Thorthu, Kerala Thorthu
The ‘u’ not to be pronounced as thor-thoo, but like ‘ue’ of Prague. Thorth.
For someone from a tropical land, cotton is undoubtedly a part and parcel of one's daily life. And for someone especially from Kerala, from a textile perspective, our most prized possessions - the most ordinary and extraordinary is cotton and with 'kara' (bands) - both revered greatly - the saree or mundu and the 'thorthu'. While the Kerala saree and mundu and mundum neriyathum get everyone's attention as Kerala’s main textiles, the thorthu humbly takes a backseat, enjoying it all hanging on the clothesline, under the sun; slowly swaying in the wind with no complaints. The thorthu, in reality, is perhaps bought more in numbers and used more than the saree or mundu. It is a Malayali’s must-have everyday bath towel. This is an article dedicated to one of my favorite pieces of cloth, limited to a mix of personal experience of having known the thorth for the last 29 years and some stories that I have heard from my parents.
Thorth - Basics
The standard size of a thorth is about a metre in length and less than half a metre in width and the most basic identification as plain white in colour. Two bands at both the shorter side ends were added to the thorth later and perhaps the first design intervention - these two styles being the ones that I have seen in my childhood and much of my young adult life. Size-wise there was always a tiny proportionate version - less than half of the standard size for infants and toddlers. And very recently a slightly bigger version.
Thorth is loosely woven in a plain weave structure using cotton yarn. All of the thorth’s that I have encountered in my life have been hand-woven. While I am sure there exists a power-loom counterpart story, this writeup only brushes upon the handloom one.
Thorth - Usage
The thorth’s main usage is as a bath towel. It also acts as a handy cloth when one is out in the sun, in a kitchen, or anywhere hot and humid doing a chore to fan themselves. The thorth takes form very notably as a kettu (South Indian style wrapping a piece of cloth around the head leaving the top open) - especially for the coconut tree climber holding his sweat onto his forehead, which would otherwise flow into his eyes, and commonly by men working in the fields. Some men (if one was thin enough) would wrap just the thorth as a mundu, hold a long-handled hoe, and clear irrigation paths in the field. While the men tie a ‘kettu’, the women wrap the thorth differently - covering the entire head and letting it fall down over their hair. For the women selling fish from house to house in a big aluminum vessel, thorth acts as ‘chummadu’ (Malayalam world for a piece of cloth rolled and knotted in a circular shape - usually to be placed on the head to eliminate the chance of contact of the object being carried and the head, and to balance it as well). These are some primary usages of the thorth. Once the thorth starts wearing out, it fills in as a cleaning cloth, to line shelves or winnow’s to dry spices under the sun, as kizhi (tiny bundles of cloth) to hold heated salt crystals or a mix of herbs. Like any piece of cloth in the Indian subcontinent, the thorth also lives a long and purposive life. Thorth is that one piece of cloth that acts as an understudy with roles ranging from just about something in the kitchen to just about anything in the performance art arena.
Thorth - Buying Traditions
One can imagine the frequency of usage of something as basic as a bath towel. Despite being used incessantly, at least in my household, and of my relatives, the thorth was bought mainly once a year - during Onam. There is a tradition in Kerala called the ‘onakkodi’ loosely translated as ‘new clothes during Onam’. Buying new clothes for Onam is a culturally significant thing in Kerala. In olden days it really meant the only time in the year you bough new clothes, but even as time passed and people bought more clothes for numerous other occasions, the practice of onakkodi remained. One bought onakkodi for oneself and for relatives. Mundum neriyathum and Kerala saree for women and Mundu with various karas for men sell out like hotcakes. Thorth for women, men, children, and grandparents sell out faster and hotter than that. Sometimes you bought onakkodis for everyone each year, sometimes you would alternate between items and people. Thorth no matter what the situation was always was in the list. You needed thorth and thorth was/is always cheaper than a kasavu saree. Most Malayalis shop textiles during Onam at the Onam-bazaar organised by the IRDP (Integrated Rural Development Programme) and the Handloom Societies. Every significant towns and city in Kerala organises these bazaars with weavers, craftspeople, and cottage industries from all over the state assembling under one roof. These bazaars would take one back to the olden days of only handmade items. Indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruits, nuts and roots, bamboo and screwpine household items, earthenware, stoneware, and an array of Handwoven textiles to choose your mundu from. Usually, the societies bringing in thorth only weave the thorth or floor mats, and not exquisite kasavu, and is comparatively a smaller society than the Chendamangalam (in Ernakulam dist) or Balaramapuram (of Trivandrum dist). I can remember societies mainly from Vypeen, North Paravur, etc (both in Ernakulam dist) bringing stacks of thorth. A handloom thorth would cost between INR 80 and INR 200, and every family bought at least one each for each member. I personally have a penchant for the thorth, passed down from my grandmother and mother, and we usually hoard thorth. We have stay-at-home thorth, traveling thorth, thorth for guests, thorth for the kids studying outside of Kerala, thorth for more guests, backup thorths etc.
