A perfect sojourn for history buffs and heritage lovers. Heaven for those interested in architecture. A place where time seems to stand still. The grandeur and opulence of a bygone era is omnipresent here. A paradise for photographers. Handloom saree lovers as well as antique collectors will love shopping here. And the foodies will have nothing to complain about :) This is Chettinad in a nutshell.
The mention of Chettinad brings to mind the fiery cuisine and the beautiful architecture of this region. The grand old mansions of Chettinad had intrigued me ever since I saw photographs of them on the internet a few years ago. Chettinad comprises of around 75 villages spread mainly across Sivaganga District of Tamil Nadu. A small portion of this region extends into the Pudukkottai district as well. The principal town of the region is Karaikudi. It took me a while to plan a trip to Chettinad but I ended up going there two times in a row within four months. Each visit proved to be a surprise and gave a glimpse into the rich heritage of this region.
By road the region can be accessed from Trichy when coming from Bangalore. The airports at Trichy or Madurai are the nearest for those coming by air. Trains plying from Chennai to Rameswaram halt at Pudukkottai, Kanadukathan, Karaikudi and Devakottai in this region. For most people it serves as a break in journey when going to or coming from Rameswaram. The best time to visit Chettinad is during the winters from November to February. Summers can be scorching hot with temperatures rising to around 40 degrees Celsius.
Chettinad is home to the Nattukottai Chettiars or Nagarathars who are a prosperous community of bankers and businessmen. They were maritime traders who traded in timber, salt, spices, gold and silk during the reign of the Pandyas. As per local folklore, this community migrated inland to the arid region of Chettinad many centuries ago from the coastal areas such as Poompuhar and Kaveripoompattinam which were badly affected by tsunami. Around 95 villages were formed out of which only 74 remain today. They built palatial houses here.
Most of them emigrated to Burma, Sri Lanka and South East Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and made their fortunes there. However WWII and the changing political situation everywhere meant that the Chettiars had to return home. Many of them had to sell their assets to cover up the losses. The numbers of the wealthy merchants dwindled though they still remain a powerful business community to this date.
Kanadukathan is a town in Karaikudi Taluk. It has the highest density of Chettiar mansions and a walk around the town is pretty rewarding. While some mansions are crumbling shadows of their glorious past, some still retain their timeless splendour. Most of them are unoccupied and at the helm of caretakers. The owners have migrated to larger cities like Chennai or Coimbatore. They visit these mansions only for important festivals and family weddings. While a couple of them have been converted into heritage stays, a handful of them are open to public by paying a fee to the caretakers.
An important landmark in Kanadukathan is the M.A.M House popularly referred to as Chettinad Palace. During the days of the British Raj, the honorary title of Raja of Chettinad was bestowed upon Sir Annamalai Chettiar, the head of the S. Rm. M. family of Kanadukathan. Their home came to be known as the Raja Palace or Chettinad Palace due to this. Some of the family members include the likes of M. A. M. Ramaswamy, A. C. Muthaiah and P. Chidambaram. The mansion is off-limits for public but one can imagine how regal it might be looking at the exterior itself. It has been used in shooting many movies apparently.
Visalam is a heritage home that was built during the early twentieth century by KVAL Ramanathan Chettiar for his eldest daughter Vishalakshi as a gift for her wedding. Today it has been restored and leased by the CGH Earth group of hotels. Ornate doors, marble platforms and pillars adorn the place. Black and White as well as Sepia toned family photographs can be seen on most walls in the common areas. The rooms are huge with high ceilings. Beautiful Athangudi tiled floors add to the charm. The furniture is period styled and made out of fine Burmese teak.
The garden has beautiful flowering plants such as Bougainvillea and Jasmine. Breakfast is usually laid out either in the garden or near the pool at the back of the property. Traditional dishes such as Adai, Paniyaram etc are served. Meals were very sumptuous and devoured promptly :) Lunch was served in the dining area inside the kitchen on one of the days in traditional style. A wave of nostalgia hit us when we saw the old brass vessels lined up all around us. The vessels must have been purchased to be given away as dowry for the groom’s family.
One activity not to be missed while staying here is a bullock cart ride. It felt like we had been transported to a different era. The bullocks Ramar and Lakshmar named after the mythological heroes Rama and Lakshmana took us around the whole village. An old man who lives in a nearby village drives the cart.
Mr. Ramu who works at Visalam proved to be an excellent guide when he took us around. We visited a tile factory, mansion of the owners of Visalam, a local snack making co-operative run by the village women as well as the antique market and saree shop in Karaikudi.
