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.
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.
CREDITS: |Sukumari Furtado| Rahul Ivan|
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