Thorth - Certain Agitations
While almost all of us have used it almost every day in our lives, or every day of a stretch of time in our lives, the thorthu was also a very confusing thing. Because most were plain white with kara, on most days we would spend some time trying to figure out which was whose. I especially remember this one time while we were at my maternal grandparent’s tharavadu for a stayover. Ammamma had taken me in custody to oil me on with 'kachiya enna' (her home-made concoction oil). After spending some time reading and waiting out for the oil to ooze into my body, she finally asked me to go take a bath. I asked her for a thorth and she pointed to the clothesline in the veranda that opened out to the backyard. I looked up to see about 8 identical white thorths chilling on the line. I guessed and picked one that I thought I had used the day before and asked her if it was mine. She said a big no, grabbed the thorthu from me, and looked at the clothesline. I guessed a couple more times and she said no and no and no and finally placed mine in my hands. I am so sure it was the right one, and to this day I don't know how she correctly picked it. I always thought only Ammas and Ammammas had this skill of matching a thorth.
As I grew older, I remember being super irritated with the thorthu and my complaints about the thorthu elevated. Once a boy-cut girl, I started growing out my hair when I was 13 and I found the thorthu impossible. The thorth sometimes did not absorb any water at all, sometimes it absorbed it all and I would smear myself back wet in the process of drying myself. While the thorth itself dried off within minutes, especially under the Kerala sun, drying oneself with it stayed a bit complicated. And so I slowly moved away from thorth to Turkey towels.
While thorth was thin and sometimes harsh, Turkey towels were soft and almost like a hug. I went on with the new towels, occasionally using thorthu. As my hair grew longer, I needed two towels to myself, and the thorth sometimes became my hair towel. Thorth also came in handy during monsoon season when it took ages for the Turkey towel to dry.
Thorth - Design Evolution
From the past few years, there has been a change in the design and construction of the thorth. The yarns have become softer and more closely woven resulting in better absorption and being easy on the skin. Most importantly they now come in in a varied array of good colours. It was as if there was a design intervention that happened that sort of gave fresh life to the thorth. I remember I went o the Onam bazaar of 2014 to find pastel shades! Of course, I bought one each of all the shades.
Since then, there have been thorths woven in better shades, stripes, and checks in a well-thought set of colours. I wonder if there is a textile student/ designer somewhere who deserves thanks for this. With the new colours, the thorth also started coming in a bigger size using a stronger yet soft yarn that easily wraps around one’s body, for one could never do that before. In 2017, we were in the North Paravur area of Ernakulam in Kerala on a research visit and decided to check some handloom society shops in the town. There we found these beautiful thorths in peacock green warp and peacock green weft, giving it the most amazing colour on a thorth that I have ever seen. They said those thorths were actually dead stock as there were too many slubs on it and had been discontinued to be woven. We examined the thorth and found them to be just perfect. We had to plead with them to sell us those, and I still use it!
Incidentally, as a non-textile designer, the first-ever weaving/print design I did for any textile was for a thorth - while I was working at Viakerala in Cochin, and it was on a beautiful custom woven Kara thorth. Kara Weaves is an organisation based in Kanjiramattom, Ernakulam, Kerala - that literally took the thorth around the world, in never before seen designs and diversified items like table linen.
As only a keen observer of the thorths, this is my reflection of the journey of the humble thorth. In the list of possible topics for PhDs, I now have one more, the thorth. Even though I partially unfollowed the thorths, I am back as a religious follower. And while I have almost stopped buying any new textiles in the last couple of years, I have been hoarding thorths. The stay at home ones, the traveling ones, the ones for the guests, the extra ones - all in use in a weekly circle now.
Aleena Sajeev, Bangalore, India