Time seemed to have slowed down along with my train, which appeared disinclined to leave Pudukkottai, although it was meant to halt there only for a minute. The landscape was equally moody — the flat plains of south-central Tamil Nadu are sparsely populated, their silence osmotic, the earth washed by the night’s rain into a deep red, a misleadingly rich shade for the semi-arid soil. I was impatient to get off by the time we chugged into Chettinad, my city-speed unseemly in such a sage setting. This tidy, tiny station has the former resting room of the Raja of Chettinad off to its side, a circular building with embellished masonry, painted cream-yellow, its effortless aesthetic a footnote in a region that houses some of the finest examples of residential architecture in the world.
I am very happy to be back. I can never get quite enough of Chettinad, which I first visited about a decade ago. Its history and heritage are intoxicating. There’s always something new waiting to be discovered and it’s usually at least a hundred years old. This time, it was a privilege to visit a grand mansion of astonishing proportions, now open to the public all week, its well-informed caretaker able to give us a guided tour of sorts — I am extremely relieved to report that formal tourism is yet to have marched into Chettinad. There’s also a temple not far from here that I wish I could nominate to the Unesco World Heritage list, except I wonder how many people have even heard of it. I had never been to the regal Thirumayam Fort and its rock-cut temple either; it looms by a winding road with formidable dignity, its meditative isolation undisturbed by yapping crowds.
I also had the chance to meet gifted craftspeople, among them the only weaver of wash-and-wear (no starch!) cotton kandaangi saris, her distinctive palette of colours as earthy as her life story. We stopped by at the studio-home of an award-winning artist, who has innovated with classical Thanjavur paintings — he traces his lineage to the aranmanai oviyargal (palace or royal artists) of the Vijayanagara Empire. There, too, was the shy creator of magnificent chariots in wood and silver, who travels across the world with his trade.
A detour took us face to face with hand-painters of beautiful tiles dyed in natural colours and, yes, here was the only village in which they have ever been made. We shopped for kottans, gorgeous baskets hand-braided from dried kurutthu (palm leaves) by village women in their homes — the M.Rm.Rm. Foundation, which guides them and markets the products, rescued the tradition from extinction some years ago, enabling others to be taught by the then lone practitioner, a nonagenarian aachi (an affectionate and respectful moniker for an elder Chettiar woman).
Humbled, I retreated at every opportunity to the tranquil Chidambara Vilas Heritage Resort, its longish soft launch finally over, the efforts of over three years of restoration now glowing in old lamps, antique finishes and polished stone. It joins a meritoriously short list of elegant and small hotels that today offer unique windows into not so much a forgotten world as a historic and extraordinarily aesthetic era, the loss of which would be unforgivable. I agree that none of these properties would qualify as budget experiences, but Chettinad’s majestic mansions are often crumbling to dust — their conservation costs a considerable sum of money, and a stay in one of them is a royal experience for less than a king’s ransom. Besides, it’s never good to argue with a woman in love.
