Bring Home The Charm of Athangudi Tiles

Aug 10, 2022, 17:06 IST

Tiles

Photograph courtesy Rahul Menon & Ojas Chaudhari | Photograph: Justin Sebastian

The exquisite Athangudi handmade tiles capture the rich cultural heritage of the Chettiar community. Avni Raut delves into the history of this local craft and the making of every tile

The inherent appeal of all things handmade is almost unmatched; almost each piece possesses an inimitable quality. Such is the case with the decorative floor tiles that take their name from their place of origin, Athangudi village, in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu. The Chettiar community used to import tiles, among other things, to incorporate into their homes, but it was expensive to repair them in the event of wear and tear. As a result, cement tiles began to be locally produced, more than a century ago. Today, this local craft of tile-making has come to reflect the rich cultural heritage of the community and brings to the fore the skills and expertise of the craftsmen who painstakingly make each tile. Created primarily using raw materials such as local sand, cement, and coloured oxides, the tiles are rendered in geometric patterns or floral motifs in different colour combinations, and impart a distinct charm to the spaces that they adorn. 


The process of creating each tile is quite elaborate. A border frame is placed over a glass plate, within which the stencil of the chosen design is placed. The border frame indicates the size of the tile. Coloured cement mixtures are prepared, and these are then poured into the respective parts of the stencil to form the pattern. After the stencil is removed, a dry mixture of sand and cement is sprinkled evenly over it, allowing the colours to set. Cement mortar is then poured over and levelled. The dry mixture is spread over again and evened out. Subsequently, the frame is removed, and the tile is left to dry, before being immersed in a water tank for a few weeks for curing. 


The tiles are finally dried among husks that soak up the remaining moisture, with their oils lending a certain sheen to the tiles. The glass plate is carefully separated, and the edges are smoothened before the tiles are readied for delivery. Freehand designs are created by the craftsmen too, which do not require the use of any templates. It takes much longer to create each piece by hand when compared with the machine-made alternatives, but it is this very process that gives them an unmatched appeal. Even the laying of the tiles calls for great precision and should ideally be done by a mason trained in the art of laying Athangudi tiles to ensure properly levelled surfaces.An intriguing aspect about these durable tiles is that the more they are walked upon, the more sheen they acquire, which means that they age elegantly. Besides traditional settings, they also work wonderfully well when integrated thoughtfully and tastefully in contemporary decor. 

Here are four projects in which these tiles fit seamlessly into the décor, enhancing the aesthetics of the space.

Rahul Menon & Ojas Chaudhari

Founders of Studio TA

 Tiles

Photograph: Justin Sebastian

“There is a pool of conscious architectural practices that is exploring each region’s vernacular architecture and adopting it as an interpreted contemporary insert. And there are clients who encourage this shift in design ethos. This is a very refreshing trend”

— Rahul Menon and Ojas Chaudhari


Rahul and Ojas were brought on board by a family based in Japan to design a holiday home for them in their native place Kochi in Kerala. The brief called for a space that reminded them of their native roots and the architects made a conscious effort to integrate vernacular materials, the work of local craftsmen and native practices. As a result, along with other materials, Athangudi tiles were employed in certain parts of the house. In the living room, these tiles, with floral patterns, stand out distinctly against the neutral base palette. 

Sonali Jain and Sidharth Lodha

Founders of Architecture SLA

 Tiles

Photograph: Aaron Obed 

“The human error, the variations in the colour, and the heritage value they bring to a space is what makes Athangudi tiles special. They feel more personal and bind the whole space together”

— Sonali Jain and Sidharth Lodha

 Tiles

Photograph: Aaron Obed 

Architects Sonali and Sidharth were tasked with the restoration of a century-old courtyard house in Choolai, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. They were keen to retain the original charm of the home while giving the spaces an update, and also had to ensure that they adhered to the budget. Athangudi tiles fit perfectly into their design scheme as they render a warm, traditional vibe and are an economical option. The tiles have been used in transitional spaces; the ones used in the foyer space were customised. Masons were called in from Karaikudi to lay the tiles, which were then hand polished with coconut oil.

Subhashree & Sriranjani

Founders of Uncut Design Lab

 Tiles

Photograph: Sreenag Pictures

“Classy, ethnic, durable, sustainable... that’s what Athangudi tiles are. With their bright and shiny look, they bring the right touch of tradition and nostalgic ambience to a modern home”

— Subhashree and Sriranjani

 Tiles

Photograph: Sreenag Pictures

Subhashree and Sriranjani were approached by a couple to design their family house in their hometown, Kanchipuram. The home shares its walls with the neighbouring buildings and is located on the second floor. The duo conceptualised a traditional design for the space with modern elements integrated into the scheme. The doors, pillars and beams from the demolished old house were restored and reused in the interiors, and Athangudi tiles were brought in along with other materials to further reinforce the vernacular aesthetic. The living room, dining area, corridor and the bedrooms see the use of these tiles, which sit in complete harmony with the other décor elements.

Vignesh Sekar

Founder of STO.M.P (Studio for Modernism and Practical Aesthetics)

 Tiles

Photograph: Prithvi M Samy 

“Architects need to understand the sustainability equation and balance they create by including artisanal handmade works into a home, which will reduce a considerable amount of the carbon footprint involved. And clients need to be conscious about their choices, giving (us) time to get these things done”

— Vignesh Sekar


 Tiles

Photograph: Prithvi M Samy 


Vignesh designed this modern home in Chettinad that also reflects the cultural heritage of the region. Materials such as terracotta, natural wood, Kota stone and marble have been used alongside Athangudi tiles. The choice to include the handmade tiles stemmed from his aim to use locally-sourced materials and to integrate artisanal works as an integral part of the project. With the village of Athangudi just 12 kilometres away from the site, the decision to include them was easy. The original composition was altered a bit with the addition of certain other materials to enhance the cooling capacity of the tiles. Apart from being used for the flooring in the bedrooms, they also form the dado in the kitchen as well as the pooja room.

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