Chettinad – The Royal Detour
“Are you sure, we can squeeze this one in?” my buddy quizzed, as we slurped away hot liquid sambhar off green banana leaves just outside the gates of the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai. My buddy and I were on an impromptu back-packing trip; our own little Temple Run- hopping in and out of the temple cities of Tamil Nadu, awestruck by the marvelous Dravidian temple architecture comprising of towering gopurams and elaborate mandapas!
However, the place we were debating to visit or not to, was no temple town but an aristocratic estate of the 19th century called Chettinad – Land of the Chettiars, formed by a group of 96 small villages spread across 1000 sq. miles, set up by the trading community of Nattukottai Chettiars famous for the grandiose of the architecture of their villas built in the early 1900s (yes, they have their special chicken curry, too!).
Chettinad was out of the way, out of the agenda and out of the budget; hence out of the question! But like I said, it was an impromptu trip!
The next morning, a rickety state-run bus dropped us at a dusty village crossroad and a yellow signboard led us into a village, not to find a soul in sight. The splendid imagination of an artsy district that is Chettinad was slowly meeting with a thud, but the last thing expected was a deserted village…
A young boy on a bicycle informed us that we are in the Ramachandrapuram village and pointed to a narrow lane ahead of us. On both sides of the forsaken lane, ran plastered brick walls fencing the villas. We stopped and rattled the iron gates of one of the houses. A frail old man popped his head out and scoffed at us in coarse Tamil. After our many earnest requests and passing him a hundred rupee note, Rajan, the caretaker threw opened the gates informing us that nobody actually lived in these villas anymore; the masters had settled on foreign shores decades ago.
The Chettiars had traveled all over the world on account of their many businesses which inspired them to replicate the foreign building styles and luxuries in their family homes which were often located on massive plots of land; some expanding as vast as 10 acres! They brought in building materials from distant lands and fused them with vernacular techniques and symbols creating their own blend of architecture - the pitch and gable roof covered in terracotta tiles supported by Burma teak columns, the distinctive courtyard style of building, the high arched opening adorned by intricate stucco motifs, Italian tiles, Belgian glasses, crystals from Europe, and crockery from Indonesia. The ornated rosewood carvings that embellished the superlative aesthetics of these artful mansions found their match with imagery of Gajalaxmi or Murugan or Vinayaka on the doors or a stucco façade of Shiv-Parvati; quintessentially a Hindu home done in borrowed foreign taste.
It is said that the mansions were built using a local limestone (karai in Tamil) and are often referred to as karaiveedu by the locals and their walls were said to be polished using a special concoction made out of egg whites and minerals that gave out a shiny texture. Local legends also speak of how these mansions have more than 1000 windows built out of 1500 tons of teak!
Presently 56 villages in Sivagangi district and 20 in Pudukottai District of Tamil Nadu mark the Chettinad region of which the villages of Kaanadukathan, Aathangudi, Kandanur, Kadiyapatti are known for some of the well-preserved Chettiar mansions. Though only a few of these mansions are open to tourist, some have been made into heritage hotels while some converted to museums while most remain under lock and key with only a caretaker mending smaller repairs of a leaking roof or a broken tile as their grandeur and glory fades in time. The Chettinadu Mansion (Kanadukathan), Chellappa Chettiar’s House (also called the museum, Kottaiyur), PeriyaVeedu (Athangudi) are some of the places open to visitors.
Apart from the majestic mansions, the region has a number of Dravidian style temples, many constructed by the Chettiars themselves - the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Devakottai, the Kovilur Temple in Karaikudi, and the fifth-century Pillayarpatti Temple also in Karaikudi are a few notable ones.
Athangudi, a small village in the Chettinad region is famed as the hub of the colourful ‘Athangudi tiles’, which feature widely in these mansions. These tiles are still in production and one can make a pit stop to catch up with the manufacturing process that has not undergone much change but has become symbolic of the rich craft and heritage of Chettinad.
The town of Karaikudi has a street lined with antique shop selling items ranging from metal knick-knacks - brass locks, door knobs to hairpins, silver jewelry, copper vessels, wooden sculptures - most of which were from once part of the Chettinad women’s dowry. The region is also known for its cotton sarees which can be purchased from the handloom centres and the weaver’s colony at Kanadukathan.
Ours was a day-long trip, and as we visited one mansion after the other, completely taken in by the marvelousness of their architectural design and craftsmanship; we lost track of time. It was only when a humble caretaker of one of the mansions informed us that the last bus to the nearest town of Karaikudi should leave in half an hour’s time that we picked our backpacks and hurried our way towards the village main road. As such, alas, no Chettinad Chicken curry for us!
Chettinad is only one and a half to two hours’ drive from any of the major tourist cities of Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli or Madurai. The town of Karaikudi serves as the main node to visiting the rest of the sites of interest in the Chettinad region and has a number of budget hotels and restaurants and is served well by the state transport buses.
(Kastaurika is a travel and lifestyle enthusiast and a big time foodie. She can be reached at places_as_we_know on Instagram)