At the ‘Periya Veedu’ (Big House) at Athangudi, the caretaker rubbed his fingers together as soon as he spotted me getting off the car. It took me a moment to understand that he was making the time-honoured gesture for money, the way he did with all visitors. The magnificent – a word that I would use again and again during my time in Chettinad – house remained locked for most of the year under his beady eyes, opened only for such curious visitors who found their way there.
After the dry and dusty landscape of the region, the cool and spacious interiors of Periya Veedu came as a pleasant shock. As I stepped into the first level of the house, known as the mugappu, I could see through the long, narrow corridor all the way to the back door. “That opens out on the parallel street, that is how large houses in Chetttinad are,” said my guide with a proud smile.
The mugappu itself was stunning, with its low and wide seat called the thinnai running along the wall on both sides of the main door. This used to serve as one of the social hubs of the house: to welcome visitors, catch quick afternoon naps and hold intensive gossip sessions.
Like most of the big Chettinad mansions, the Periya Veedu was built in the early 20th century. Several mansions across the region fell into disrepair over the years along with the migration of their owners to larger towns like Chennai and Coimbatore. While some have recently got a fresh lease of life in the form of conversion into luxury heritage hotels, others like the Periya Veedu have stayed afloat by hiring it out for film shootings.
Immortalized on celluloid
Indeed, Chettinad is a popular location among filmmakers from the Tamil and Telugu film industry, and increasingly, Bollywood. And within Chettinad, the star attraction is the opulent Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan. One look at the exteriors of the palace – as stunning as the interiors, with the brightly painted walls glittering in the sunlight – and it is easy to see why.
The most memorable film set here is Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) with a stellar cast that included Tabu, Aishwarya Rai, Mammooty and Ajith, among others. A few months ago, director Hari shot the climax scene (an exciting chase sequence) for the sequel to his blockbuster Singam, on the streets of Karaikudi near Pandian Cinema.
And among Bollywood filmmakers, Priyadarshan has shown his fondness for Chettinadu, filming at Kanadukathan in Raja’s Palace (as it is known locally) and at Chettinadu Mansion (now a heritage hotel) for Virasat and Maalamal Weekly. He later went a step ahead and recreated a slice of Bihar in Karaikudi for Aakrosh, his thriller based on the theme of honour killings.
The local red soil and lavishness of the mansions lend themselves readily to stories ostensibly set in Rajasthan or wealthy homes anywhere in the hinterlands (cue the rich Thakurs of Priyadarshan movies). Add to that the liveliness of the local markets and street scenes, which draw filmmakers repeatedly.
Sometimes, filmmakers have chosen Chettinad over their usual favoured locations like the snowy Alps and the streets of Paris for song sequences. A couple of Tamil hits come to mind: Iruvizhiyo siragadikkum from ‘Pirivom Santhipom’ (a story about a joint Chettiar family) and Idu daana from ‘Saamy’ (again a movie by Hari). Interestingly, both feature scenes from a traditional Tamil engagement / wedding.
In a way, this seems quite fitting, since many of these homes remain closed, with families staying in far away cities and coming back home only for weddings and major festivals. The mansions, which remain uninhabited, and often desolate and dusty, come alive to the sounds of the silver anklets of the women of the house and the booming voices of the men only once or twice a year.
These wedding scenes are set in the large courtyard (a typical feature of these mansions) just following the mogappu. These are open to the skies and used for drying appalam and pickles, and occasionally for cooking. And branching off to a side are large halls used just for feeding guests during weddings, some of which can hold up to 500 at a time.
Chettiars belong to a trading community, with ties once extending as far as Singapore and Malaysia. They were known as bankers and moneylenders to the British Raj and flourished under their rule. Chettiars invested their wealth in their hometowns, building large mansions. The larger the mansion, the higher the status. And they brought in the best from everywhere in the world: glass from Murano, teak from Burma, chandeliers from Belgium and tiles from Athangudi. They threw in some Victorian furniture and Art Deco influences to the mix to form arresting architectural masterpieces.
The other highlights of these homes are the intricate woodwork on doors depicting Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth who presides over these homes. And then the smooth, still gleaming plaster on the walls made of a ground mixture of egg white, lime, powdered shells and a local fruit.
As I stepped out of the Periya Veedu at Athangudi, I craned my neck to look at the statues above the main gate. I saw vibrantly painted stuccowork of gods and goddesses, animals and birds, even British soldiers with horses and guns. They stood peering at the passersby on the streets, as they have done for over a century now.
At a glance
Barely 80 kilometres from the temple city of Madurai, Chettinad is the collective name for 75 odd villages and towns once inhabited by the Chettiar community. The biggest of these towns today is Karaikudi, which is also the commercial hub of Chettinad. Kanadukathan, Devakottai, Kothamangalam, Kottaiyur and Athangudi have some of the most opulent mansions in the region.
Things to do
Hop across towns, visiting the old mansions to take in the splendor of the art and architecture. Although many are locked, some have caretakers willing to give you a guided tour for a nominal fee of Rs. 50 or so.
Athangudi tile factory
These handmade tiles, made from local sand, are a visual delight. Walk into any one of the several home factories in Athangudi to watch the workmen fill the moulds with the bright paints mixed with a little cement. These tiles, which stay new and glossy for decades, come in typical floral and geometric motifs.
The rock-cut temple to Ganesha is located 12 kilometres from Karaikudi and is believed to be from the 4th century A.D. Among the nine temples dedicated to Ganesha in this area, this is one of the most significant, with a six-feet tall state of the main deity.
Buy cotton Sungudi saris straight off the loom at the Mahalakshmi Weaving Centre at Kanadukathan. The local tie-and-dye technique of this area is used to weave Sungudi and Kandangi saris in soft cotton. They come in traditional patterns and bright colours, usually worn by the elderly Chettiar women.
Go antique shopping at the main market on Muneeswaran Koil street in Karaikudi. Shopkeepers are friendly and willing to chat with you about the rich history of their wares, most of them from local Chettiar homes. Look out for Mangalam Arts (Tel: 91-4565-239679) with multiple levels of hidden gems.
Tuck into a traditional Chettinad meal (both vegetarian and non vegetarian) at The Bangala, complete with local delicacies like milagu kuzhambu (pepper stew) and Crab curry. Classic Chettinad snacks include kuzhi paniyaram (shallow fried snacks served with chutney), idiyappam (string hoppers served with coconut milk) and adhirasam (deep-fried sweet made with rice flour and jaggery).
Base yourself in one of the heritage hotels to explore the region: Visalam in Kanadukathan, Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti, Saratha Vilas in Kothamangalam and The Bangala.
When to go
The area can get unbearably hot in summers, so the ideal time to visit is the cooler months between November to February.
Take a train or flight to Madurai, the nearest large airport and railway station and hire a cab to your destination within Chettinad. The roads are excellent and the journey takes less than two hours.
While you can take cycle-rickshaws or even walk within the smaller towns and villages, auto-rickshaws are available for longer distances. Local bus connectivity between towns and villages is sketchy, so it is best to hire a cab to explore the region. Cab drivers often double up as guides and help gain access into some of the local homes.
A slightly different version of this was published in the July-August 2014 issue of Time Out Explorer as ‘Keeping It Reel’.