The Thootae: Torch made out of dry coconut leaves

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I’m fortunate enough to have people in my family who lived before the advent of electricity and studied by kerosene lamp. Often the kerosene lamp was just a round wick forced through a hole made in the metal bottle cap. I vaguely knew that before kerosene lamps and LED torches, people moving around in the night used torches made out of natural materials. I knew it was called a thootae (Thoo-tay) in Tulu. It is still used as a figure of speech for a female with a sharp tongue. I remember my dad and his friend who was also my dad’s colleague at work and my violin tutor discussing childhood incidents one day during a power outage in Bombay (Now Mumbai). They were discussing ghosts and spirit manifestations which were common in our hometown of Udupi due to its history of spirit worship. My dad’s friend who was elder to him was speaking about how one dark night in a heavily wooded area, he saw a line of torches (Thootaes) passing in single file even though there was no visible evidence of any human presence. My dad recounted  similar incidents. Needless to say I didn’t sleep well that night.

Even though the word has been in our vocabulary and still is, I had never seen a thootae or knew what it was, I imagined it to be a bundle of sticks with a rag dipped in kerosene wadded into the bundle at the tip. I don’t know how this topic came up but when I was visiting my mum’s eldest sister’s house and was researching unrelated information for my blog, we were out strolling in the garden, when she decided to show me how a thootae was made. She enlisted her grandson to help in making it as she is quite old now. I was surprised to find out that it was only a tied up bunch of dry coconut leaves and I immediately had my doubts about its efficacy as from past experience I knew that these light very fast and burn hot & fast before turning into ash. In fact these leaves are used as kindling when lighting fires. I wondered how anyone could use it to go anywhere! I was surprised at how wrong I was! First we’ll see how one is made.

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The thootae is nothing but a bunch of dry leaves of a coconut frond tied tightly at short intervals

 

Close up of the peculiar way of securing the leaves together. This is probably because of the low flexibility and brittleness of the dry coconut leaves.

Close up of the peculiar way of securing the leaves together. This is probably because of the brittle and dry coconut leaves are not as flexible as rope and trying to knot them the regular way would not be possible.

When the tip is set on fire, it burns slowly since the leaves are tied tightly together

When the tip is set on fire, it burns slowly since the leaves are tied tightly together

 

The fire dies down and the rate of burning slows down when held stationary for a while

The fire dies down to embers and the rate of burning slows down when held stationary provided of course that it is not windy.

My aunt demonstrates how it was waved to re-kindle the fire as air was forced between the leaves

My aunt demonstrates how it was waved back and forth to re-kindle the flames as air was forced between the leaves due to movement of the torch

When this was in use, I’m sure they were familiar with how long it would burn and if extended burn time was required all they needed to do was to light one torch from the other like a chain smoker would… I’m really glad that my aunt was able to show me this as this technique should work with other long leaves as well. The main advantage of the thootae is that it goes into standby mode when not required, burning at a slower rate until it is waved back and forth to reignite it.

From personal experience, I know that it is most often possible to navigate even by moonlight without a torch, so even if weak moonlight was available, the thootae would be required to be fanned into flames only in dark wooded areas or for having a better look at suspicious objects on the trail.

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CREDITS: |Sukumari Furtado| Rahul Ivan |

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