The Chettiars trace their origins to their huge success as maritime traders in salt, silk, timber, spices and gold on the shipping routes of the Pandya Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries. Their thriving businesses took them to Ceylon, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam; their enterprise, ingenuity and trustworthiness won them privileges both from their ancient rulers and the colonial ones, the British. They originally settled around the ancient ports of Kaveripoompattinam and Poompuhar in coastal Tamil Nadu, tying the teak they lavished on their mansions behind their ships, tempering the wood with a voyage-long soak in seawater. Driven inland by two tsunamis, they came to call 95 villages (now down to 74) scattered about Pudukkottai and Sivaganga as Chettinad, ‘the land of the Chettiars’. They also came to be known as the nagarathaars (‘sophisticated townspeople’; literate, cultured, well-travelled and philanthropic), who brought Western influences and knowledge to these remote villages — Italian marble, Belgian mirrors, Murano glass and French gargoyles decorate some of the more opulent naattukottais (‘land-fortresses’, their entrances set upon the street but the long and high walls giving the distinct impression of fortification). WWII and the political diktats emerging from it brought a crashing end to this golden age, wiping out fortunes overnight, especially in Burma, where powerful Chettiar-run banks were foreclosed and all foreign nationals asked to go home, forcing many families to sell all their assets for a song. The Chettiars are still a powerful business community in Tamil Nadu, no doubt, but their numbers have dwindled, their villages and homes standing lonesome testimony to what once was.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the vast Chettiar mansions: their built-up area usually an acre or more, they begin in one grid-like street to end in another, and are sometimes given two postal addresses. What never ceases to fascinate followers of architecture and aesthetics is how symmetrically they are planned, their execution at once stunning and functional. The ‘cooling’, invariably pearl-white walls of this hot region, you may have heard, are hand-plastered with a mixture of powdered egg and seashells, lime and gallnut, giving them a subtle sheen that simply cannot be matched by any modern technique. Terracotta roofs, pillars of polished granite and teak, flooring from Athangudi, and extravagant façades and rooms emanating from a series of open-to-sky courtyards come together in a highly refined minimalism that extends from the smallest kitchen utensil to the heaviest door. This absence of frills in the presence of great wealth extends to the Chettiar way of life — a new bride is gifted a silver vatti by the groom’s mother, an elegantly crafted bowl from which to eat rice, the word also meaning interest, and therefore the advice to live out of her income when she is told “eat from the vatti”. Extravagant opulence is vulgar. This is most visibly manifest in the mansions, which have spare yet highly expensive interiors.
A visit to the Verappa Chettiar mansion in Kottaiyur is educative. Lean on the headrest, relax your back into the just-so curve of the granite seats for a splendid perspective of the intricately woodworked roofing in the thinnai — the sit-out, reached in a few steps from the nadai or walkway from the entrance to the muhappu or reception, where the kanakupillai or accountant sat on the floor behind his desk. These were the public areas of a home; they welcomed visitors through the day and sheltered wayfarers in the night. Then there’s the pattaasaalai leading up from the imposing and fantastically carved doorway, and imagine an old reclining or rocking chair facing the valavu or sunlit central courtyard. Other treasures here — manually lit oil-wick chandeliers, a coat stand with playing card motifs, a ‘magic’ portrait of the owner where he appears to follow the viewer moving from one vantage point to another, and the 1917 framed certificate from the British government acknowledging the receipt of an Indian War Loan from ‘M.R.Ry.P.K.A. Chettiyar Avargal’. The 40-room mansion contains 300 tonnes of teak but uses no cement — and even the floors are plastered with the old eggshells technique. Sakthivel, the caretaker-cum-guide, is enthusiastic and informative, pointing to small details like the pulley arrangement for the pankha of the women’s quarters, the gravity-enabled granary supplies, iron keys that weigh a kilo, stained glass in the upper floor that caught the sun as the men of the house relaxed (and only they had a view of the room where valuables were kept).
Our interactions with craftspeople were no less precious. Krishnaveni Venkataraman is the articulate and doughty woman behind the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre in Kanadukathan, rising from a life of penury to head 70 looms, her repertoire including weaves with the warp in silk and weft in cotton, and expert thaalambu korvai borders, shaped like jagged leaves of screw-pine flowers or the towers of temples. She is a supplier to brands like Fabindia, also does fabric for churidars and dupattas, bought by foreign tourists who arrive in air-conditioned buses and swipe credit cards with delight — in fact, her pricing is entirely reasonable.
I had come searching for their fabled kandaangi cottons, and nobody else makes them anymore. Krishnaveni has them warped by the ageing perfectionist Aiyya Kannu in Airyakudi, another lone practitioner, and he says his shoulders ache from hunching over the long bracket, so what will she do when he stops?
