Malayalis are people hailing from Kerala – The God’s Own Country -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 Thamizh, 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 as Gamcha, and in Thamizh 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.