Monday, April 04, 2016

Unusual Occupations - Coir Rope Maker

C - Coir Rope maker

As we ride on a scooter on the highway in the afternoon sun, the air is filled with the humidity and salinity of the ocean that comes from the adjoining sea shore that dots the Alleppey – Trivandrum highway in  Kerala.  After making enquiries at the local tea shop, we take a left turn following the back waters away from the seashore into a mud road which runs parallel to a cobbled waterway. The cobbled waterway is a far cry from the picturesque back waters which house the houseboats that adorn the picture postcards of kerala tourism. This backwater is too narrow for a houseboat. There are smaller boats anchored along the way that would in other times ferry probably a single person or two with space for some luggage on the water way.  When the backwaters are navigable they are used to cross from one side to another. Currently they are out of use. The foliage growth in the backwaters is thick and slushy. 

We are now riding away from the sea. The sea is not visible in the thick canopy of greenery surrounding us. But the salinity in the air persists.  Traditional houses that dot the waterway are not as grand as the ones in other parts of Kerala. Some of them are small huts with a tiled roof perched deep inside a  coconut grove or some other thick vegetation.
As we meander the scooter into even narrower mud paths, I notice groups of women working in the slushy waters  dressed in their petticoats and somewhat oversized men’s shirts. Buckets of brackish brown and black slush drawn from deep inside the backwater streams are flushed out on the areas adjoining the banks. Sightly ahead another group of women are busy pulling out the long wiry stems of water hyacinth creepers that has grown thick on this slushy watery surface in large numbers. They are also being cut into smaller pieces and thrown away on the banks to clear up the waterway. Soon the backwater would be navigable.

All along the way one would notice there are hardly any menfolk in the neighbourhood.  The group of women throw curious glances at me and my host who is driving the scooter while I am the pillion rider. We were’nt exactly the unannounced visitors but their curiosity about why we would want to come all the way to meet them was evident on their faces.

We park the scooter at the front yard of the house.  Rema Chechi runs in from the backyard to welcome us wiping the sweat off her face with the back of her hand.  We are then seated in the drawing room of the house. After the customary introductions I am  repeatedly asked if I  would like some coffee or tea or if we would stay for dinner.  Later we are offered some home grown ripe bananas that has been  plucked out from the bunch that has been kept for ripening hanging on a coir rope that hangs from one end to the other end of the wall in the adjoining room.            

Soon the group of women working  on the slush take a break and a couple of them peep inside the house to take a look at us - the visitors that drove down on the scooter a while ago.  One of them is related to my host and asks after his family and their health. I am introduced to the group and soon all attention is now focused on me.  

It is their day of weekly community service, when women take turns to get inside the shallow backwaters and clean out the silt and the slush that accumulates in this season.  During the monsoon which lashes the Malabar coast unfailingly in the months of June, July and through most of August the rains  wash away all the silt and the vegetation and the back water turns into  fresh water rivulet  that flows into the sea.  But as monsoon receds, the water tends to get stagnant and the backwater becomes slushy.  It poses health hazards, what with mosquitoes breeding in the backwaters. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood then take it upon themselves to spend an afternoon every week getting their hands and legs dirty for the greater good of the community.   
The break is now called off and the women are heading back to clean up the slush in their area of backwaters. 

We walk into the backyard where Remachechi has her machinery set up for making her coir ropes.  She has been making coir ropes out of coconut husk for more than 40 years now.  Coir fibers are found between the husk and the outer shell of the coconut. The long bristle fibres are separated from the shorter matress fibers underneath the skin of the nut through a process known as wet-milling.

The history of Coir and its association with Kerala dates back to the 19th century.  Historians believe that organized coconut cultivation started in Kerala after the arrival of the Portugese. Its geographical location and the climatic conditions may have favoured the vegetation of coconuts in these areas. Sandwiched between the Western ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west , kerala is a tropical paradise with lush green vegetation where coconut palms line up the coastal regions and their wide sandy beaches. In fact the name Kerala ( Keralam in Native Malayalam language)  is derived from this tree where ‘Kera’ means coconut and ‘Alam’ means land thus keralam that is the land of coconuts.
In 1859 James Darragh, an Irish born American set up the first coir manufacturing industry to produce and export coir products like coir mats and other floor coverings. Enterprising Indians followed the trail blazed by James Darragh in the next one hundred years.

A little before the hundredth year after James Darragh had set up a coir manufacturing industry, in 1953, a few years into the Indian independence, the Coir board of India, a government undertaking was set up by the ministry of small and medium size industries. Its primary objective was to encourage coir products export and set up the ecosystem to  manufacture coir products in Kerala. 

In 2015 the coir industry in kerala employs more than 700,000 people of whom majority are from the hinterlands of kerala.  Alleppey (Alappuzha in Malayalam) and the hinterland surrounding this town is the nerve centre of Kerala’s  Coir industry.

Coir ropes are biodegradable. They are also sturdy and long which enables them to be used as packaging materials for agricultural produce that is transported from villages to cities all over India. Due to biodiversity convention agreements across countries and their borders coir ropes that are untreated raw byproducts cannot be used for export or for packaging export materials to many countries. But the demand within the country is huge and
the supply is limited. 

