This article appeared in TOI and has some photographs in this link:

Tinsel malais, thombais and kudais


Who Iyyah Mudali was is a mystery. But a Madras street directory of the year 1858, available on the web site mentions a business establishment- Iyyah Moodeli & Co situated at 38 Mount Road. Perhaps this street in nearby Chindadripet was named after the founder of that firm. If so, he must have been a prominent businessman of the city owning property in the street that was to bear his name.


The book “Madras, the Architectural Heritage”, by K Kalpana and Frank Schiffer describes Iyyah Mudali Street as an architecturally vibrant landscape. Branching off from Arunachala Naicken Street, which is the main thoroughfare in Chindadripet, Iyyah Mudali Street is full of street houses, all of them sharing common walls with their neighbours. Almost all of them are of the double storey variety with some sporting sloping Mangalore tiled roofs while others have the standard Madras roof supported by rafters. Many are built with limestone and the facades boast of rich decorative work in many cases. The ground floors in many instances have become commercial outlets.


The street’s shops specialise in the making of tinsel, sandal and lace garlands (malais) meant for weddings, religious offering, social events, commemorative programmes and political meetings. The huge pillar like cloth hangings known locally as thombais which find use in temple cars are also made in this street. 


The month of September/October witnesses a spurt in the activity. This is the Tamil month of Purattasi which is sacred to Vishnu. In Tirumala (Tirupati) Hill, the Lord’s annual festival takes place this month and the fifth day of the festival sees the Lord being taken in procession on his mount – Garuda. For many years now, the origins of this custom being lost in time, it is the tradition that various groups from Madras carry ornamental umbrellas (kudais) which are offered to the Lord on that day. These groups proceed on foot to Tirumala, the journey taking a week and more. There are halts for them on the way at various temples and wayside choultries. This tradition is strong in North Chennai and the day the processions pass through the city’s Perambur and Vyasarpadi areas is a festive one in those localities. The umbrellas for this event are invariably made at Iyyah Mudali Street.


Shop after shop makes these items to order and involved in the trade are members of only one community – the Shas. These families originally migrated from the Saurashtra region of Kutch in Gujarat and are among the earliest settlers of Madras. There has obviously been quite a bit of intermingling with the locals, for how do you otherwise explain names such as Kandasami Sha?


Sriram V