By: Karishma Nanhu, Heritage Preservation and Research Officer
There is only a small number of places which remain intact today that were built by indentured Indians in Trinidad. Built in 1885, the Avocat Mud House Museum, located at 176 Siparia Old Road, Avocat is one of these historical treasures. This article explores the story of the Mud Museum and some of the people involved in its survival.
In 2023, the structure which was originally a home, is 138 years old and it provides insight into the late 19th century lives of the Indians and their descendants. The home was built by Taitree, a hard-working Indian woman, who came to Siparia after working on a sugar estate in Couva. Taitree’s story was passed on though oral history.
In the late 19th century Taitree came to Siparia to work on a cocoa estate owned by a Venezuelan planter. She had a contractual arrangement where she planted small cacao plants and was paid 25 cents per cacao plant that survived and bore cocoa. When the Venezuelan owner left Trinidad, he sold his estate to his workers, making them into small proprietors.
Using her savings, Taitree was able to purchase 17.5 acres of land, where she planted cocoa and coffee. Indeed, she was an industrious woman, and she also started a cart/buggy transport business. When she left Couva, she parted ways with her first husband, and their three children eventually came to live with her in Siparia. She had one son, Chatoor, and two daughters. Her grandson, Ramcoomair Chatoor, Chatoor’s son, would go on to initiate the efforts to preserve the mud house. She had a second husband in Siparia.
For Indian women in 19th century Trinidad, land ownership was a means of economic independence, an avenue for increasing social status and it also meant that a woman could gain more power within her family and community (Hosein, 2007). Acquiring land was one of the most meaningful activities that rural Indian women did from 1970-1945.
“In fact, acquisition and ownership of arable land was the fulcrum on which the autonomy of the Indian woman rested. It underlay her importance within the domestic sphere and her ability to engage in independent economic activities that further enhanced her autonomy within her family and her community” (Hosein, 2007, p. 2).
Taitree worked hard and saved her money to build the mud house in 1885. The poverty of the Indians who lived on the estates and in villages at that time has been documented (Brereton, 1989). Rajwantee Bullock, Taitree’s great granddaughter reflected that Taitree would have saved quite a sum of money, in order to afford the roofing materials for the house. At this point in time some Indian women who had been indentured on estates were able to save money from their small wages which were considerably less than men’s wages. While wages varied over the span of indentureship, Reddock (2008) points out that women were generally paid less than men and at times had a fixed rate of 25 cents per task when men were paid up to 70 cents per task. This situation, Reddock (2008) observes, left women dependent on men, even though they were full time workers. Nevertheless, some were able to save, purchase land, build houses and pay annual taxes on their properties (Hosein, 2007).
The Mud House
The Avocat mud house is one of the two known remaining mud houses in Avocat, however following Indian indentureship there were many houses like this. When Indians completed their indentureship contract and were able to build their own homes, this style was familiar to them, as it was popular in India. Indeed, these may have been built with slight variations since the Indians brought their knowledge and traditions from their different Indian villages.
In Trinidad, a similar type of house already existed, called the ajoupa, which according to John Newel Lewis (1983), was the primary vernacular style in the country. Prior to the arrival of the Indians, the Amerindians or First Peoples had already built ajoupas in Trinidad. Lewis (1983) referred to the mud houses built by the Indians as the ‘Indian Ajoupa’ or ‘Plains Ajoupa’ because they were typically found in the flatter central areas of Trinidad. While the ‘Indian Ajoupa’ was similar to the Trinidadian Ajoupa there were differences in the layout of the rooms and the use of clay as the main material.
Another type of housing that the Indians introduced to Trinidad was the tapia house. Tapia houses have bamboo or cane woven into the walls which make them different from mud houses. The essential component in a tapia house is wood, whereas the main element of the Indian mud house is clay (Lewis, 1983). Bullock describes the building process as mud compacted with gobar (cow dung) which acts as a binder. Leepaying is done on the walls and floors of the Avocat mud house every 6 weeks – 2 months depending on the season. Leepaying is the application of a mixture of gobar, sapate mud and water to the walls and floors by hand.
Video of Mr. Reaz Khan leepaying a wall inside the Mud House
The walls are 22 inches thick at the base, and they taper closer to the top. When the site was initially cleared for the building, four trees were left in four corners and the mud was packed around the tree trunks. Three ponds were dug to obtain mud, but only one remains today. The design of the house has an open wrap around verandah, and a double gable roof. This allows the cool air to pass through. There is a short concrete wall around the house, approximately 3 feet tall, which replaced the original mud wall in 1956. This was done to protect the mud house from water damage, after the road was built in 1952.
Video of Kara Roopsingh and Karishma Nanhu of the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago leepaying the floor inside the Mud House
The roof is made from tin and the original tiles, which were shipped from England, are still in use. 60 years ago, the tiles were repositioned to address the leaks and the original wood was changed as it was termite infested. It was replaced with mahogany from the estate. The roof is currently leaking.
Visiting the 138-year-old Mud House turned Museum.
Today, the Avocat Mud House Museum is the only known mud house that is open to the public in the area. It is currently owned by the Ramcoomair Chatoor Memorial Trust. Dr Ramcoomair Chatoor was the grandson of Taitree. His wife Dr Irene Chatoor set up the Trust. The mud house has been turned into a museum and tours are conducted. Lectures have been offered for UTT in the past. They also host chulha (fireside) making classes. You can also volunteer to assist with leepaying the mud house, even if you have no prior experience with it.
To book a tour, attend a class or to volunteer you can contact (868) 776-0753 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact email@example.com for more information.
Bullock, Andrea. Personal interview. 2nd May 2023.
Bullock, Rajwantee. Personal interview. 2nd May 2023.
ACTN The Voice. (2020, June 5th). The Founding Family – Mud House Museum – Trinidad & Tobago [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPasw4pO3I0
ACTN The Voice. (2020, June 2nd). The Mud House Museum – Trinidad and Tobago [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Df42cgpae5k
Brereton, B. 1989. A History of Modern Trinidad. Kingston: Heinemann.
Bullock, B. 2020. From the Mud House o the University: The Life of Dr. Ramcoomair Chatoor.
Hosein, S. (2007). ‘A Space of Their Own: Indian Women and Land Ownership in Trinidad 1870-1945’. Caribbean Review of Gender Studies: A Journal of Caribbean Perspectives on Gender and Feminism, 1.
Lewis, J. N. (1983). Ajoupa: Architecture of the Caribbean; Trinidad’s heritage; Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Port of Spain.
Reddock, R. (2008). ‘Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago 1845–1917: Freedom Denied’. Caribbean Quarterly, 54:4, 41-68. DOI: 10.1080/00086495.2008.11829735