The Peculiar Locks of Dindigul

May 5, 2022 1 comments

In India’s Tamil Nadu, some 420km south of Chennai, sits Dindigul. In this city of over two million people, families have slept without a worry for centuries while thieves have been known to tiptoe in fear and desperation. This is the city that began creating unique locks on the request of Tipu Sultan in the 18th century, and has since then garnered a reputation for being the most skilled locksmith of India.

A shopkeeper displays a wide variety of Dindigul locks. Photo: Kamala Thiagarajan/Atlas Obscura

Locking Back in Time

The hardy locks of Dindigul received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag only in August 2019, but the indigenous craft has been around the block for hundreds of years. Like any historical tradition of a culturally replete society, stories of lock-making in Dindigul come in various shapes and sizes, forms and narratives. Many locals will tell you that the lock at the gates of the Rock Fort or Dindigul Malai Kottai was made in Dindigul. Historians and archaeologists differ, but if that is true, the craft has been around since the 17th century when the fort was built by Nayak Kings. During Hyder Ali’s reign, the fort gained great strategic importance, and many say that it was his son Tipu Sultan that commissioned the first tricky lock in Dindigul. Local narratives have been handed down over generations, altering the origin story of this unique art from top to toe. What has remained unchanged though is the meticulous finish of the final products and their foolhardy iterations to suit purposes across fields.

Close your eyes and make a wish. Ask for the most complicated lock to deter your enemies. Give it a simple name. By the time you open your eyes, the locksmiths of Dindigul would have granted your wish. The lock-making industry here is full of mango locks, drawer locks, shutter locks, bell locks, trick locks, bullet locks and many more. The smallest locks to be made here were 3/4th of an inch in size, and fell out of production by the 70s when the mass-produced locks of Aligarh took over the industry. “When these small locks were sold at Rs50, the Aligarh locks were available at Rs20, around which time the China locks came in for Rs10,” Pradeep Kumar, a local locksmith in Dindigul, had revealed to The News Minute.

The mango lock gets its name from the beloved summer fruit of India. Its mechanism is unlocked only by what is called a female key, with a circular hollow opening at its tip, when when inserted into the padlock, the hole latches onto a rod in the lock’s internal mechanism. The Vichitra mango locks went a step further and catered to the power hierarchy of ancient families and businesses. The lock operates with three separate keys which can be distributed among members of different hierarchies in a social or business organisation. For instance, if the owner, manager and cashier of a shop each had a key to the safe, the owner could check the latter from accessing the safe. He or she could insert the key into the lock, twist it once to the right then to the left, and the door would be locked and the other keys would not be able to open it. The manager could check the cashier from accessing the safe in a similar manner. Customers also order the nithra mango lock, which has two holes, but can be opened from only one of them. If a key is inserted into the wrong hole, the lock jams. This helps confuse thieves.

A mango lock (left) and a Vichitra lock (right). Photo: Kamala Thiagarajan/Atlas Obscura

The variety doesn’t end there. Some locks have an iron rod extending from their key. To unlock, the key is placed inside at a specific angle which is known only to the commissioner and the locksmith. Some locks have a button on them that need to be pushed before twisting the key, while others open with a pair of keys—a larger one and a smaller one. The brass bullet lock weighs about 15kg, and requires you to rotate the key in different holes to open it. If today’s lock makers are to be believed, the 1980 Kolaigaran Puttu used to eject a knife if the wrong key was inserted into it.

For a state that was bursting with iron deposits to the brim and but starved for water, lock-making became the most natural means of sustenance. There were hundreds of workshops in and around Dindigul, and every corner boasted a masterpiece handmade by local craftsmen. But today only some 50-60 craftsmen are carrying the weight of the legacy on their shoulders. Before GI tagging, the art was dying a quick death as youngsters meandered away from its heritage and mass-production was offering new levels of ease to once-loyal customers. While the demand for hardy, failsafe locks has retained, the manpower for production has faced a steady decline. The other contending lock industry is in Aligarh. There too, machine-made locks are able to cater to market needs faster and more cheaply. Where once the locks of Dindigul were a prized secret recipe of commerce, today the craftsmen of the city are eager to teach its making to anyone who is willing to keep the art alive. As artisans with skill pass on, the variety of designs continue to decrease. Where once the shops in Dindigul produced a hundred types of locks, today they make only about 10 to 50.

But an impactful product is not easily forgotten. These locks of yore were futuristic in their design and unrelenting in their mechanism. The locksmith understood this, and provided only a single key to each commissioner so that there was no way left for thieves to break open the lock. “Even now, people come to get duplicate keys for 200-year-old locks,” K. Muthuveeran of the Nallampatti village had told The Hindu, revealing that those who once experienced the safety of a Dindigul lock, never went back to ordinary tools of protection.

# Atlas Obscura
# The News Minute
# The Times of India
# The Hindu


  1. How can we get the Lock Picking Lawyer to take on a nithra mango lock?


Post a Comment

More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}