She makes her kandaangis in small batches of eight to 10 saris, their bold reds, yellows, blacks, indigos and greens woven into distinctive checks and stripes with contrasting borders in thicker two-ply yarn, and stacked odacchu or hand-folded for they don’t require starching or ironing. These were originally meant for thinnai-vyapaaram or doorstep sales by the indigenous weavers of Karaikkudi, Kandavur, Kandavarayanapatti and Kodaiyur. Shoppers at Krishnaveni’s retail outlet in Kanadukathan sit on the floor with her as she explains why most buyers have no clue what a ‘Chettinad’ sari means. She says she owes all her successes to Visalakshi Ramaswamy of the M.Rm.Rm. Foundation, and I became accustomed to hearing of the doyen’s caring contributions to her community’s heritage and people everywhere I went.
Back in Chidambara Vilas, young Kavitha, the likeable guest relations manager, shows us around. This lovely hotel, set in the Krishnappa Chettiar mansion at Kadiapatti, is on a 30-year lease to the Trichy-based Sangam Hotels, its stately Durbar Hall now an air-conditioned convention centre, the original, richly painted wood ceiling left undisturbed and lit thoughtfully. Similarly, the Visiri (fan) Hall, embellished with lightly touched-up murals, is the dining room where yelai sappadu or plantain-leaf meals are served; the Kalyana Kattalai, where the family once celebrated its festive occasions, is the majestic fine dining restaurant; and the last courtyard in the bomma kutthagai or the women’s quarters, is where breakfast is served. Kavitha’s tour reveals her affectionate belief in the stories she has collected from the Krishnappa Chettiar family elders, who now live next door. I would highly recommend the sweeping views from the four turrets Chidambara Vilas boasts, either at sunrise or sunset.
We woke early for our trip to Avudiyar Kovil, technically not in Chettinad although it benefited from the munificence of the community. It’s a pity such an extraordinary temple is so little known. This shrine to Shiva as Athmanathaswamy, the protector of souls, features no lingam, only the avudiyar or the base — the deity is seen in the steam that rises from offerings of cooked rice, mulaikeerai (a leafy vegetable like spinach) and bitter gourd. Other legends abound, including shadows that fall at any time of the day, not from sunshine but from light within, but it’s the sculptures and murals that had us spellbound.
Observe the life-like horsemen — straining muscles, veins and nerves (yes, unbelievably), manicured nails, bumpy knees and sharp bone structure. Shiva and Parvathi are sculpted as gypsy-hunters, their forms utterly stunning in their detail. Rathi’s flying jadai alankaram (decorated braid) vies with Manmatha’s bejewelled attire on opposite pillars. No two men in a line of worshippers are alike — their heights, pot bellies (or abs, some of them), jewellery, beards, moustaches and neatly combed hairdos offering different likenesses, all of them entirely in granite. The natural-dye murals on the ceilings and walls are exquisite — please go before they fade completely. Chains of stone, a thousand pillars decorating each of the two that frame the entrance, cantilever ceilings, sun signs and stars on awnings, and a dozen other unique and astonishing sculptural achievements crown this temple. The stone cornices here are without parallel and traditional temple builders who undertake contracts for construction or restoration include the caveat kodungai neengi (‘excepting the stone cornices of Avudiyar Kovil’), the stonework of which hasn’t been deciphered yet — a perplexed British soldier shot through them, in annoyance perhaps, the bullet holes now seen as part of the rat-a-tat tour.
Spend the morning, we were told, and we did. Bullock cart rides and village walks awaited us back at Chidambara Vilas, and I have only about half a dozen more things to tell you (do check out The Information), but we were as out of time in this timeless land as I am out of words here. I realize I haven’t even gotten to the food yet. Next trip, maybe?
