The Coir Museum of Alappuzha
Throughout history, the coconut tree has always been a subject of adoration and respect in the world. This tree is possibly the one with a known history reaching back over 3000 years before the birth of Christ. Coconut fibre ropes and cordages have been used since the dawn of time. Both India and Sri Lanka are thought to have been the first countries to discover the many uses of coconut fibre or coir. It was so extensively used in India that it came to be called the Golden Fibre. Even though the origins of coconut in India remain disputed, it is generally believed that it was introduced during the post-Vedic period. Coconut fibre was used as cables for ships by Indian navigators who crossed the seas to Malaya, Java, China, and the Gulf of Arabia centuries ago. In India, 85% of the coir fibre products come from Kerala, and Alleppey is the heart of Kerala's coir industry. It is the state's largest cottage industry, employing more than a million people. Read on to know more about the history of the Kerala coir industry, its decline, and the coir museum that has been proposed to help it recover.
List of Contents
1. Alappuzha Port Town
Alappuzha was conceived to defeat the European maritime, business and political opponents with their own weapons. It was built by the Travancore kingdom with the specific purpose of breaking the Dutch blockade of the coast and establishing their monopoly on all of the Dutch’s produce. All kinds of foreigners were invited to work for the commercial department of the King of Travancore to boost trade. This was controlled by the Dewan Keshavadas. He built two parallel canals to transport products to the port.
The port was established in 1762 with the primary purpose of exporting coir-mats and coir-yarn. Keshavadas offered infrastructural facilities to merchants and traders from Surat, Mumbai and Kutch to develop industrial companies, trading centres, and cargo hubs. As Alleppey succeeded, the stagnating lagoons were filled with coconut husks required for the industry. This expanded the infestation of mosquitoes, and one had to persevere the unpleasant smell that hung around. This resulted in people getting infected with the cochin leg or elephantiasis.
2. Renewal of the Coir Industry During the 19th century
Although there are few remnants of history from the early nineteenth century, it is widely assumed that trade in Alappuzha grew steadily. During this period, the vadai canal was dug to control the spread of diseases and relieve the pressure on the existing commercial canal. The book "Children's Lifeworlds: Gender, Welfare and Labour in the Developing World" by Olga Nieuwenhuys mentions that the overall value of yarn exports from the state of Travancore increased from 92,472 rupees to 5,93,925 rupees during 1854 and 1862. Its percentage of total export value grew from 7.4 to 17 per cent. This was around the time the first coir factory was established in Alleppey.
3. First Alappuzha Coir Factory
Mr Darragh, an American of Irish descent came to Alleppey and started a coir manufacturing unit in 1859 due to the continuous growth of the industry. He employed the help of a foreign trader Henry Smail to create the Darragh Smail& Company. After the success of Darragh Smail, many other industry heavy-weights from all over Europe like Pierce Lesley & Co, William Goodacre & Sons, Madura Co., Coir Yarn Textiles, Bombay Co., Volkart Brothers, Aspinwall & Co, etc., came to tap into the district’s potential offered by the golden fibre. Hence, Alleppey became a household name throughout Europe.
4. Indian Coir Companies
Native entrepreneurs such as Peter & Sons, Pitchu Iyer & Sons, Coir Floor Furnishing Co., Empire Coir Works, Commercial Emporium, Charankattu Coir Mfg. Co, Travancore Mats & Matting Co., Devaswomchira Coir Fabrics, Kochu Pillai & Sons, Koncherry Coir Factories, Alleppey Co., followed suit. Then these became big Indian corporations in the Kerala coir industry scene. The Co-operative Societies have built a name for themselves by co-ordinating individual coir-making families and allowing them to enjoy the benefits of centralized raw material procurement and sharing amenities. There are almost 600 primary societies and 400 manufacturing societies in Kerala now.
5. Uses of Coir
Traditional Uses- The golden fibre was traditionally used as door-mats, carpets, etc. Cots made of coconut fibre were a common sight in South-Indian households. It was used to suspend pots from the ceiling and collect water from wells. The rope is also used as a brace while climbing coconut trees. It is used to tie scaffoldings as well. Brown coir harvested from ripe coconuts is thick, strong, and high abrasion-resistant.
