Along the sleepy streets of Karaikudi, the economic centre of the Chettinad region in southern India, are remnants of a glorious past. Beautiful mansions with intricate stonework line the alleyways. A pickup van on the roadside awaits treasures from within one of these mansions as I stroll by. An ornate almirah with a mirrored door, and a crystal chandelier are leaving what has been their home for the better part of a century. I am intrigued—I want to find out more about this illustrious community tucked away in the depths of arid Tamil Nadu.
In the early centuries of the second millennium, the Chettiars were ship chandlers, salt merchants, rice traders, and gem dealers. They were also bankers who lent to farmers, landowners, and local kings. The close relationships they had with the community earned them large tracts of land and the title of zamindar, meaning a landowner who leased his land to tenant farmers (think aristocrats!). Their business prowess and financial acumen earned them the favour of the ruling kings, and later the British East India Company. They sailed the seas, with both Indian and British fleets to countries in Southeast Asia, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma. Abroad, they were an integral part of local finance and trade, which soon made them wealthy business people. The Chettiars founded 96 villages in rural Tamil Nadu and built opulent fort-like mansions, that encouraged their being referred to as Nagarathar (meaning ‘sophisticated’ or ‘townsfolk’) and Nattukottai (meaning ‘land fort’, owing to their capacious homes) Chettiar.
After World War II, when most of South and Southeast Asia gained independence, the Chettiars had to leave behind their businesses in foreign lands and return home with just a fraction of their wealth. Many sold their imported wares to maintain their mansions, while others had to give up their beloved homes in entirety. Today, the region known as Chettinad has only 73 villages, and most Chettiars have left for different parts of the world to sink new roots.
Chettiar homes put forth a beautiful amalgamation of vibrant Tamil traditions coupled with European architecture (courtesy: their erstwhile colonial rulers). The houses, built cheek by jowl in a grid pattern, most often stretch across two streets. When looking in from the front entrance, you see a straight line of doorways across a series of courtyards, each a diminishing rectangle of light, hiding mysteries within.
Step inside a palatial bungalow and you are instantly taken back in time to a bustling home in its heyday. On the verandah near the front door, you see accountants seated cross-legged on the marble floor, leaning against a wall adorned with colourful Japanese tiles in floral patterns, and working diligently.
The elaborate carvings of deities on the heavy Burma teak doors invite you into the art deco reception area, where black-and-white Italian marble floors and intricate ceiling frescos vie for attention, while the enormous Italian and Belgian chandeliers complement the grandiose setting. Following the intricate wall frescoes and recreating the birth and life of Lord Krishna, you enter a courtyard to witness the wedding of a Chettiar bride. You can almost hear the tinkling of anklets and bangles as little girls dressed in bright red and orange, and adorned with fragrant flowers, run through the double-colonnaded corridor. The feast that follows is in the extensive dining hall, with high ceilings and Belgian stained-glass windows.
The cries of babies and sounds of excited chatter take you to the women’s quarters. Iron rings attached to the wood-panelled ceilings hold bright hammocks in which little ones are rocked to sleep to the sound of sweet lullabies. Next, the clanking of brass utensils and aromas of ground spices lead you to the kitchen abuzz with staff preparing the next meal to feed the family and their guests.
Every one of the 10,000 to 15,000 Chettiar homes left in the region tell a similar story, and each one is equally fascinating. The Chettiars built their residences keeping in mind the arid climate in this part of the state. The houses were built around an east–west central courtyard that kept them cool and provided shade, light, and air. They also built thick brick walls with lime plaster, multiple layers of terracotta tile roofs, marble-and-stone floors, which helped to keep the house cool. The sloping roofs helped collect water for household use, while the excess flowed through the drainage system to replenish local water bodies.
Mansion hopping is one of the best ways to explore Chettinad, and most mansions in the villages of Athangudi, Kanadukathan and Karaikudi are left open during the day for visitors. In most of these residences, the owners live elsewhere, leaving the management of their homes to caretakers. Some of the notable houses in Chettinad include, MSMM House and Aayiram Janal Veedu (House with a Thousand Windows) in ç; VVR house, Chettinadu Mansion, Chettinad Palace, and Lakshmi Vilas in Kanadukathan; and Periya Veedu in Athangudi.
“One is fortunate to eat like a Chettiar”—this popular saying in Chettinad, as I soon discover, is absolutely spot-on. Traditionally, meals are served on a banana leaf, its bright green contrasting with the vibrant vegetarian dishes served on it in an all-you-can-eat manner. Contrary to popular belief, Chettinad cuisine is not spicy; instead, a beautiful blend of spices create a depth of flavour in their distinctive dishes. Star anise, cinnamon, black pepper, and red chilli are key to most traditional fare. The Chettiars’ travels have influenced their cuisine, the most notable feature being the introduction of meat and fish into their diets. From their travels to Southeast Asia, they brought back kavuni rice, a black rice that is the star ingredient in a sweet concoction of coconut milk and sugar. Try it at The Bangala and Chidambara Vilas. At the Chettinadu Mansion in Kanadukathan, the traditional banana-leaf lunch starts with a light lentil soup, followed by servings of vegetable biryani, fried fish, and chicken curry. The Bangala, renowned for its food, both the traditional and the Anglo-Indian or ‘butler’ cuisine, has brought gourmands from the world over to its doors. The ‘butler’ cuisine is a clever mix of Indian spices with traditional English recipes—mutton chops with a spiced egg coating; stews that have been Indianised take the form of fish and egg molee. Of their traditional offerings, the mutton, crab and cashew curries served at dinner are sensational. For breakfast, keep an eye out for paniyarappam, a fried dumpling made of soaked rice and lentil mixture, spiced with onions, green chillies, curry leaves, and coriander leaves.
The handcrafted tiles of Athangudi feature vibrant designs and intricate detailing. The artisans at the tile factory give live demonstrations to visitors. Visitors can can also design their own tiles. Selva Industries is one such place. The artisans explain the process of creating tiles, which takes almost 10 days from start to finish. A wet mix of cement, sand and colour is poured into a design stencil, which is kept on a glass slab held in a metal frame. The design is then covered with a dry mix of cement and sand, and a separate wet mix of cement, and left to dry. Once fully dried, the glass is removed to reveal a smooth, glossy tile. They are ideal for floors, but not for walls given that they can weigh up to 1.5 kilograms each. Religion is central to Chettinad culture. The establishment of the 96 villages was followed by the foundation of nine clan temples. The modern-day Chettiars, regardless of their place of birth, bear allegiance to one of these clans. They have close ties to their clan, and marry from within. Though spread around the world, most Chettiars come home to celebrate temple festivals and family events.
The temples here are a true testament to the Chettiars’ wealthy heritage, with elaborate carvings on wood and stone, of preferred deities and events from sacred texts. One can spend hours at a temple, wandering the grounds, studying the carvings to identify the stories they tell. The nine clan temples include, Ilayathangudi, Mathur, Vairavanpatti, Iraniyur, Pillayarpatti, Nemam, Iluppakudi, Soorakudi, and Velangudi.
Chennai (300 km) is the nearest metro to Chettinad. Direct flights also operate between New Delhi and Madurai (75 km). Cabs are available at the airport for onward journey for INR 4,000.
October to March
Anyone who loves history and has an eye for details
The Thirumayam Fort in Pudukkottai offers unbeatable views of the villages of Chettinad. The Ayyanar Horse Temple in Kanadukathan is also worth a visit for its terracotta horses.
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