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Mundum Neriyathum-A Keralite Legacy

Updated on July 17, 2016

The Culture

Sett and mundu( Mundum Neriyathum) is considered to be a part of malayalee culture(Kerala). It is the oldest surviving form of sari in the whole world. It is the traditional outfit of Kerala which has a two piece style unlike other sarees. It appears complex when worn, but actually the draping is easier than any other traditional attire. About a century back, keralite women used to wear Rowka which was covered by another piece called Neriyathu. Layer Rowka was replaced by blouse and Neriyathu with Kasavu Neriyathu. Though till this day settum mundum is considered as the classic outfit, it is also affected by new trends and aesthetic ideas.

The Origin

In ancient history the traditional draping of Kerala is termed as 'Sattika' in Jain and Buddhist literature. Some believe that the Palma or what is called Pallu today was adapted from Graeco-Roman palmyrene into settum mundum. Mundu refers to the lower garment which worn around legs and folded in at the waist. While neriyath is used instead of a scarf which is mentioned as Uthariya in Buddhist literature. It is one of the reminence of pre-Hindu Buddhist-Jain culture that once flourished in south India. Coastal areas of India had trade settlements with the Mediterranean world through which Graeco-Roman costume Palmyrene might have made influence over uthariya. Pallu was worn as a long piece of unstitched cloth tucked over the left shoulder. These palmyrene had slender colourful borders which was adopted as kasavu neriyathu later. Kasavu is the golden border over the body of the cream or white coloured cloth. This contrast is considered to be the grace and culture of malayali women. Mundum neriyathum is now modified to the national style now known as 'nivi' sari style.

Traditional mundum neriyathum with kasavu border
Traditional mundum neriyathum with kasavu border

The Draping Style

Mundum neriyathum was the traditional name used, and now the style is popularly known as settum mundum(malayalam). This costume is that simple that it doesn't require any stitching or much confusing draping style. It consists of two pieces of long cloth with borders called kara. The lower piece of drape is called mundu, and is similar to that of worn by the men of Kerala. Its worn below the navel and above hips. Neriyath is the upper garment which is worn above the mundu. One end of the neriyath is tucked inside the underskirt (which would be worn prior to mundu). The other end is worn across the front torso over the blouse reaching the breast bone. In brief it is pinned over the left shoulder diagonally from the right hip across the midriff. The remaining end of the neriyath is left hanging down from the left shoulder resembling the nivi sari.

The settum mundum(mundum neriyathum) draping method

The preparations

The cloth is starched before washing, and ironed before wearing. The cloth being of cotton starching is necessary to keep it stiff, and ironing to make is wrinkle free. Years before people wore white coloured blouse itself. But, now the trend has changed that women wear blouses of the same colour that of the kara(border). Stripes, checks, metallic texture, brocade material have all replaced even the plain coloured blouse. Fashion of stitching the blouse has also renewed itself. Round, square, and pentagonal shapes have brought trends for neck.


The settum mundum being a part of Kerala culture, the government itself has taken interest in setting up sectors for handlooms and outlets for naturally woven clothes. These are called khadi products. They provide a livelihood for traditionaly skilled personnel as well as better and natural products for the needful people. It is specially suited for the climate of Kerala. The main makers of mundum neriyathum in Kerala are Hantex, Handloom, Balaramapuram, Chennamangalam, Mulloth, Karalkada and Kasavukada.

Traditional kasavu neriyathu
Traditional kasavu neriyathu

New Trends

Mundum neriyathum has got new designs and outlook. But the change can be limited to the border only, for anything done to the body of the neriyathu or mundu would make it call something other than mundum neriyathum. The traditional design is Puliyilakkara, that is slender line resembling the thin tamarind leaf. Later the thickness underwent variations that brought it to the width of an arm! Mango design, peacock work, embroidary works,prints, etc. are the trends which haven't faded out with time. Lines of different colour and width have been become a tradition too. Thick Golden borders have become popular for special occasions like Keralapiravi(birth of Kerala state) ,Onam(festival), weddings, engagements, etc.

Settum mundum with peacock feather and flute print. This is indicative of God Krishna in Kerala.
Settum mundum with peacock feather and flute print. This is indicative of God Krishna in Kerala.
Mundum neriyathum with violet kara
Mundum neriyathum with violet kara
Mndum neriyathum with intermittent stripes of orange, green and golden shades
Mndum neriyathum with intermittent stripes of orange, green and golden shades
Mundum neriyathum with pista green and golden coloured kara
Mundum neriyathum with pista green and golden coloured kara
Mundum neriyathum with traditional manga(mango) design
Mundum neriyathum with traditional manga(mango) design

The Future

Mothers and grand- mothers have been teaching their daughters and grand daughters how to drape the settum mundum for special occasions. This custom is going on and lets hope that it would keep going in future. Its not going to fade so soon, we people being thinking forward to live closer to nature. The material being nature friendly and suited most to the South Indian climateclimate, it probably ought to resist the newer costumes!!

The draping method of Mundum neriyathum

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