The wearing and making of the Zottim leather chappals ((slippers) is another facet of the disappearing Goan way of life. Like many other traditions it is slowly vanishing – unsung and unnoticed. Ideally suited to the warm and humid climate of Goa these open slip-on chappals keep the feet cool and dry. Crafted for men, women and the young the Zottim chappal takes over 12 to 14 days to make, each bit hand-crafted and hand-stitched for long lasting durability.
Though overshadowed by their better known neighbors in Kolhapur, Maharashtra the sturdiness and resilience of the the Zottim is a byword and part of local folklore which claims that a well made pair of Zottims lasts a lifetime. A popular tongue-in-cheek Konkani proverb – Ek soirik korunk, sat zottim zhorunk zai – which roughly translates as –‘to get a single wedding proposal be prepared to wear out seven pairs of Zottims’ is testimony to the difficulties faced in finding a partner and the resilience of a Zottim.
The makers of these bespoke leather chappals belong to the Hindu Sawant community and are followers of the 15th-century poet, social reformer, savant and Bhakti Saint Sant Ravidas. Their crafting skills extend to making a variety of chappals from the elegant and popular toe-ring T-strap Zottim, to the slip-on, the enclosed slip-on, the toe-divider, the Y-strap chappal and to other customary patterns that the client may want.
Using leather that has been vegetable dyed and tanned the Zottim chappal is made by hand with minimal tools employed. A stone slabs forms the sturdy work-table, hammers, awl, scissors, pincers of different sizes, a set-square and compass, embossing and punching tools and needles are what form the bases of the trade.
The chappals are made from both buffalo and bullock hide. Hard wearing buffalo hide is used for the sole with the craftsman gluing and hammering down several layers to make a single sturdy, tough usage sole. The final touches being the patterns that are etched and engraved on to the sole before it is hand stitched on to the upper part of the chappal where the more pliable and supple bullock leathers are used. The last stage is the coloring of the completed footwear. No nails are used in the making.
Regular clients have their Zottims made-to-measure with the craftsman taking into account each customers individual needs and foot peculiarities. Off the shelf chappals are on sale in the shop. By custom none of the chappals have foot sizes assigned to them as the maker can find the right size by just briefly examining your feet.
Besides the Zottem a wide variety of chappals were crafted in Goa from the single toe wooden sandal – the Padukka that is worn by Hindi ascetics to the boat shaped pointy curved Choddem. As it was customary to walk bare feet within the home the footwear was left at the doorstep, to be used only for wearing on the streets. Other footwear customs of interest included that worn by the Goan Kulmi community whose chappals were made from the bark of the Kumbyo tree (Careya arborea ROXB) and formed part of their wedding ritual in the auspicious ceremony that involved the hiding of the groom’s chappal by the bride’s sisters. While In the Kharvi community of fisher folk the women wore disposable footwear made of coconut leaves when they went door-to-door selling fish.
All this is now a thing of the past. As young apprentices are hard to find and the well educated youth of the family are taking on other jobs the numbers of practitioners has been slowly dwindling. Some continue in the trade and can still be found in some of the smaller towns of Goa in the chappal workshops that double as their showroom-cum-outlet. Till now the few remaining outlets have managed to successfully fight of the onslaught from new and modern styles retaining the loyalty of their customers. However their situation is now quite dire as they face an acute shortage of good quality and reasonable priced leather that is their main raw material. The ban on buffalo slaughter has dealt the final death knell as this shortage has resulted in a huge increase in the cost of the leather that is correspondingly reflected in the price of a pair of chappals – out-pricing it for their middle-class Goan clientele. The once buzzing shop-cum-workplace in the bustling Calangute market has downed its shutters bearing testimony to this decline.
The fate of Manohar Sawant and others like him is uncertain as he is amongst the last in his line to continue in his hereditary craft at his workshop-cum-store in a prime location in the town of Mapsa. Set up by his father almost seven decades ago in a time of certainties.
First published in the Sunday Herald.