From the workshop
A local hero: the sledge maker from Sri Lanka
It’s a stable construction on two runners, made entirely of high quality ash and freshly lubricated: the Schanfigg sledge – handmade in the Kavi joinery in Peist. "Kavi" himself is personally committed to preserving this traditional Swiss craft: Kavithas Jeyabalan, who came to Switzerland in 1984 as a Tamil refugee. A true life fairytale.
How on earth did he end up here? The question unavoidably comes up on the train ride from Chur to Peist, which has been home to one-time Sri Lankan refugee Kavithas Jeyabalan for almost 30 years now. Mountains and deep gorges meet the eye. Here and there a small village, none with more than 200 residents. Like Peist, 30 minutes from Arosa. A picturesque, idyllic landscape: picture-postcard Switzerland, although seemingly in the back of beyond.
It was actually the RhB that first brought him here: "I was curious to know where the red train went to", says Kavi, as he is known to everyone. And so one day he climbed aboard the little red train in Chur, where he was he was living in the asylum centre, and rode up to Arosa. He found work at a local joinery, the agreed two months ultimately turning into ten whole years.
«The Swiss appreciate good quality. When they buy something, they want it to last.»Kavithas Jeyabalan
Raised in the workshop
Today, Kavi runs his own woodworking business and employs seven people. What started off as a one-man outfit in a shed is now a flourishing three-storey enterprise. However, Kavi does not owe his success to the famous sledges, which he and his team manufacture here: "There’s not a lot of money to be made with the sledges – not even enough to pay one of my employees", he laughs. At least eight hours of manual labour and material costs of up to 300 francs go into the making of a sledge. At a unit price of 400 to 500 francs, that leaves little more than 20 francs profit. But the sledges are more of a passion, a hobby rather than a business – Kavi actually makes his money from fitted kitchens and interiors. The emphasis is on quality in all his work: "Switzerland has a reputation for high quality. And for me it is the best form of advertising." His skills as a craftsman were most likely inherited from his father, who also owned a woodworking/woodturning business. As a child, Kavi grew up in the workshop, so it comes as no surprise that he went on to study carpentry at technical college in Sri Lanka. But it was his former boss in Arosa who first introduced the 49-year-old to the Arosa sledge – or Schanfigg sledge, as Kavi has renamed it following a few improvements.
Hand-made and built to last
Isn’t it rather strange that someone from as far away as the Indian Ocean should have saved the traditional Swiss sledge? "No", he answers. "I am proud of being able to help preserve this Swiss craft." The wood for his Schanfigg sledges comes from a joinery in the Sargans area. It has to be Swiss ash: the wood is durable and barely warps when moist. The 22 individual parts that make up a Schanfigg sledge are cut to size using a milling machine. What makes Kavi’s sledges special is that there are no metal supports and almost no screws. "All the pieces are mortised together", Kavi explains in the local dialect. A mortise and tenon joint, as it is known in the trade, involves sliding the longitudinal body slats through holes in the horizontal cleats, or cross bars. This is what makes the sledge particularly stable: "Nothing will come loose. A sledge like this will last for at least 20 to 25 years", says the carpenter. Kavi and his employees also pay particular attention to the two runners: they are fashioned into the right form as a single piece and only then split into two parts. This is to ensure that the two runners are absolutely identical and will not bend out of shape differently – the only way to guarantee that the sledge will stay perfectly in the tracks. Once they are finished, the wooden sledges are given one final inspection to check that the runners lie flat on the ground, and only then is the stainless chromium steel applied to make it run fast. This painstaking care pays off: at sledge races in the valley, Ka- vi’s vehicles are regularly up there among the leaders at any rate. But the sledges from Kavi’s workshop are not only popular with locals – customers come from as far away as Bern and Basel, and even Eros Ramazotti is the proud owner of a genuine Schanfigg sledge. This all goes to show that quality work really is the best form of advertising.
«It took two years before I was able to communicate in the local dialect.»Kavithas Jeyabalan
Not just Swiss, but a local too
Kavithas Jeyabalan’s success as a carpenter has been hard won. Everyone in the village and the valley knows and respects him – itʼs a tale of successful integration that is almost too good to be true. But a great deal of hard work has gone into it: when Kavi fled to Switzerland almost 30 years ago he didn’t speak a word of German, never mind the local dialect. "Apart from the cold climate, this strange language was definitely the hardest thing to which I had to become accustomed. At one point I asked myself: should I go back to Sri Lanka or stay here in Switzerland? Well, of course, I had a job here. And then I met Vreni, who later became my wife. So I de- cided to stay." And from that day on he did everything he could to learn the local language, so that he could communicate with people and integrate. Word by word, he wrote down what he heard in German and Swiss German. Today, Kavi is almost more fluent in the Schanfigg dialect than in Tamil: "At the moment I have two employees from Sri Lanka so I do speak Tamil now and again. But I mostly make a point of speaking German, even with them." In 1990 he married Vreni and started a family: the couple and their five children now live in an old farmhouse right opposite the joinery. It goes without saying that Kavi renovated the interior himself. His wife claims that he is every bit as Swiss as the locals: hard working, punctual and aware of quality – Kavi embodies all of these typical Swiss values. Vreni and Kavi Jeyabalan are both members of the local folk dance group, for which they dress in traditional attire. He became a Swiss citizen in the early nineties. However, the man from Peist has retained his typical Tamil openness: "Right from the start I went up to the people here and spoke with all of them. It didn't matter whether they were young or old. I actually get on well with everyone in the village. And my family has become like me: we enjoy having visitors or inviting people round for a drink or a meal, often spontaneously and with a minimum of fuss." It’s clear: the Tamil Kavithas Jeyabalan has made the mountain village of Peist his second home. And what about the sledges? They are going well as always – both metaphorically and literally, in terms of sales and on the sledge run. And if Kavi has his way, they will continue to do so for many years to come: that’s why he has passed on the secrets of this traditional craft to his employees. But he is content to hold onto the reins for the time being: "Iʼll certainly keep going for at least another 20 years", Kavi states emphatically.