Storied Mansions

For those of you who wanted more information on Chettinad, here is a complete guide… This appeared in the January issue of National Geographic Traveller

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Over a century ago, everyday life in the villages of Chettinad in Tamil Nadu would have been very different. The sounds of women’s anklets, the laughter of children, the aroma of fresh spices being ground for lunch, the flow of guests, would have filled the imposing mansions of Chettinad, a region of 78 villages, dominated by the prosperous Nattukotai Chettiar community of businessmen and bankers.

It is estimated that 11,000 such mansions still remain—about half the number that existed 100 years ago—built by men who once traded in everything from salt to gems, with countries like Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. The Chettiar man was the king of his home, which is why his residence used to be called a natukottai or regional fort. But in the mid-20th century, most Chettiar families moved to cities such as Chennai. Their palatial homes were left in the custody of caretakers, who maintained them for those rare occasions, such as weddings or Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, when the family came to visit.

These days, the better-maintained homes see a smattering of curious tourists, brought by local guides and cab drivers who can rattle off names of movies shot in Chettinad and actors who have graced the region with their presence. A few mansions have been converted into elegant hotels. Though these mansions are still Chettinad’s biggest draw, there is enough to see and do once you are mansioned-out. In addition, the region is located within a two-hour drive from two of Tamil Nadu’s great temples at Madurai and Thanjavur.

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Explore

MANSION HOPPING

Chettinad is full of palatial homes, with entrances on one street and exits on a parallel street. In a typical Chettinad mansion, a sweeping path leads to the front porch, called a thinnai, used by the men of the house to meet guests who could not to be invited inside. Then comes a large verandah leading into an open space that was used for weddings and other celebrations.

A narrow passage from there leads to the next verandah and then another. Along the verandahs are the mansion’s residential and store rooms (over 100 in many mansions). Some of the mansions have long rooms that run parallel to the courtyard; these can seat a thousand people.

Owners or caretakers proudly show off the fine carvings on the doors, teak pillars from Burma, marble tiles from Italy and ceiling tiles from Spain. The smooth walls are coated with a mixture of egg white, lime and jaggery, giving them a sheen that has lasted for decades. The design of the mansions keeps them cool even in the middle of summer and incorporates water harvesting methods created a century ago.

All Chettinad towns have a few well-maintained mansions that locals helpfully point out. Some of the more popular ones are the Chettinadu Mansion in Kanadukathan village (now a boutique hotel) and Chellappa Chettiar’s House (also referred to as “the museum” by locals) in Kottaiyur. The Periya Veedu (big house) in Athangudi is exceptionally beautiful and well-maintained. Every surface in this mansion gleams, from the Spanish tiles on the roofs to Burma teak pillars on the courtyards, the stained glass windows from Italy and the murals painted on the space on top of the pillars. This house also feels more warm and welcoming than the impersonal mansion hotels. All these are usually open to visitors between 9 a.m.and 3 p.m. and caretakers often expect Rs 50-100 for entry.

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Pallathur, Devakottai and Kothamangalam villages, all within 50 km radius of the main town of Karaikudi, are also well known for their grand mansions. Guests of The Bangala can visit the palatial MSMM House in Karaikudi, owned by the Meyyappan family. Karaikudi also boasts of the Ayiram Jannal Veedu (the house with a thousand windows) but is inhabited and tourists are not allowed to enter. The Chettinad Palace (also called Raja’s Palace) in Kanadukathan is another grand mansion where visitors are not allowed but definitely worth stopping by for a look from the road.

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When touring these homes, look out for old family photographs on the walls, the fading sepia memories of the mansions and the people who once lived there. Crane your neck up before entering to see statues on top of the gate and the main door into the house from goddess Lakshmi and Lord Murugan to soldiers on horseback, these brightly painted statues were the pride of the house. Once inside, look up at the ceiling for the most ornate chandeliers you will ever see.

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ASIDE FROM MANSIONS

Make a trip to the hilltop Thirumayam fort, built in 1687 by a local ruler, Sethupathi Vijaya Raghunatha Thevar. Apart from the cannon at the top and a fantastic view of the landscape for miles, the fort also has two small rock-cut temples, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. It is best to go early in the morning before the sun begins to beat down since this trip involves a short but tiring climb up some steps.

There’s also the fifth-century Pillayarpatti Temple, 12 kilometres from Karaikudi. Venerated as Karpaga Vinayakar, it is considered the most significant of the nine important shrines to Ganesha or Shiva that are found in the area. Let’s mention the others. Some resources also mention nine Chettiar clan temples, for the nine main village clusters. Are these the same? the side entrance has exquisite frescoes on the ceiling. The others are at Illaiyathangudi, Mathoor, Vairavankoil, Nemamkoil, Illupaikudi, Surakuddi, Velangudi and Iraniyur. Each of these represented the clan temple for the nine Chettiar village clusters.

Shops selling antiques can be found on Muniswaran Koil Street in Karaikudi. Much of what is available was part of the dowry of the Chettiar women. Apart from this, there are traditional vessels, furniture and woodwork from the area and the odd quirky things like old biscuit tins and gramophone records. Beyond the disarray in the displays, you may discover a gem or two, especially old and sturdy cooking utensils in brass and copper. At the local sandai (market) one can catch a glimpse of routine life in Chettinad. These markets are held on Mondays and Thursdays in Karaikudi, and on other days at different villages (check with your hotel for information).

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At one of the many tile workshops in Athangudi visitors can see how a basic stencil, and clever use of colours and techniques create stunning floor tiles in floral, geometric, and paisley patterns. Tile-making skills are passed on from father to son and the superiority of these products is credited to the high quality of local soil and water. Again, a tip of Rs 50-100 will be appreciated.

It’s possible to see local weavers at work and purchase stunning Chettinad cotton saris and fabrics at very reasonable prices from a weaving centre. You can be sure that the money goes directly to the weaver rather than through middlemen. The best ones are Sri Mahalakshmi handloom weaving centre in Kanadukathan (K.M. Street; 94885 67554 /9442047995) and the weavers’ colony just outside Karaikudi.

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For more information on where to stay, what to eat and so on, read this

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