That Little Thorthu (തോർത്ത്)

Malayalis are people hailing from Kerala – The God’s Own Country -are often called Mallus because the word Malayali is quite a tongue-twister and difficult to pronounce for many across the globe.  They speak Malayalam, a language spoken by more than 38 million people who  live in the state of Kerala and Lakshadweep. Many in India refer to Mallus as Madrasis or even Malabaris, which any Mallu worth his name will despise.  You call him a ‘Thampi’ and he is sure to spit fire at you!

Malayalam, the eighth most spoken language in India, is believed to have originated from Tamil, with a heavy influence of Sanskrit.  It became an independent language with its own script by AD 9th century.  

There is a little known item of cloth that a Malayali is identified with.  It is not the Mundu or the Lungi; but a 5’x3′ white piece of cloth called Thorthu; a light bath towel,  which you will find in  every Malayali’s wardrobe.  We have a dozen of them in our Canadian home too.  It is universal – one size fits all; used by people of all ages, sex and religion.

Thorthu has a one centimeter thick border at both ends called Kara, which is generally black, blue or red.  This handy Indian cotton towel is known in North India , it is called the Gamcha, and in Tamil Nadu as  Thundu.

The white coloured Thorthu has been around for generations. The warp and weft of this cloth  is made of very fine cotton fibre.  These hand woven towels are super absorbent, light weight, soft on skin, and quick drying.  In Kerala the relative humidity is around 70% through the year and any thick towel will take its own time to dry out.  Then there is the fear of fungus or mildew developing on a wet cloth.

A Mallu uses the Thorthu for rituals, journeys, pilgrimages, functions, traditional events, political rallies, etc.  It is all because the Thorthu takes up less space, can be washed easily with hands, and dries quickly.

In every Kerala household, the Thorthu has an important place, so did in our home too.  Our father always got the new Thorthu and dare not – no one could ever even touch it.  The next one was Amma’s and for all four sons, we had the older ones, but was always on first-come-first-served basis.  If one got late for the morning bath, he ended up with a wet Thorthu.  

Though the primary use of a Thorthu is to dry one’s self after one’s bath, it has many uses left to the imagination of the user.

To bathe in the pond or river, use it to cover your family treasures and after the bath, hand squeeze the Thorthu and dry yourself.
You will find many children enjoying catching those little fish using a Thorthu.

On your way home, if you intent to climb a coconut tree to bring down some tender coconuts, it comes handy. Tie the two ends and it helps you grip the trunk while you make your way to the treetop.
You will come across four men enjoying their cards game, sitting under a coconut tree. The card table is a Thorthu spread on the ground.
You will most likely meet a fish monger, who will proudly have a white Thorthu around his/her shoulder. It is used as a hand towel and how they manage to keep it white everyday is still a secret.
You will see men and women working in the fields and they use the Thorthu as a headgear to beat the hot sun.
You will come across ladies- young or old – draping a Thorthu over their blouse, covering their chest.
In the kitchen, the Thorthu comes handy as a napkin, a hand towel and also as a mitten while handling hot cooking utensils. The Thorthu also serves as a sieve and also is used to cover the cooked food.
Women after a bath will tie their hair in a Thorthu to facilitate faster drying in the humid Kerala weather.
Thorthu has its use in the traditional medicine of Kerala – Ayurveda – especially as the cover for a Kizhi – a fomentation therapy done using a warm poultice containing herbs, herbal powders, rice or sand and massaged on the whole body to enhance, purify or rejuvenate the body.
You will find a Malayali using his Thorthu in many ways. Only you got to look for it.

2 thoughts on “That Little Thorthu (തോർത്ത്)

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