of the weight of an elephant. However, the mother-in-law took it all, leaving nothing for her son’s wife. Subsequently, the two women competed, each trying to outdo the other by weaving mats with more and more intricate designs.

The mats generally have elaborate flower, tree and bird motifs. The popular ones are, nelum (lotus), namal (Na flowers), hansaputtuwa (intertwined swans), wankagiriya (mountains), lanugetaya (rope), lanuwa (plait), the swastika and the mal gaha (flowering plant).

The ornamental and colourful Dumbarapadura is woven by both males and females using simple looms. The craft is practiced in the Dumbara Valley near Kandy, especially in the village of Henawela. The yarn used in these mats is made from the leaves of Niyada (sansiverazeylanica). More recently, hana (hemp) has come into use.  Some of the weaver families claim to be descendants of Maha Sammatta Raja. Pan-weaving is an important cottage industry now.