Depending on where your hotel is located, there are three railways stations at which you could disembark — Pudukkottai, Chettinad and Karaikkudi, from Chennai on the Trichy line, in that order. Chidambara Vilas, where we stayed, was about equidistant from Pudukkottai and Karaikkudi, and 10km from Chettinad. Rameswaram Express is a convenient overnight train to all these stations from Chennai; Mayiladuthurai Express will get you to Trichy from Bangalore. Tiruchirapalli or Trichy, is also the nearest (international) airport, connected to Bangalore, Chennai, Kochi and Coimbatore, and to Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Dubai and Singapore. It is 95km from Karaikkudi (Rs 1,800 by cab; frequent and inexpensive state transport buses are available). The airport (130km; Rs 2,100 by cab) and railway station (110km; Rs 1,800 by cab; excellent connectivity by bus) at Madurai are the other hubs from which to get here. Private cabs are the best way to get around locally, since villages are scattered over average distances of 12-25km (some buses do ply from Karaikkudi and Pudukkottai). K. Nehru (9655009125) offers reliable services, including guides. A bus journey to Avudiyar Kovil from Karaikkudi (frequent connections via Aranthangi) will cost Rs 34 each way; it’s a great way to experience the countryside, too. Cabs charge Rs 1,200 for this trip.
Where to stay
There’s only a clutch of heritage hotels to choose from and, like the mansions in which they are situated, they have their individual quirks and merits. We enjoyed our stay at Chidambara Vilas (from Rs 8,000 for one night-two day packages, including breakfast and dinner, and a nice range of activities on cost-only basis; 0452-4244524, 95855-56431, chidambaravilas.com) in Kadiapatti, its 25 rooms and bathrooms very spacious, the swimming pool pleasing, the service friendly. The Bangala (from Rs 6,400 for doubles; 04565-220221, thebangala.com) is a quasi-colonial summer home, restored with a fine eye on Chettiar heritage. The region’s first luxury hotel recently added a swimming pool, and a multiple-course meal here is an experience that must not be missed (Rs 700 for hotel guests and Rs 1,000 for day groups of four or less; call ahead for reservations).
Saratha Vilas (from Rs 6,200 for doubles, including breakfast; 9884203175, 9884936158, sarathavilas.com) in Kothamangalam is artsy and sincere, lovingly restored by a duo of French architects, and offers a range of heritage excursions and Ayurvedic massages. There’s also CGH Earth’s Visalam (Rs 5,880 doubles, including breakfast; 04565-273301, cghearth.com) in Kanadukathan, its aesthetics and professionalism beyond reproach, although the menu could use a makeover.
Then there’s Chettinadu Mansion (Rs 5,200 for doubles, including breakfast; 04565-273080, chettinadumansion.com), its restoration more colourful, while the service is homespun. If you are unable to afford these heritage stays, which would be a pity because they are indeed a great part of the Chettinad heritage experience, you will not do too awfully at old Udhayam (from Rs 1,350 for doubles; 234068, 236331, on Sekkalai Road, opposite the head post office) and the relatively new Subbalakshmi Palace (from Rs 2,136; 235200/01/02, Church 1st Street) in Karaikkudi, both of which provide clean but charmless air-conditioned rooms, with in-house restaurants. They are also centrally located bases for exploring this amazing region.
What to see & do
Chettinad mansions are privately held properties with deep-rooted traditions; the families may have migrated, but descendants still return here to celebrate life-events. Despite their struggles with the upkeep and worries over conservation, the owners haven’t yet succumbed to ticketed tourism. A formal mansions tour is unavailable but your hotel will arrange visits to whatever it is able to access, and some of them, like The Bangala, which has been co-founded by a Chettiar heritage conservationist of renown, are better resourced than others.
Take time to visit Lakshmi House, a well-kept mansion in Athangudi that’s let out for film shootings (ask and anybody will direct you here; the caretaker can be a little cantankerous but he’s willing to let people in for Rs 50 or Rs 100, depending on the numbers in your group). The architectural styling is standardized, but each of these palatial homes has a hundred artistic touches that distinguish them handsomely.
