The ironmen of Moolai: 140 years of tradition | Sunday Observer

The ironmen of Moolai: 140 years of tradition

Double yoke bullock cart
Double yoke bullock cart

The Northern Province is home to various traditional skills, some of which have become extinct. In this digital era most of our working systems have some element of modern technology.

Having heard of one blacksmith’s forge where everything is still done by hand, Terry Jenorge and I set off to inspect this amazing craft. Cycling from Araly towards the quiet village of Moolai was in itself a wonderful experience, covering a distance of eight kilometres.

We passed the famous Jaffna College located at Vaddukodai. On reaching Moolai we stopped at a kiosk and inquired about the forge, from an old man. Cycling another 500 metres we heard the sound of iron hitting against iron. After weeks of searching for this location we had finally arrived at the home of Nathan, the last blacksmith of Moolai.

The old forge was surrounded by trees, which provided much shade. A man wearing a blue sarong was busy with a hammer. Another young man clad in trousers walked up to us and inquired if we wanted to place an order. Sudhaharan is surprised that we had come from Colombo to write about his uncle’s forge. Shortly, a man wearing thick spectacles and black shorts emerged from the rear of the forge. His hands are calloused and rough, but he has an amiable smile with his hands positioned in the Tamil greeting style of ‘vanakkam’. He motioned us to come forward and said, ‘I am Nathan; my generations have worked this forge for the past 140 years.

My grandfather had learnt this art from his father. He later trained my father. I am now 59 years. I first picked up a hammer at age 12 as a schoolboy. Since then, by the grace of God I have been able to work along with my four brothers.

It is a tradition here in the North for families to work together. Two of us work in the forge casting and transforming iron. One brother is engaged in carpentry with his son. Two others are sculptors who carve using wood or stone. Our united work supplements the skills of each other’.

The humble forge attracts customers from many villages, including Jaffna town, as far as the islands of Delft and Karainagar. Iron blades are common in every home in the Northern Province.

An assortment of knives are used in the kitchen and garden. Larger knives are used in farms to cut fodder for cattle. The axe is common in cultivation and is used for clearing patches of forest. The curved blade is similar to the Egyptian khopesh (sickle sword) and is used in some Hindu kovils where goats are sacrificed during religious festivals. Nathan invites me to stand next to the bellows- a large apparatus consisting of three leather bags, stitched and held in formation by strips of soft wood. When Punniyam (the assistant blacksmith) pulls on the wooden handle the bag sucks in the air and releases it through the tuyere- a thin pipe.

The pipe opens into a small pit where charcoal embers infused with air breathe orange flames. Nathan heats a rectangular iron piece, until it glows red. He places in on the heavy anvil. Within seconds he hammers with speed and dexterity to transform the iron into a blade, dipping the blade into a bucket of water. Punniyam takes a break to chew on some betel leaves, his teeth already stained red by this practice. Today, a heavy knife costs 3,000 rupees and an axe 4,500 rupees.

Nathan explains, “We use different temperatures for different blades. Look at this hammer. Even the hammer differs according to the required blades. The wrong hammer could damage the blade. We use 5 kinds of hammers.

The largest one weighs 14 pounds and it is 100 years old. It is used to beat large rods of iron - used as the axle for bullock carts. The other hammers weigh 5, 3, 2 and 1 pound respectively’. Punniyam has now brought a large rim of iron, which has to be fitted onto the wheel of a bullock cart. Sudhaharan and another helper arrange coconut husks in a circular design and fill the centre with charcoal and dried hay. The rim is placed on the husks and covered with more hay. Punniyam lit the fire. Nathan asked “Why don’t you go and see the work of my elder brother, Ramachandran?”

A fence made with dried palmyrah fronds separated the forge, from a garden where palmyrah trees rose majestically reaching into the sunlight.

Under the shade of a massive khomba tree a bare bodied man in a brown sarong was busy using a cloth to clean a large wheel. He stood up and smiled saying, “I saw you at my brother’s forge. This is where I make the wooden items to supplement Nathan’s iron blades. We make handles for the knives and axes. But my main skill is making bullock carts, which take almost 25 to 30 days.”

For centuries the bullock cart was the mode of transport, from hardworking farmers to proud village chieftains. The carts came with single and double yokes. The wealthier people used the cart pulled by two bulls- often the Vaddakan breed of pure white bulls as a symbol of status. In those days owning such a cart was the equivalent of driving a Mercedes Benz. Ramachandran said, “To make a whole bullock cart costs about 130,000 rupees. We do everything by hand. When the cart is complete we invite the customer to the kovil next door and deliver the cart after a short prayer. We also serve some sweet pongal (a rice based food infused with jaggery and raisins). This is the passion with which we work.” In a corner of the garden Kumaran was busy chiseling away at a wooden cylinder for the cart.

We are summoned back to the forge, where the iron rim has been heated, now. Nathan stood ready with a 3 pound hammer, as Punniyam picked up the hot rim with heavy tongs. The rim is placed on the wooden wheel and Nathan begins to gently hammer it into place, as Punniyam poured cool water onto the iron rim. Within five minutes the process is complete. Both men smile in contentment.

We are invited for tea and the men and some neighbours share their stories and reminisce how times have changed since their youth. Half an hour later two majestic white bulls arrive at the forge, with an older man and a young boy.

This is the customer whose wheel we have repaired. Nathan and Ramachandran fix the wheel and the cart is ready. The bulls are tied to the yoke and the cart slowly rolls onto Araly road. Terry and I bade farewell to these humble and industrious men. They are more than blacksmiths. Some years from now this forge will become silent, as this skill does not have a single apprentice. The work of these brothers will be remembered in the village of Moolai. 

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