Chidambara Vilas is a heritage hotel set up in the Krishnappa Chettiar mansion in the village of Kadiapatti. It has been leased out to the Sangam group of hotels who have restored it quite well. It is one of the most gorgeous places that I have ever stayed at. The hotel does a good job of transporting one back to a bygone era. Most of the rooms have been added in a new wing that has been added to the original mansion.
Priya from the front desk of the hotel took us around the mansion explaining various aspects of the place. The reception area is in the thinnai accessed through the main doorway where the accountants used to sit once upon a time and conduct their daily business. This was the public area of the house where visitors were entertained and passersby could take shelter for the night. The chessboard design Athangudi tiled floor, wooden pillars and grandfather clock are just timeless. The heavy main door with intricate carvings beckons one to explore the interior parts of the mansion.
The first courtyard encountered as we walk past the main door is the main courtyard which is central to the mansion. This is where wedding ceremonies in the family take place. Four pipes can be seen at the corners of the open area in the courtyard. They were used to collect rain water in huge vessels placed below them. The walls have been hand plastered using a mixture of powdered egg and sea shells along with lime. This gives them a sheen and also keeps them cool.
The Visiri hall is one of the dining areas now where plantain leaf meals are served for lunch. The grand Kalyana Kottai where the bride stays on the night before the wedding is now the dining area for breakfast and dinner. This hall is adorned with ornate chandeliers from France. The Bomma Kottai is another ornate hall adorned with beautifully done mural. This is where the annual golu or doll arrangement was kept during the Dasara festival. Walking past the kitchen where the traditional utensils have been kept on display gives a feeling of nostalgia. The regal Durbar hall on the first floor has been restored with minimal changes and is used as a convention centre now. It has a beautiful and ornate ceiling. A winding spiral flight of stairs near the durbar hall leads to the terrace from where sweeping views of the surroundings can be had. The ornate turrets can be a great place to watch the sunset.
Athangudi Palace is a mansion in the village of Athangudi where many movies have been filmed. It can be visited by paying the caretakers. Right from the gateway adorned with lovely murals to the beautiful Japanese tiles lined doorway the mansion is a visual treat. All the usual suspects like teak, stained glass, Athangudi tiles etc have been used in abundance.
The Thirumayam Fort located in Thirumayam village is visible from the Pudukkottai-Karaikudi highway. It was constructed in the late seventeenth century by the Raja of Ramnad. Due to lack of time we couldn’t go inside the fort. However I managed to click a few pictures of the exterior walls and the temple inside the fort. It definitely deserves a detailed visit next time!
Athangudi is a village in the Chettinad region which is famous for its handmade tiles. The process of making these tiles is tedious and time-consuming. The tiles are a sight to behold and made only in Athangudi. They have beautiful colours and designs which are reminiscent of a bygone era. The demand for these tiles had been on the decline. However a revival of trends is happening now.
During our stay at Visalam, we visited a tile factory where we were given an explanation about the entire process of making these tiles. The typical colours used are Red, Yellow, Green, Black, Cream and Blue. We were even allowed to design our own tiles :)
The pictures that follow give a view into what goes into the making of a tile.
The famed Chettinad Cotton Sarees are a speciality of this region. They are apt for the weather in the region. The border in these sarees typically have a broad plain part in a contrast colour and a narrow strip with designs having patterns such as Elephants, Paisleys, Annapakshis, Temple Gopurams, Creepers etc. Another type of saree made here is the Kandaangi which has a colourful combination of checks all along the body with a simple border. In Karaikudi we visited a shop which dealt in Chettinad sarees. There we also found a few weavers who were weaving these sarees.
The city of Karaikudi is a hub for antiques. A lot of architects and people who want antiques for their houses frequent Karaikudi just for this street of Karaikudi. Most of the artefacts from the crumbling chettiar mansions seem to have made their way into shops lining the antiques street here. Though we are not into collecting antiques or possess much knowledge about them, we took a stroll along the street and checked out a few shops to see if we could find wooden wide bowls which my grandma had purchased from Karaikudi in the seventies. Though we didn’t get those bowls, we laid our sight on curios from the past. One memorable antique was a battery operated toy steam engine train which was identical to a toy train that my father has preserved for the last 56 years. My grandfather had got it for him from a trip the US of A way back in the 1960s. Through his own childhood and then mine and now my son’s, this train has brought joy to three generations of our family :) Though the one in the shop was in a slightly rundown condition compared to what my father has preserved, we were thrilled to see this toy train!
Chettinad holds a lot of other points of interest for me and will need more visits :) Some of the other places in this region that I want to see include the temples of Chettiars and the old railway station at Kanadukathan built during the British era. Hope to visit Chettinad again. Sooner than later!