It is typically used in upholstery padding, sacking, horticulture, and brushes. On the other hand, white coir from the unripe coconut is often made into ropes and cordages. It is also utilized for making finer brushes and fishing nets. Coir was a common material for making ship ropes and rigging as it is highly water-resistant. The fibres make up a third of the coconut pulp approximately. The rest, called the pith or dust is biodegradable and is now being used as mulch.
Modern Uses- Some of the modern uses of coconut fibre include geotextiles, composites, and acoustic panels. Coir geotextiles are made for erosion control, ground improvement, filtration, drainage, riverbank protection, road pavements, slope stability and so on. Using coir fibres as reinforcement and epoxy or other synthetic polymers as resins is one of the simplest ways to make composites.
Coir panels absorb sound and improve acoustics nearly as effectively as regular acoustic panels when used alone or in combination with perforated plates. Furthermore, coir fibres are highly adaptable to absorb either higher or lower frequencies, depending on consumer preferences. The bottom line is that coir is a sustainable material suited for creating all sorts of eco-friendly, attractive and outdoor-worthy products.
6. Decline of the Kerala Coir Industry
The lives of four lakh workers are entwined with the coir industry in Kerala. However, the traditional industry has been declining. The COVID-19 pandemic has collapsed the coir industry that was already in trouble. The coir business has been forced to relocate to Tamil Nadu due to labour shortages and excessive wages. Around 40 per cent of the units that manufacture export-quality coir mats have already shifted to Tamil Nadu. Alleppey is grappling with the economic fallout of this migration. With the steep decline in the availability of quality coconut husk, the sector has been wholly dependent on the coir units in Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi for sustenance.
It was high time for the Allepey coir industry and the town as a whole to resurge. A temporary coir museum exhibition was held in 2017 as a means of helping the dying industry. Following the exhibition, the Kerala Government announced the Alappuzha Heritage Project to bring back life to this historic port and its rich heritage. The Alappuzha Coir Museum is a part of the Alappuzha Heritage Project, which proposes to conserve and convert a few abandoned structures of historical and industrial importance into museums. Our office was involved in designing the coir museum, and the other areas in the compound.
7. Coir Museum Exhibition Design
The museums aim to create links between the historical significance of Alappuzha coir factories and the present status of coir making in the district, taking a parallel approach towards portraying the history of the port town and coir. The following are the sections that will be present in the museum:
7.1 Living Museum
A living museum where the existing dilapidated factories will be converted to showcase live demonstrations of the coir making process. It will be interactive using info panels, graphics, and AV mediums. It will be set up in the New Model Coir Mats and Mattings Cooperative Society.
7.2 Looms Gallery
The gallery is a part of the Living Museum in the New Model Co-operative Society. Here, a visitor can learn about the importance of the handloom industry and the reasons for keeping it alive. They can view the demonstration of different types of traditional looms. This will help them appreciate the work that goes into producing coir products. The gallery on handlooms will discuss the intricacies of handloom weaving and the results achieved. It will talk about the propagation of knowledge from generation to generation.
7.3 Museum of History of Coir
The museum of coir history's concept is to employ multiple exhibition mediums to explain how coir has changed through time, the history of the coir industry in Alappuzha, the history of coir around the world, and the coir technology available now. It will cater to a vast audience with an emphasis on educating school children about traditional knowledge and skills through interactive exhibits and hands-on experiences.
7.4 Activity Centre
The activity centre is for people who visit the museum in groups. They will be given special lectures based on the significance of coir and related topics. This will also provide facilities for people to try their hands at weaving. An overhead projector and an audio system will also be housed in the centre to screen documentaries on the golden fibre.
'Coir Kerala' is an annual fest that takes place at temporary locations all over Alleppey. It has been happening for many years now and it is a regular annual event. But, the Alappuzha coir museum will be a permanent way of showcasing the rich heritage of the coir industry, along with the history of the town. It will be set up in the run-down factory buildings present in the district. Thus, the museum will be a perfect example of how to adaptively reuse old buildings and utilize them to spread awareness about the culture and heritage of that region. It will serve to raise awareness about the industry's demise as well as help to resurrect it.