Exploring the tradition and art of leepay through two historic properties in Trinidad.
November 21, 2023
Homes, religious buildings and other structures have taken many forms throughout history. On the island of Trinidad, ajoupas, tapia houses, wooden homes, and leepay structures have all been historically recorded as methods of construction with their distinctive architectural style. The knowledge of how to leepay has been lost between the generations, but a few persons are attempting to keep the tradition alive. Little did I know that I would also have a personal link to this type of architecture through a shared leepay experience with my mother.
This piece takes a look into the leepay methods and structure also known as “mud” buildings through the lens of two historic properties on the island of Trinidad. Read on to discover more in this storymap about this method.
What is Leepay?
Leepay is a natural way of building or plastering a structure and the tradition was brought to Trinidad by the Indians through the Indentureship system. The technique of using traditional leepay methods uses a mixture of mud made from sapate clay, but may also incorporate either sand, or silt, with grass and gobar (cow dung), and then that mud mixture is put into place between flat panels called formwork and compressed into layers.
The walls are very strong in compression and they sit on a raised foundation platform, which also forms the floor of the interior. For thousands of years people have used natural materials to improve the appearance of their buildings, to protect their buildings from the elements, and to hide the rougher qualities of their walls.
The process of Leepaying
The basic recipe for the leepay plaster is sapate mud, cow dung (gobar), and water. In India the process was very similar in those days. Pandit Hardeo of the Shiv Mandir made it clear that the dung collected must only be from a grass-fed cow or bull!
The mud plaster build up is done in layers at no more than 20mm each. Generally, a “rougher” plaster with more fibres is used for the first layer and the surface is left textured for better grip. Then the top coat is applied and smoothened. The top plaster has to be worked in a semi soft stage to seal the surface.
Finally a thin coat is made by adding more water to the gobar and sapate mud mixture, and rubbing it onto the wall in round movements using your hands. This is called “Leepay” in local terminology, and is repeated a few times a year or more often as part of the maintenance of the structure.
Where did this style come from?
The Historical Context for this style of architecture
Between 1845 and 1917 Indians migrated to Trinidad under the system of Indian indentureship. According to the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, a total of 147,596 Indians came to Trinidad over this 70- year period. This was a colonial scheme that brought Indians to other colonies to fill the gap of labour on the plantations after emancipation. Many of the indentured were from agricultural and labouring classes of north India, and a smaller amount from south India. Despite the extremely challenging conditions a vast majority of the Indians decided to stay after the end of their indentureship and have greatly influenced Trinidad’s culture, traditions, architecture and so much more. The journey to Trinidad from India began in Kolkata (Calcutta), with a stop off at St. Helena island, then finally to Trinidad.
The journey from India to Trinidad via boat
Kolkata Port, India
The journey from India to Trinidad took 3 months via boat and was approximately 14,000 miles (36,000 km). Although they were promised a free return passage back home, at least 75% of them stayed and settled in the New World colony.
To get to St Helena island, from India, all ships had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope or the Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of Africa. The Indians called this area the “Pagal Samundar” which meant Mad Sea, as the seas around the Cape were extremely rough and cold.
Initially the Indians arrived in Port of Spain, the capital city. But soon the British colonial government realised the need for a quarantine station and hospital treatment before going to the plantations.
From 1866 to 1917, Nelson Island was used as a landing, immigration and quarantine station for Indian indentured immigrants to Trinidad.
Leepay was a method the immigrant Indians commonly used on their mud and thatch homes. Some fine examples of unique features and styles can be seen in two important historic properties known as the Mud House Museum, and the Shiv Mandir, a Hindu Temple also known as the Mud Temple, both recorded to be well over 130 years old. There are only a few other examples remaining dotted across Trinidad’s landscape. Unfortunately, the majority of these types of structures across the island have been replaced by modern buildings. Which makes these places, and the efforts by the locals to preserve it, even more special.
Some leepay structures were used as homes, and others were specially built and used as places of worship such as this Hindu temple in the photo above, where the mud reliefs on the walls were used as ways of preserving their religious stories and beliefs in a strange new land. The beauty of this sustainable form of architecture is that the temperature of the room is always cooler than the outside air temperature. In the tropical heat of Trinidad, these buildings offer great respite!
Because this type of architecture is all natural, it needs to be maintained every few months or as needed, depending on weather conditions. These structures are fire resistant, mold resistant and visually appealing. These structures are a sustainable mode of construction that is non-extractive nor destructive and thus climate smart.
Preserving the art of leepay: A personal story
As a millennial, I have never seen a leepay structure being built, nor being plastered. The practice was long gone from my area, and most of Trinidad when I was growing up. And most persons of my generation also don’t know this method. Hence the experience of learning to leepay at the Mud House Museum transported me to a different time period which helped me to appreciate the lived reality of my ancestors. Andrea Bullock who runs the Museum greeted us and introduced us to the history of the space and the method. That day, I took my mother, my friend and my nieces to experience this traditional method. I felt so lucky to be able to share this eperience with my mom which turned into a core memory making experience for me.
During the process my mother, who is 75 years old, started to recall her days as a young child, where her 7 siblings would all leepay the floors and repair cracks of their family home. Sharing stories I had not heard before. The intergenerational sharing was heartwarming and incredible! She shared better techniques on how to smooth the leepay on the floor and how to hold our hands and sweep across in one motion to spread the mixture. My friend was also taught the technique and together we revelled in the delight of hearing a first hand account from someone who lived like this.
In the past, people in the community would support each other by assisting in some way; either by providing the dung or prividing hands to leepay. Learning and practicing this artform supports traditional knowledge, brings people together, and preserves the history of these special places.
There are endless ways to get involved in preserving Trinidad’s heritage. Is it worth dipping your hand in dung to do it? I certainly think so!
To find out more about some of these local efforts to preserve the Mud House Museum leepay, visit or reach out to them to learn more.