There’s also the magnificent Verappa Chettiar mansion in Kottaiyur’s K.V. Street, locally just the kadai veethi (shop or main street; 10am–5pm; entrance Rs 50 per head), a delightful effort by the M.Rm.Rm. Foundation to restore old homes on lease and enable visitors to see what makes a Chettinad mansion. Soon, there is to be a museum here, a preview of which we were privileged to see. Walk these old streets, flanked by massive mansions, some freshly painted and others statuesque with age — Kadiapatti, Pallathur, Kothamangalam and Kanadukathan are particularly atmospheric, and the Raja of Chettinad’s Palace, although not open to visitors, is still worth seeing from outside.
The rural drives are lovely — bumpy village roads intersecting highways, quiet temples fronted by small tanks and brightly painted gopurams (towers), and unmanned railway crossings preceded by signs of puffing engines. Ask your driver to take roads that go past old mansions, their desolate streets hauntingly lovely. Pull over and walk some of them. The villagers are quite accustomed to random visitors. Nemasamudram, Eliangudipatti and Kothadi have ancient ayyanar (guardian deities) shrines, large terracotta horses arrayed in front of them. Ask your hotel about the nearest ayyanar kovil.
Spend a morning among the sculptures of Avudiyar Kovil (60km from Karaikkudi). Nemam, one of the nine Chettiar clan temples to Shiva, is noteworthy for its Dravidian architecture, as is the rock-cut shrine to Vishnu next to the Thirumayam Fort; the Vairavar temple in Pallathur (observe the musical pillars here); and the 13th-century temple to Ganesha at Pillaiyarupatti, which is vaster and also seems to emerge from the rock around it.
Don’t miss a visit to the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre on Kanadukathan’s K.M. Street and be prepared to splurge on handlooms (Rs 650-750 for ‘regular’ cottons, Rs 900-1,000 for the kandaangis, and upwards of Rs 4,000 for silks), some of them unique to the region. Ask Krishnaveni or her husband to show you their photo album and explain the processes to you.
Sri Ganapathy Tiles (near Nehru Middle School, A. Muthuppattinam, Karaikkudi Main Road, Athangudi; 04565-281353; 9am–4.30pm; a tip of Rs 50 or Rs 100 to the workers who demonstrate the technique is appreciated) is a hospitable place at which to take a look at Athangudi’s handmade mosaic and tile industry. The startlingly pretty tiles make a charming souvenir for Rs 40 apiece.
You can’t buy anything at the ‘America, Singapore, Malaysia Famed’ Sri Kamadhenu Sirpasalai at Karaikkudi’s Maharanombu Thidal, but you can see artisans shaping chariots, temple doors and vaahanams (giant mythological beasts and birds on which deities are borne during festivals) in wood, silver and gold. The renowned hereditary establishment belongs to master craftsman ‘Kalaimamani’ A.R.K. Eakambara Achari and his sons.
Raja Rajan Art Works, award-winning artist V. Nagarajan’s studio (Yogesh Nivaas, 36-A Kothar St, Kottaiyur; 04565-276198, 10am–5pm), is an excellent introduction to Thanjavur paintings — you can see the perfectly pencil-sketched works taking shape with gold leaf and semi-precious stones in new or antique finishes. He does not do retail and supplies to dealers and on order, so this is a rare peek into his repertoire — the paintings, of course, but also fans, wedding accessories and games like chessboards and pullanguzhil, played with tamarind seeds or seashells, and his remakes of Ravi Varma classics (from Rs 3,500).
Shop for kottans at The Bangala’s store, a good place to pick up curios and local saris, or you may chance upon them at the antique shops of Muniyaiyya St in Karaikkudi. It’s lined with stores jam-packed with stuff discarded when mansions get pulled apart. Consider portable one-inside-another ‘Rukmini cookers’; savari aruvalmanais — artistically carved cutters and coconut scrapers; writing desks; glass, brass and enamelware; ancient typewriters, radios and pedestal fans in working condition.