Traditional hand woven reed mats
Traditional hand-woven reed mats © Aishath Aima Musthafa

Thundukuna Community or Mat Weaving Artisans in Maldives

Thundukuna is a special mat woven from reeds indigenous to the marshlands of Maldives. The reed is locally known as hau. Mat weaving from hau dates back some two hundred years, and this long history is mostly associated with the southernmost atolls.
Thundukuna is a genuine Maldivian product, as everything that goes into producing the mat is indigenous and locally procured from our natural habitat. In this respect, the most basic things like the threads holding the reeds in place are made from the sea hibiscus bark. The eye-catching, environmentally friendly, nonfading mats are made from the local flora’s bark and roots.

Before the introduction of cheap factory-made nylon mats into Maldives in early 1970s, thundukuna enjoyed a special place in most Maldivian households. These mats adorned the coir rope stringed beds, swings, and boduashi. Gaddhoo kuna, a superior quality mat woven by Gaddhoo islanders, is a favorite of the rich.

Most island communities in GA, GDh, GN, and S Atoll1Code letters assigned to the administrative divisions of the Maldives. weave mats as an essential activity or as a hobby. The art of weaving is passed from generation to generation. The basic designs and motifs on these mats are mostly triangular or square with occasional variations. The three primary colors make up the entire color scheme. All mats are designed, colored, and sized for specific uses. For example, mats for sleeping cots, easy chairs, guest settees, and divans have a distinctive design, and artisans do not change the design except for a specific purpose or at special request.

Since the 1970s, imported cheap plastic mats have flooded the limited market, sidelining environmentally friendly but more expensive home-produced mats. The fall in demand greatly affected the home-based industry, which slowed production, and mat weaving died slowly. The problem was so acute that by late 1980 production was nonexistent on many islands. Today, only two islands from the twenty-seven inhabited islands of the southern atolls have a noteworthy mat weaving culture.

GDh. Gaddhoo and GDh. Rathafandoo still practice this dying art, with Gaddhoo mats being renowned for their intricate designs and weaving quality. On these two islands, the number of practicing artisan has been falling, and today there are fewer than twenty. The diminishing demand for natural fiber mats for cheap imports has compelled the many artisans to change trades to survive and to take up mat weaving as a hobby. Some now weave on demand, especially for the longer and larger mats.

The demise of this once productive industry is also due to the unwillingness of the educated youth to learn and carry on the family trade. The youth feel the remuneration is not on par with the hard work required to produce these works of art. The looms that were once the pride and joy of their parents have largely vanished, and some children don’t even know what mat weaving is or that their native island once had a thriving home-based mat weaving industry.

The production of small souvenir mats is fares much better than for the large versions. The reeds from which these masterpiece mats are woven are found on many islands, but the reeds from GDh. Fiyoaree are of superior quality. The mats woven from these reeds have long usage life and are resilient to color fading. These reeds have more luster and a brighter look when dried under the sun.

Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society is a women-led cooperative formed to promote and revive Maldivian traditional arts and crafts, especially those arts and crafts that have died or are fading out completely. These goals are to be achieved through identification, education, production, and product marketing.
Since its inception in 2012, the society has worked with traditional mat weavers and reed growers in GDh. Atoll. An initial study showed grim prospects as only three women were active growing and drying reeds, and with a lack of enthusiasm. The same could be said about the handful of mat weavers in Gaddhoo and Rathafandhoo.

MACCS being a nonprofit organization can help these women only by showing and guiding them through outside help. This was achieved by funding through the Global Environment Facility small grants program implemented by the United Nations Development Programme for conserving the Fiyoaree marshland and environmentally reviving by motivating and involving more women from the community.

MACCS was able to get four Fiyoaree land plots to cultivate reeds. Seventeen Fiyoaree women were involved in growing and harvesting the reeds. MACCS also created awareness efforts so community members could better appreciate the uniqueness of the reeds that grew locally and the importance for reviving and conserving it. School children were taken on field trips and learned about mats and the reeds. These children were also educated on the role of migratory birds that frequent the marshlands.

The seventeen participating women were given knowledge in traditional reed growing. Trade and transport links were also established. As enthusiasm picked up, a second project was procured and launched to revive mat weaving. The reed-growing and mat-weaving projects culminated with the introduction of mat waving to Fiyoaree after thirty years. This was a proud achievement.

Gaddhoo mat weavers are careful in preserving their traditional art and take pride in their work. Thus, each finished product is still a masterpiece by itself. Their high-quality products fetch good prices in the market.

Rathafandhoo island is five minutes from Fiyoaree by small speed boats. Thus, sourcing reeds from Fiyoaree is easy. Dyeing and other processes are also not as tedious and systematic as it is with the Gaddhoo weavers.

Much of the mat weaving industry has changed with the changing times. Unlike before, the mat weaving industry has also adapted by dividing labor to save time and costs. Historically, a single weaver carried out every aspect of weaving after procuring dried reeds. Today, however, a weaver may not know how to make the thread from sea hibiscus. So the weaver buys the thread from another person who specializes in thread making.
The present generation of weavers—without much knowledge of reeds or the strength and durability of strings that hold them together—have started to bring innovations to the time-tested traditional and indigenous way of mat weaving, thus producing lower quality mats. The use of imported thread or low-quality reeds from an island other than Fiyoaree is the main cause. Moreover, the use of imported thread is negatively affecting the natural string makers. This is a tremendous loss and cannot be revoked easily. Quality downplay may not be noticeable in the short term but will likely have detrimental effects in a year or two.

Most present-day weavers are over forty years of age, and there are very few newcomers to this craft on both the islands. Many skilled artisans have migrated to the capital city for personal reasons. Forced to live in cramped rented quarters, they are unable to continue their art even if they wanted to. There simply is no space for their looms.
To date, MACCS, to revive the dying art, has conducted three mat weaving trainer courses. Two courses were conducted in Fiyoaree while the other was conducted in Fuvahmulah City, which had also stopped weaving somewhere around 1970. Twelve trainees completed the courses.

MACCS has also introduced products made from mats to the general public, so that less costly smaller genuine items may indirectly help the mat weavers. In this respect, market analysis was done to see if the products were marketable. Based on this research, five master trainers were trained to make bags and key chains using traditional mats. The idea was to establish a continuously linked marketable chain from reeds grown in Fiyoaree to mats woven in Gaddhoo and Rathafandhoo. MACCS hope and aim is to revive and expand traditional mat weaving home industry along with empowerment and self-sufficiency for the home-based workers.

Aminath Abdulla, Chairperson, Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society

Share this post.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Code letters assigned to the administrative divisions of the Maldives.