In the good old days every household had its private pond and coconut groves. Once the ripened coconuts were peeled and sold, huge quantities of the outer shell , the husk would then be soaked into the pond for days and weeks together to soften up.  After this wet milling process would get over the shells would be picked out of the pond and the softened coir from the husk shell would be set up for drying up in the sun and then using it to make coir ropes.

Over the years population grew multifold and households disintegrated.  Land was divided amongst members of the family of the next generations. The private ponds ceased to be private and were now a community property albeit of the same set of families who possibly shared a common ancestor two or three generations ago.  Moreover soaking coconuts husks in ponds resulted in health hazards as well as reduced access to fresh water for the families of the neighbourhood. 

As water bodies and fresh water sources grew scarce, the co-operatives set up at the behest of the coir development board undertook to buy the coconut husks from  the producers and the de-husk in a common unit set up in every town hub using modern machinery. 
The raw material needed for coir products is now sold by the coir board to people like Rema  Chechi who have a basic machinery set up in their backyard to make coir ropes.  

The coir fibre is elastic enough to twist without breaking and it holds a curl as though permanently waved. Twisting is done by simply making a rope of the hank of fibre and twisting it using a machine.

Remachechi shows us her productivity of about 8 hours from the day before. It would fetch her 165 Indian Rupees  ( approximately USD 2.5 in 2016) . 

 An employee from the local office of the coir board would come in a small boat through the waterway to deliver the raw material as well as procure the finished product from her and all other women in the neighbourhood who  are engaged in the occupation.  It is an occupation that fetches a fair price thanks to the collective bargaining by the unions with the coir board which is a quasi -government body for those who are engaged in the occupation. 

It is the lure of better ways to earn more money that is dissuading many from taking up the occupation.  There is subsidy available from coir board to install the machinery which operates with electricity. In a country with perennial power shortage, electricity is available especially  in remote villages for not more than three to four hours a day. 
The good old saying of ‘make hay while the suns shines’, reads in these parts of the world as ‘make ropes while the power supply is on’.  
Community women make the coir ropes after they have finished with their household chores  and when the power supply is available.   Although it supplements their income, by itself  making and selling the coir ropes alone cannot make ends meet.  

Most of the menfolk are employed elsewhere and send home the money.  It is not uncommon to find men working in the construction sites or the oil rigs in the gulf for most part of the year.  The money from gulf supplements the needs of the families. When the going is good, the women folk temporarily drop out of coir rope production, since it is labour intensive and the returns are meager.

The jobs that employ the menfolk in the gulf are more often than not low skilled, fixed term contract jobs that do not offer much security although the money that is saved and sent home can go a long way in the upkeep of the families. It is typical for the menfolk to suffer massive stretches of burn out both mentally as well as physically as the work conditions in the gulf is backbreaking and inhumane to say the least.  When their contracts run out they come home for months together to recuperate before the all the money saved runs out and the contractor's agent sends word for yet another project in the gulf for which they are enrolling  manpower.        

It is during those times that the money from the long arduous hours of coir rope making, brings home the bacon.  At best it is a good fall back option at the convenience of their backyard and that is the reason womenfolk take to this occupation. It gives them the flexibility to work at their will for as much time as necessary.

Remachechi’s  circumstances  were slightly different. She took to coir rope making after her husband passed away when she was young. In the land that she inherited she set up the machinery unit and has been making coir ropes since then. In 2015 she is an aged matriarch in the community.  Neverthless she is a reservoir of energy and enthusiasm that has not dimmed with age and circumstances.

Coir ropes are something that every household makes around this area. It is no magic.    She tells me that many a ‘sahibs’ as in foreigners have visited this place and have found what they all do, very amusing and strange. 

I shoot a video of hers in action and she demands to see it along with the other photographs that I have taken of her. She is a bit embarrassed at the way it has come out and decides she would repeat her act one more time and this time it better turn out well. 

I take leave after assuring her that I would do a good job of the video when I write about her.  I am sure Remachechi will insist that my host who incidentally is a relative of hers show it to her and it better pass her stringent quality checks.    I am keeping my fingers crossed. Watch this and let her know.  



  1. That was very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This was wonderful Jayanthi. When I consider how much these coir ropes are used in the construction put up the bamboo carcass structures while painting, carrying loads etc, my mind boggles! All that rope is handmade. Thanks for sharing this. The video was excellent, do convey to Rema Chechi!
    @KalaRavi16 from

  3. Good one Jayanti, you have roped in the right folks...

  4. VGPAL9:54 AM

    Well written. Rema chechi rocks!

  5. Look how much work goes into that! I'm amazed.

  6. These are truly unusual occupations... And I love reading about them! I enjoy your style of taking us on these trips :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

  7. Interesting and an insightful read. Rs 165 for an 8 hour work is sooo less in today's times.

  8. Very informational and thank you for sharing. While I appreciate the work that they do,I feel sorry for the money they get for so much of work.

  9. Swarna11:18 AM

    Coir ropes.Coming to think of it, this is an unusual occupation. A great read.

  10. Thanks for sharing the uses of Cocopeat. Cocopeat is a natural fibre made out of coconut husks. The extraction of the coconut fibre from husks,it is very highly hygroscopic & compressible.

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